the mother raga

Childbirth, a friend once commented to me , is not a spectator sport.

And, as I sat in my own childbirth preparation class a few years after that conversation, listening in on the tape of another woman’s journey through childbirth, I agreed with my friend. I was a voyeur in this journey. I had no right to be there, even if the woman had authorized use of the tape in our class. What I was hearing – the moaning raga of woman, body and baby – was illicit, taboo. While the woman in question was laboring at home, in the company of her family, I felt very strongly that her journey was not my journey; I had not been invited to be a part of it. It was only after the fact, on tape, with 7 hours compressed into 10 minutes, that I had been invited in. And I didn’t quite feel like a wanted guest.

My own mother, body and baby raga was less melodious than the one we heard in class. It, too, was attended by a large public. A phalanx of medical professionals surrounded me, from my midwife, a woman I knew well, to a range of anonymous interns, doctors, and nurses. It was noisy. It was bright. It was busy and I was trying to keep it together. My raga crescendoed through the busy-ness and my son was born, a champagne cork popping out of its bottle.

And yet.

Despite the vast differences in our experiences: home vs. hospital; family vs. medical professionals; low risk vs. high risk… there was something that brought us together: the moaning raga. Mine, curiously, sounded so very much like hers. It’s a thought that kept recurring to me as my voice echoed the undulations of her melody, tracing similar patterns. In that raga, we came together. Spectator became participant, mutual guests in each other’s journeys.

I wonder how I would hear that raga today. Would I feel like an uninvited guest? Or would we commune over our harmonies and our dissonances?

It’s something I thought of when I read that Marni Kotak planned to make a performance piece out of her childbirth. Transforming the gallery into her home, and opening her space to a limited number of  guests, she created a unique space that was both intensely private and profoundly public. For three weeks, she reclined in her transplanted living room, sharing conversations with gallery guests. Topics reflected her own self positioning as both artist and mother. And finally, in the company of some 20 spectator-guests, the birth journey itself began.

Childbirth, for Kotak, became a way of rendering poetic and meaningful the everyday. In the process, she also intervened (perhaps unwittingly)  in the politics of childbirth and the tensions between the ever-increasing medicalisation of a ‘natural’ body practice and the growing movement to return birth to the home.

A home birth in a public space. A conversation about motherhood in a space reserved for high art. A mother as artist. An artist as mother. Lived body practice as performed body art. In each of these moments, the everyday is rendered strange. In the process, these moments become the sites for restaging, rethinking, and reimaginings. What does it mean to claim the motherspace as both public and private? Where might we take it from here?

In that timeless raga of childbirth, women perform birth. Their bodies and rhythms are the space upon which birth’s stories, birth’s emotions, birth’s traumas and birth’s joys are enacted. Birth is, perhaps, not a spectator sport. But in its chants, incantations, rhythms and ragas, in its labouring and heaving, the mother raga reveals the webs of maternal experience and maternal stories. Please, come in, it says. You’re an honoured guest. And we welcome your stories.


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