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What happens when women claim their time to do absolutely nothing

For Surabhi Yadav who runs Basanti: Women at Leisure, understanding what free time meant to women became a way of connecting with her late mother

Are women afforded leisure? And when they claim it, what does it mean to them, what does it do to their relationships with themselves and with others?
Are women afforded leisure? And when they claim it, what does it mean to them, what does it do to their relationships with themselves and with others? (Screenshot from the Women at Leisure account on Instagram)

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In a densely dark and quiet street, a young woman walk-dances as she heads home after work. Another lies on the ground in the middle of the day, taking a nap with a book over her face. A middle-aged woman leans leisurely on a pile of tall grass that she herself has cut.

Such are the glimpses of women’s leisure lives that Surabhi Yadav shares with us on her Instagram account, “Basanti: Women at Leisure”. Beginning first in 2018 as a mode of inquiry into her now-deceased mother’s life, the account has since evolved as a discourse, broadening to first document the women in and around Surabhi’s work and life, and then include those in the country at large. Recently, she has started crowdsourcing pictures of women being at leisure from her followers across India and applying the tagline #AuratonKaAaram to them, thus taking further this discourse about various moments of women seemingly doing nothing, or doing nothing “productive” for someone else. Instead, these photos reveal the women claiming that time for themselves alone.

“Leisure is a gateway of knowing yourself as a person,” says Surabhi. In a poignant twist of events, leisure became a way to grow closer to her mother. Surabhi started the page to memorialise her mother and the kind of person she was in herself alone, separate from her identity as a mother in the way that she knew her.

It’s a fascinating undertaking, sprung out of a genuine curiosity, borne of love, to look at women practising time out for themselves. Surabhi began documenting her sister, whose life seemed closer to her mother’s than her own, and from there the “radius of curiosity”, as she puts it, grew to include other women belonging to a distinct geographical demographic: rural India. Surabhi leads a social enterprise based in a village, so this demographic was accessible. A lot of the pictures and videos she posts regularly showcase rural women and girls either goofing around between or after work, or as they take a breather.

For Surabhi, “leisure is how people take time for themselves regardless of the purpose ”. Productivity, then, is clearly not in the picture. “It’s that brief window when your guards are down, and you’re not bound by capitalistic needs of being productive, or by patriarchal needs of playing a certain role in a family or society.” It could mean sitting with friends at a public park for example, or just sipping tea.

Nor is leisure limited to enjoyment, as a matter of fact. What is leisure for one woman, she says, could be hard work for another. For example, some might consider nurturing and spending time with a child as leisure, while for other women, that could constitute a task – hard work that needs to be carried out. “For most people, the purpose of leisure is to relax. For others, it could be introspection. People have different reasons for which they take leisure.” This is why context is crucial.

Surabhi’s captured moments of leisure, particularly including those that have been crowdsourced, transform the page into a beautiful collation of what leisure looks like for various women throughout the country. When I ask her what the whetting process for these pictures is like, Surabhi is clear about her response: “I need to know the context of the photograph and the consent of the person who is being photographed about the picture that is going to be posted on social media. Both are very critical.”

With crowdsourcing, various intimate spaces open up without being themselves disrupted, and become accessible, ultimately contributing to the discourse Surabhi’s project has initiated. There is also no danger of violent or unconsented intrusion. “If a daughter takes her mother’s photograph as the mother engages in a normal activity, that would happen on an individual basis, so the daughter wouldn’t be interrupting the mother’s time and space,” she says.

In general, the photographs are ordinary, quotidian even, and not necessarily aestheticised in any way. But what is most striking is how unbridled, how utterly unself-conscious the subjects in them look. They don’t seem to be worrying or concerned about how they appear; their countenances are relaxed. When Surabhi puts up such images of women on her page, it becomes a celebration of the women’s unbridled, visible leisuring.

Admittedly, though, there is a tendency to overly romanticise and romantically radicalise simple activities that women might partake in without regarding their act as being anything radical or political: do we really need to celebrate our sisters, mothers, and aunts quietly reading or strolling along a promenade? Perhaps not. But much like another Instagram page called Oh Aunty Ji, it offers a subtle shift in perspective. Oh Aunty Ji posts pictures of ladies of an older generation – the “aunties” of today – looking young and stylish in the swanky attire of the period, which appears in stark contrast to millennials who may be used to regarding them as old-fashioned and dowdy. Basanti: Women at Leisure, on the other hand, lends a vantage point of re-viewing and re-adjusting women’s time out – that is, once it has been noticed.

Surabhi often receives messages from women telling her how her page has made them aware of being at leisure and notice when a woman’s leisure is taking place around them. “There’s a language now to talk about it – a viewpoint, a gaze. I think that’s the gift of that project. It gives you that gaze as a gift.”

Alaka Basu, professor at Cornell University at the Department of Global Development who has written on and explored the topic of women and leisure before, says that Basanti: Women at Leisure normalises women’s leisure. “It makes us see that it is all around us and that it should be all around us.” Most of the images, she says, portray smiling or happy women. “That free time is good for women, and, by extension, that it is good for families and for societies is a point to be emphasised. Even the most patriarchal family cannot want a disgruntled and unhappy wife or mother at home.”

What women do or engage in – that is, if they do anything at all – while they are at leisure is an ever-unfolding story, rife with possibilities; a study abounding in potential. The radical thing about the page is not that it is about women’s leisure or about women at leisure per se (which women have always found a way to do in any case). What is radical is the act of documenting the leisure of women itself, as if to say, here is what leisure looks like for women: different from men, but also in many ways, very similar, and just as legitimate. The project plucks women being at leisure out of the constant, continuous flow of everyday life, a stream of life that is more often than not steered by a man, and showcases it. Visibilising women’s being at leisure in this way gives it legitimacy, stripping it of secrecy and shadows, of guilt and oddity.

To further build on the project, Surabhi wants to write a photobook and make a documentary in the future, based on the photo project’s discourse. She tells me she is also very interested in the different themes of leisure for the project: leisure and loneliness, leisure and loss, and so on. People limit leisure to enjoyment, she says, whereas it is a lot more complicated than that. “It reveals so much about us as humans, when we start studying leisure.”

Mumbai-based Tasneem Pocketwala writes on culture, identity, gender, cities and books.

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