In Life and in Art: Women are Superheroes  

Human Bondage 
Bronze, Steel Rod
22” x 10” x 10”
This is an original bronze sculpture. It is one-of-a-kind and cannot be duplicated.
Women have invisible chains to our families and close ones and those chains are impossible to
break. I try to hold on to my culture and traditions as much as I can and give them to my
children. My feelings can be seen in my work. Photo: courtesy Ela Shah

In his introduction to Ela Shah’s visual autobiography “ela: Breaking Boundaries” art curator and critic Jeffrey Wechsler describes the narrative as being “intensely personal, touching on instances of difficulty and transcendence, hesitation, and determination (all) described in a manner alternately searching and forthright, rich with experience, emotion, and spirituality.” These tensions are expressed vividly in Shah’s artistry, reflecting her deep connections to her ancestral home and Hindu upbringing, and her lived experience as a sensitive, young Indian mother transplanted with her family to the US.

Gold Leaf, Paint on Burnt Wood
This work is about the paradoxes and conflicts of the immigrant experience.
An immigrant woman is looking in a mirror hoping to transform herself into Superwoman. A
goddess-like image of the Statue of Liberty welcomes her, but a demon is on her chest holding a
sword near her neck. This is a paradox of the immigrant experience. We hope for a better life
yet fear the violence in society.
I am in constant need to burn and resurrect fragments of my past and identity. These burnt
images are symbolic of purification and transformation.
My work always reflects my emotions and feelings. Photo: courtesy Ela Shah

Much of the turmoil of her early years in the states was generated by the clash of Indian and American cultures: exacerbated by Shah’s desire to meet societal and familial expectations as expressed in an Indian proverb. In the English translation of the Sanskrit “(She) will be a maid servant in serving her husband, like the earth in forgiveness, like a mother in giving care, and like a Celestial dancer in the bedroom.”

Bliss in an Iron (front and back),
Gold Leaf, Paint, Wood, Mixed Media
22” x 18” x 8” (dimensions vary),
Sometimes I look at the icons of home in these mobiles and wonder if they are sanctuaries or
cells. In this sculpture a woman is playing music on an iron.
The philosophy of embracing one’s fate can be found throughout Indian mythology and in my
work. I believe that fate determines our future and accepting our fate is the best hope for
happiness. This philosophy sustains me, and I try to do my best in life, wherever I go and
whatever role I play. Photo: courtesy Ela Shah

Kal Penn, well-known actor and producer, is Shah’s nephew.  In the preface to her book “ela: Breaking Boundaries” he recalls his first memory of Shah’s work.

“My first memory of one of Ela Auntie’s pieces was a five-year-old me standing on my tiptoes. I was looking at a thin ladder sticking up from a bronze piece resting atop a table in her home. I was too short to see the whole sculpture and remained fixated on the top. ‘Where does it go’ I asked, ‘If you climb it?’ She replied, ‘The ladder can go wherever you want, beta.’

Bilss (rear view)

“There are, of course, multiple interpretations of various ladders, windows, roots, and Sesame Street characters throughout Ela Auntie’s work. Multiple references to boundless possibility. I was too young to understand more fully the subtexts of pain, struggle, and triumph as a child, though I do remember smiling as I thought “In all of her work, the women are superheroes.”

As Shah matured in all her varied roles—wife, mother, caregiver, artist—she expanded her artistic vocabulary and expressive range. In this month’s column, she shares three of her works, describing the motivation and emotions that compelled her to create.



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