I squint my eyes, as the sun glares back at me fiercely. It’s 2.30 pm and my tummy is rumbling. I ignore it. Turning my eyes away from the sky, I peep at my toes, bobbing lightly and buoyantly above the blue. Sea water pools and collects in the small of my back, rocking me to and fro in a gentle, quiet rhythm.

I breathe slowly and relax, loosening my thighs, surrendering and stretching my arms outward on either side of me. For these few moments, I don’t feel the spasms or discomfort in my shoulders, neck, and back. I am carried; content.

I close my eyes and smile to myself. I don’t think I’m getting out anytime soon.

Water filters as imagery through my explorations. Though this hasn’t been entirely deliberate. If I reflect, it is often when wading in water, where my body feels the closest to being understood and held; where its weight lessens and lightens, where the pain blurs and softens, and where I feel momentarily still, free, and at home.

The last 12 years have followed transient periods and drifting states of standstill, injury, and recovery. Living with the hidden symptoms of fibromyalgia fosters a strange dissonance between being my visible, seemingly able, ‘normal’ self, and the unpredictability of an imperceptible, changing body. I find myself often floating in and out of limbo, swimming silently between the absence of an earlier self, and a wistfulness towards a body that remains ambiguous to its healing. Over the years of moving through its shifts, there have been many quiet moments of a vague, buffering, and transitional ‘in between’.

When we grapple with our physical bodies, we often encounter a body that is visible, definite, and perceptible. Mainstream medical representations of the body largely depict it within clinical and contained still frames and markers. However, through my practice, I imagine and engage with a different kind of physicality; one that remains largely ambiguous and transient, a body that is felt and not necessarily seen.

Western medical representations of the body predominantly visualise and dissect our forms as a sum of parts. Each fragment or section labelled and separated within its own contained entity. Allopathy treats the body in a similar manner; medicines and procedures often tackle our bodies and their parts in isolation from each other.

Recently, I have been exploring how the body has been charted, written, and visualised in local alternative medicine, situating my own intermittent experiences with Ayurveda, Pranic healing, and eastern medicine. In eastern medicine, the body is drawn within expansive, poetic, and fluid forms; mapped and charted across energy flows, bloodstreams, and lymphatic pathways. The journey of treatments is also rarely linear or static.

The word ‘rhythm’ is derived from the Greek verb ‘to flow’. When staying for months at a time at an Ayurvedic ashram, I remember my body shifting and moving in ebb and flow, across varying, rhythmic phases of symptoms and transition. Weeks began with inflammation, swelling, fatigue, and heaviness before my muscles eventually became supple, light, and loose. The body allows for a wateriness, a wavering and slow washing away of itself to make space for new phases of healing.

I find myself returning to a ‘videocontemplation’ titled The Poetics of Fragility by philosopher Lata Mani and filmmaker Nicholas Grandi. In this project, they explore vignettes of bodily frailty in symbiosis to the inherent transitoriness and fragility of the natural world around us. Reflecting on the cyclical interdependence of our bodies to one another, Mani and Grandi challenge an ableist culture of autonomous individualism through collective recollections of bodily experiences surrounding illness, disability, ageing, and injury.

Mani particularly evokes the quiet waves and textures of bodily frailty and strength, revealing both as intertwined and intrinsic to experience.

Within fragility lies strength, and in strength, exists fragility.

I imagine the body as a sum of amorphous, blurred, watery, and fragmented forms. Forms in rhythmic states of flux and transition—continuously rippling, rupturing, restoring, and reviving ourselves.

When I was exploring material for an archival project with the National Centre of Biological Sciences (NCBS), I was struck by the uncanny synergy I discovered between microscopic captures of our body and marine beds, organisms, and reefs. Colours, ridges, and textures that run through our body are mapped and mirrored across surfaces of aqueous forms, creatures, and shapes. Using the analogue as a process of study, I began mapping and exploring the ocean as a body, and the body as an ocean within itself.

