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“Leisure is like an answer to oppression”: Interview with Surabhi Yadav

What happens when women let themselves be completely at rest? Read more to find out.

Surabhi Yadav founded Women at Leisure, a photo-project on Instagram, in 2019. This unique project is dedicated to capturing moments of leisure from the everyday lives of women. She is also the CEO and founder of Sanjhe Sapne, an organisation that offers career-based training and skills to young women from rural backgrounds.

In this edited interview with AOI, Surabhi talks about how leisure is gendered and political, what it means to pay attention to women’s leisure  and labour, and why a project like Women at Leisure is significant today.

Do you think that the photographs of ‘Women at Leisure’ give leisure a visibility? And, do you think women’s leisure goes unnoticed, much like their labour? 

Women at Leisure stemmed from how I remember my mother. The image that I have of her is of her working. But back then, I didn't value her work. I valued my father's work. Papa is the one who goes out and gets the money. Papa is the one who gets to talk to different kinds of people. So, I was not paying attention or I wasn’t giving respect to my mother’s work. When I didn’t respect her work, how would I pay attention to what was and wasn’t her leisure?

With the photos I take of women at leisure there are different kinds of surprises actually. One is that you didn’t see some things as leisure in your own life or your mother’s, sister’s, daughter-in-law’s or sister-in-law’s life. The other thing is that these photos break the very monolithic image the urban has about villages and the women there. They think that all women in villages are the same, not interesting, they are either extremely oppressed or are complete revolutionary heroes. But the truth is they are complex with complex identities. So, it baffles people when women there are just sitting and chilling. She is just being herself and that’s it. There is no extra narrative needed to make her valuable in that place. And I think seeing people for who they are is something pretty cool, pretty important.

Although the project is steeped in pleasure, and generates a very emotional response, there is also a politics that drives it. Could you talk about that a little?  

So, you can talk about social issues from many angles, right? One is the problem angle that says look this [issue] is serious, you’ve got to pay attention, let’s get angry together and let’s fix this together. This is the atyachaar lens, the oppression lens, with which I will analyse the world, scrutinise it and see where the problem is, what the structure is, etc. 

Now, another angle is the bahaar angle. Bahaar is an Urdu word for blossoming or spring. This angle nudges you to pick up a lens to spot the existing bahaar and then ask, if I were to create my own spring, what would it look like? I’m not saying one is better than the other. You need both at different phases. They each serve unique roles. The thing with the bahaar angle is that your immediate reaction is how do I create this spring? The jump from atyachaar to bahaar is a development. Anything you do in this direction means you are talking about solutions, which is why it’s a jump.

And I think, ‘Women at Leisure’ is that bahaar. It presents pleasant visuals, happy visuals, peaceful and contemplative visuals, visuals which make you feel nice.  When you see these, it makes you want to have it. And the moment you want to have it, or want to see it around you, you start thinking why you don't have it. It becomes an introduction to the existing problem in a very gentle way. 

Especially when we are living with a very cancel-culture ridden social media, I think it becomes a very endearing space to acknowledge that I didn't notice this. These are the kind of messages I get a lot from a lot of women and even men, actually. A lot of people have opened up about their intimate feelings and their messages aren’t just small talk.

Could you tell us a little more about how leisure fits into this idea of bahaar?

Leisure is like an answer to oppression. Oppression is complicated because it happens on an everyday basis in our family, community, society. It’s of different kinds - within the house, outside, economical, ecological, social, cultural, all of it. 

If you take ‘Women in Leisure’, the photographs are showing you a possibility. It’s showing you what a space would look like if things were amazing, or what it would look like in a moment of complete carefreeness. If I wasn’t bound by customs, gender, caste, class – even for a brief moment, this is what my life could look like. So, that’s bahaar. That’s spring.

You also run the organisation ‘Sanjhe Sapne’ which prepares young women for pursuing their careers, for work. Often, we see leisure as the opposite of this, as doing nothing. How does leisure fit into such a setup? 

Sanjhe Sapne, essentially, is exactly the opposite of Women at Leisure. It is all about building careers. It’s working with women in villages and making sure that in places where there are no higher education options for women, girls, and trans women, will help them find careers. Or if not careers, we do skill development programmes to help them be part of the modern economy, establish them in the job market. 

But I don't think you learn anything if you don't have the time to process it or if you don't have time away from what you’re learning for a while. And leisure is that space where what you have gathered sinks in. Nothing good comes out of never stopping or pausing. The writer Virginia Woolf says "If you lose your leisure, look out, you might be losing out your soul." I think we’re also wired that way, that’s why sleep is so important for human functioning also. Of course, there’s a whole other discussion about who can afford it. But leisure is definitely important.

How do you think leisure is affected by gender? Do people of different genders experience leisure differently? 

If we look at public spaces, the way you access them is defined very well, the roles are well-defined. You will find men gathering at the street corners. Not women, right? Women get out to the market when they have a need for something. Not like they go just to stand there and chat. 

Take parks in Delhi, for example. They are protected spaces yet there are exclusive spaces within. Like lovers meet in the park corners or there are spots where men sit to play cards or to have a drink. When I, as a woman, just sit or lie down under a tree, it is considered audacious. Why? It’s nothing really! Such an ordinary thing to do.

In our homes, it is completely acceptable for my father to sit on the front porch, one leg crossed over the other, and read his newspaper for an hour! Now imagine a young bahu (daughter-in-law) or even mothers and mothers-in-law opening the newspaper and sitting on the front porch for two hours, right in the morning. It would be audacious! This is the scene in a middle-class family. 

Why do you think that is how it is?

When we define labour so narrowly, leisure is also defined in the same way. 

Why don’t we tell fathers to indulge their kids? Why is that a luxury? Isn’t it your [the father’s] work also to cuddle and pamper the child? Baby talk is reserved only for the mother, not the father. Such narrow definitions are the case with all genders. Just like how we understand what is ideal labour for a woman and ideal labour for a man, we also understand ideal leisure as different for both.

Have you seen any instances of women claiming leisure within restrictive structures too? 

If you take religion, for example, there are a lot of leisure spaces for women especially in non-metro spaces. You have rituals or festivals when women go to the outskirts of a village, sit under a tree, tie a thread for Sheetla Mata (a goddess) or other gods. It’s like a picnic day, really. They might not call it that necessarily. But, in the sense that it is a time of spending time away from chores, gathering with other women, singing together, praying, all of that. 

Even this idea of ‘Mata aana’ where the goddess enters you and you go into a trance. Clothes get thrown here and there, you can do anything with your body, you scream… It really feels like a moment when you break free.

Or say in weddings, for example. Where I come from, Bundelkhand, women can’t join the baaraat (wedding procession) of their own sons or brothers. So how do they enjoy that ritual? When the men enter [the wedding venue], the women sing songs filled with gaalis. It’s called Gaariyaan. What they say is really mean sometimes! These women are sitting in ghunghats so, you won’t know who is saying what. 

I’m not sugar-coating rituals or religion. Yes, they are patriarchal. In fact, people use the same argument to tell women what to do in the name of tradition. And, these rituals’ burden is disproportionately on women.

But I am not going to go and tell these women that look this is patriarchal and you can’t have such a space. I mean what other space is available for them to have a good time? If you want to talk about patriarchy, then talk to the system to not propagate such rituals. You can’t tell women they can’t find leisure within this system, as well as expect them to challenge the system. Why so much responsibility on women? 

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