Picture Babli. She walks down an empty village street at 10 p.m. There are no streetlights. Her two girlfriends trail slightly behind her. Babli plays a song on her phone and sings. The song picks up. So does the spring in her step. She starts to dance. Babli sings and dances the whole way home.
Somewhere else, three women take a moment to share ice-cream whilst minding their children.
A girl hangs upside down from a tree as if it were the most natural thing, begging the retrospectively obvious question – why shouldn’t it be?
The photo project Basanti: Women at Leisure, undertaken by Surabhi Yadav, is exactly what it sounds like: several years of right-place-right-timing the women she has seen – to chronicle the brief moments that they take for themselves to be who they are. These women are nobody’s mothers just then, nobody’s daughters or wives or sisters – their personhood is enough.
Leisure is such an operatic word, so lovely to say. But for Surabhi, it is very much a feminist issue.
As she points out, “When people talk about gender equality, we talk about equitable resource distribution. We talk about property, money, and representation. We don’t talk about time as a resource. Bohot bada resource hai, in fact, woh (But, in fact, it’s a very big resource). So, if time is a resource, leisure is a feminist issue. Who gets how much time and when? Who decides how it’s spent? And what are you without your leisure? Literally, leisure defines us. It highlights who we are. My theory is that no matter what condition you’re in, the human body and brain need leisure.”
The visibility of a woman’s leisure should not be quite as striking as it is. She carefully articulates it. “Why is an image of a woman reading a newspaper in the morning with her feet on the table so extraordinary? It shouldn’t be – it’s such an ordinary moment. Or women wearing saris and playing football! Why is it such a weird image? It shouldn’t be!
“And because it’s so ordinary, but it has become an extraordinary image for us, that’s where oppression is looking right in your face.
“And I think this project, what it does is that it shows you what is possible. So now there is a sense of, “Oof why don’t I have this? This looks so nice. I want this. But it’s missing.”
In a system designed to side-line women, Surabhi wants to tell a different story – one that takes place between the heroines who battle great odds to achieve great ends and the victims who suffer through everything. In a culture where men are frequently seen huddled over cigarettes at construction sites, radios in parking lots and televisions at homes, it’s more than refreshing to see the women in Surabhi’s pictures exercising that same autonomy over their time.
She says, “The way I see leisure now, I see what a woman is when she is not benchmarked in battle – when she doesn’t have to earn money or be productive or impress someone or follow tradition. It’s for yourself and who you are at that moment. Because if oppression is the fight of you not being you, leisure is the answer by you being fully you, even for that brief moment, right? Even if that leisure is happening in the same culture as oppression, you're still you in that moment. Aur wohi toh jaanna hai na? (And that’s what we want to find out, no?)
“Oppression is happening every day in your lighter moments. Who you’re talking to, what you’re eating, what you’re wearing, who you’re loving, how you spend your time, what rights you have – it’s literally every single day. So, agar itni tagdi ladayi hai (if the fight is so challenging), so the answer has to be something like that only, no? I feel leisure does that. Leisure is a slap on that everyday oppression’s face.’
How did she begin, then?
“It began as a very intimate inquiry about who my mother, Basanti, was as a person. I lost her when I was twenty-four years old. It just hit me very strongly that I didn’t know my mother as a person. I knew her as my mother. I didn’t know who she was as a young girl, who she was as a woman. I didn’t know what kind of thoughts or ideas she had. And I think what it did was that it brought in a lot of guilt instead of just grief. How couldn’t I know her? She created me and it felt very limiting; it felt very selfish.
“My life and her life were so entirely different. There were just so many questions. So, I started this personal project, a personal journey, to interview people in her life and just get to know from them who she was. I started interviewing my father, my siblings; I interviewed aunties in our neighbourhood…”
When a neighbour’s first words to describe Basanti were ‘mazakiya’ (funny) and ‘shaitaan’ (naughty), Surabhi didn’t know how to reconcile her disciplinarian mother with the woman who told jokes and roleplayed lewd songs at Holi parties in front of the other colony aunties.
But it brought back other memories. Of the time she went to the Kumbh Mela with her parents in Ujjain. Of how during a crowded morning aarti, her very tall mother jumped into the river.
“And she was swimming! Nobody else was doing that!”
“She did all of these things. And then I started asking myself ki jab Mummy khud ke liye samay nikalti thi toh kya karti thi? Like, beyond ‘mother’… when she used to take out time, what would she do? And flashes of images started coming in. Ki achha she used to do this, she used to do that. So, I started taking photos of my sister. Ki auratein apne liye aaram ya apne liye samay kaise nikalti hai? (How do women rest or take out time for themselves?)”
Why pick something as light as leisure, something as soft, to be her tool of choice to change the world?
Surabhi nods sagely. “My assertion is that the role of anger and rage is in pushing back what is not acceptable, and that is needed. But if you want to create or change something, you need love. For something to change, you need to have an influence. People can change in response to fear as well, but that change is going to last as long as the fear lasts. But if you inspire and love, and that is how your change is rooted in, that change is going to last longer.
“So, I think you do need rage. Because you need to first say that this is a boundary condition, I don’t need this. You have to push back. But once that happens, for you to create, you do need lightness and love. And I think, leisure in some invites that lightness.”
It’s clear then that Project Basanti is brilliant – it’s too bright and it’s too warm. A love letter to the idea of women freely negotiating their time as they are. Even for a moment.