Water collects and flows as containers of memory. Chemicals, bodies, debris, treasure and other remembrances of our pasts are held and swallowed in the ocean’s depths. Similarly, our bodies carry and muffle our stories, scars, baggage, and memories within their submerged chambers, pathways, and streams. The blurred, murky resolution of the sea reflects the hidden interiors of the body. In both worlds, the depth, duress, and pressure of their channels aid their invisibility and inaccessibility.

For years, we have been intrigued by the ocean, drawn into the mystery of its uncharted territories and layers. Through history and folklore, the sea has been speculated to host mystical, supernatural creatures, and fantastical monsters, living and bubbling deep under its surface. Water deities and sea gods span across mythology, revered and worshipped across time by civilisations and communities that lived by the sea. Similarly, the body has been studied and viewed with unease, desire, wonder, and curiosity. Across historical manuscripts and anatomical maps, the body has been traced through chakras, zodiac signs, tantric ideologies, cosmic and metaphysical energies.

We are both uncomfortable yet fascinated by the internal universes within us.

“Beneath the seemingly stagnant surface, entire worlds are teeming.”

 Water and Gestationality: What Flows Beneath Ethics, Astrida Neimanis

Water gurgles, swishes, and babbles in languages we cannot fully comprehend. Above its surface, we are identifiable and disconnected voices. However, underwater, we are entangled in a gathering of fuzzy, murky, and disembodied vibrations.

When exploring sonic archives from both the body and the sea, I stumbled across curious discoveries. The shrill beeping and clicking heard from marine animals underwater bore peculiar resemblances to the rhythmic, mechanical detection from medical instruments used to listen to the body. Sound was a layer of this experience that I hadn’t yet explored. So, I collaborated with sound designer and artist Nikhil Narendra to create an immersive sonic piece that became part of the project.

Exhibition and Soundscape: Adrift and & Sea; Music and Sound Design: Nikhil Narendra.

As part of our process, we went around collecting sounds. First, we went out to the sea near the coast of Kundapur in Karnataka, armed with our hydrophones to record audio and source material underwater. We gathered vibrations and sounds from the many organisms, animals, and movements below the water’s surface. We drove up to the rainforest in Agumbe to record sounds from water bodies found in and around the forest reserve. We used those same hydrophones on ourselves, tracing the sounds of our lungs, our hearts, and stomachs—listening for the gurgles, beats, and leaks that percolate and flow within our bodies. Finally, we visited the ICU in a local hospital to record medical instruments and diagnostic devices used to detect, decipher, and measure bodily activities.

This act of tracing, capturing, and listening to vibrations within the mysterious interiors of these two worlds turned out to be synonymous with a desire to extract, visualise, and study these vastly obscure and unknowable bodies.

How do we trace the tremors and vibrations of our bodies and those hidden deep within the ocean? Can we access and recollect areas that are beyond surfaces and planes of visibility? Could sound signal blurred territories that remain indistinguishable, undetected, or undiagnosed?

The discovery and possibilities of medicinal chemicals and toxins found within marine organisms have created unique flowing networks that tide and spill from the ocean into the streams of our own bodies. When sifting through the archives at the National Centre for Biological Sciences, we came across an incredible study conducted by scientist KS Krishnan, who spent years studying cone snails across the coast of Tamil Nadu. Krishnan explored the pharmacological applications of predatory toxins released by cone snails as potential medicinal pain relievers for human use.

Water not just carries and holds our bodies, but flows and circulates from our body to other bodies, and vice versa. A transitioning movement of fluid tides through our bodies, mirroring the experiential highs and lows, the depths and altitudes of its movement in the ocean. And as the ocean pulls in and dispels its contents, and carcasses and memories hit the shore, we too drink, flush and release our debris and toxins through water. Our bodies and the sea act as dissolvents, rhythmically swallowing, expelling, and washing away its matter.

We taste salt in our tears. How much of the sea resides within us?

I try to negotiate a sense of belonging within this body. Something I rarely disclose is the struggle with sexuality that accompanies bodily pain and disability. It remains a conversation that for the most part is hushed and unspoken. Confiding in other women, who share the invisibility of these experiences, finds me shifting back to my own body, attempting to untether parts of myself that feel otherwise bound, stifled, or restricted.

The female body has been historically framed and measured within the lens of its generative and reproductive power, existing as a conflicted, complex, and culturally coded site of experience. Through my research and own experiences, I see these tensions inflict a dysphoric relationship with one’s body, and incongruity with its afflicted parts.

Astrida Neimanis, in the chapter ‘Hydrofeminism: Or, On Becoming a Body of Water,’ from her book, Undutiful Daughters: Mobilizing Future Concepts, Bodies and Subjectivities in Feminist Thought and Practice, writes about our bodies as fluid, gestational bags, and forms, “As watery, we experience ourselves less as isolated entities, and more as oceanic eddies: I am a singular, dynamic whorl dissolving in a complex, fluid circulation.” The fluid body of woman is invoked as a means of interrupting a philosophical tradition that both valorizes a male (morphological, psychological, symbolic, philosophical) norm, and elides the specificity of ‘woman’.

I have come to see that the female organs that I reimagine in my own drawings imitate aqueous, swimming creatures with threads, tentacles, and tendrils—unbound, untangled, released, and set adrift.

To be ‘at sea’ translates to feeling confused, disoriented, and to lose one’s sense of bearings. Each time I meet the ocean and stare into its depths and vastness, I am overcome by a strange mix of wonder, immensity, and fear. I feel overwhelmed and alone, yet engulfed and welcomed into its expanse.

What does it mean to lose our bearings, yet let go? Could we allow ourselves and our bodies to submit and dissolve into watery beings at sea—unanchored and untethered?

About the author

Devika Sundar’s artistic and curatorial practice shifts across different mediums, threading elements of collage, painting, and printmaking with photography, assemblage and installation. Exploring art as a restorative, meditative medium and outlet, she expresses collective themes of invisibility, illness, memory and impermanence within personal and shared human experience. 

Devika is an Inlaks Fine Art Awardee 2020 and a Prince Clause Fund Seed Award Recipient 2021. She was the artist and curatorial lead of ‘Bodies at Sea’, a proposed archives exhibition with Studio Slip and NCBS (The National Centre for Biological Sciences, Bangalore). She is presently working on an arts research project as part of the IFA Arts Research grant (2021-2022) funded by India Foundation for the Arts.

Devika has exhibited her work in solo exhibitions at Blueprint12 Gallery, Delhi (2022) , Gallery Sumukha, Bangalore (2018) and in group shows at India Art Fair (2020), Delhi Contemporary Art Week (2021) with Blueprint 12 Gallery, Bikaner house with Anant Art Gallery (2021), Shrine Empire Gallery (2022), Pushing Print (2020) with Indian Printmaker House, The Bandli Project (2019) at The Consulate of France Bangalore, among others. She has been part of residencies including the Prince Claus Fund Mobile Lab at Documenta 15, Germany (2022), Inlaks Fine Art Awardees Virtual Residency (2020), Smarter Digital Realities with Sandbox Collective and Goethe Institut Bangalore (2021), and Project MAAF (Manifesto For Accessible Art), a collaborative, bipartite project supported by the British Council and Wales Arts International/Arts Council of Wales (2021). 

Devika presented her exhibition “Essentially Normal Studies” around invisible illnesses, as a keynote speaker at the MYOPAIN 2018 medical conference, and in 2020 as an interdisciplinary guest lecturer at Ashoka University. Devika has also written pieces around art, disability and accessibility for Marg Magazine (2021), Art India Magazine (2021), and Skin Stories, Point of View (2018).

Parallel to her practice, Devika runs Hanno Terrace studio, a collective open studio founded to facilitate art as a therapeutic medium of release and outlet for children and adults from diverse backgrounds. 

Devika studied Anthropology, Art History and Visual Arts in Sarah Lawrence College, New York and graduated with a Commendation in Contemporary Art Practice from the Srishti Institute of Art, Design and Technology.

You can follow her @devika.sundar on Instagram.