Since the public spaces exercise was also meant to test notions of fear that were “perceived or real” some of our peg-points in initiating conversations were, asking people about the safety of space. In Shivajinagar, while mapping happened within Russell Market space, I spoke to some of the “rooted community members” asking them if women found it safe in ShivajiNagar (as opposed to a space like cubbon park- where the possibility of a rooted-in community was very little- Russell market stall owners were in here for the longest time) .
The immediate response was that it was indeed a very safe space. They very firmly and passionately spoke of how the nights too are really safe for anyone to be walking around. 12 am, 2am, thickest of night times, the roads and spaces in Shivajinagar were safe.
I had to check this out with some friends. And yes, there’s a whole gang that concurs. They think that Shivajinagar is actually really safe in the night as opposed to the other bus and downtown crowded area, Majestic. Majestic was a reference made twice for its “shady behaviour” and unfriendly, over quoting auto drivers. The Shivajinagar auto chaps were definitely business oriented but not trouble causing. The night rides would cost you the usual legal after-hours fare but nothing more. One would most definitely find a ride to any other part of the city one had to reach.
Story of Vera (19TH Jan 2009)
The bus stop stood large, looming and unconquered. It was the next space, the next intervention area. I was happy and a bit tired with the morning, and wanted to go home. But then, I also was drugged with this new high of rediscovering spaces…
Also, as an artist who was interested in movement and discovering the body “tool”, I really wanted not to miss the bus stop testing exercise. Vera was going over with her students to poke the space around a bit- poke it gently with body, tap and test its tolerance. My first impulse was to ask her to be sane and call it off. Public spaces and appropriate behaviour in India always meant no provocative physical moving whatsoever. Making the body invisible was rule of the land.
I have always felt really free and very at ease while I traveled…to whatever part of India or outside.
I have traveled to rural spaces and other urban spaces and have done so with gay abandon. There’s something easy to do when you don’t belong to a space. There’s freedom to move as you would wish…
The other times I’ve felt this is while I performed. The liberties to move within a legitimized performance space keep my sanity. My moving around within an artist’s safe zone identity takes my limits away. It frees me. So there’s mental and physical freedom of movement.
Vera’s exercises had the potential to be used for self awareness (how do I function in a space; how does my body conduct itself?)
and also provocative (I will break the unsaid pattern and agreement of public conduct. I will move, sometimes against the tide…)
Questions in brackets could be statements both real and perceived, and could rise in either party concerned. These “tension point statements” need to be exchanged as feedback through dialogue. Dialogue in this case could also be done with the body.
The students were asked to make small challenges to the flow in the space, ways of holding body, to imitate other bodies and figure permissible ways of how inhabitants of the space held their body…
This was to feed into a planned intervention where Vera would possibly be choreographing movements and have the group utilize the tool of body at the bus stop space.
Intervening Subway (22nd JAN 2009)
A locked, foot passenger subway runs across the main road and into the Bus stop at Shivaji nagar. People wanting to safely get to bus stations or cross the street (filled with a mad rush of buses entering or exiting the station) may choose to do so. Only, the subway is locked and grilled and the intestine of the subway now sees an office space for BMTC services.
The intervention began when all met at St Mary’s Church (up the road) and shared the flow and sequence of events. Cell phones, text msgs and sonic technology were to be used as information and update channels, and to document the happenings.
The sequence went something like this…
Word for woman
The first thing to do was to gather names and terms that meant “woman” in different languages: ways of referrals, dialects, slangs etc. This was then to be said out loudly at the entrance…as chants rather.
What this would be followed with was a
what was that?
miming/mimicking/mirroring exercise at the gated end of the subway channel. The officers had not objected to the activity fortunately (permission letters were produced perhaps, I’m not aware). The group would be within the enclosed side and would “gently” mimic crowds that passed. If any connection was made to an individual, no word was to be exchanged. Rather, the mirroring would continue until connections broke or verbal demands were made by the subject. Following this, an actual mirror would be held up as a sign or symbol or abstraction of the self and the other…
The last parts involved running out of the subway space, and vigorously shaking out of the body and its restraints- and to challenge the space. Then, one was to run up to a dirty bench, clean it with a towel thoroughly and offer a glass of water to anyone around willing to engage. (If someone could elaborate on the train of thought that led to this bit: responsibilities of cleaning public spaces- would make interesting read)
The chants got negative attention. One of the booth managers came up and asked the group to retreat. He then vented his actual anger on the locals by yelling disrespectfully at some spectators. Was intense.
I was tense myself. Provocative interventions call for intense calm from executioners and additional tools/ or set up to dialogue. They cannot be left hanging in space, having entered a community one doesn’t belong in. I was worried about the interpretations, more misconceptions of “the other” setting in, ideas of the intent of activity etc. So that’s what I thought I would work with. I would feign being another passerby and ask people around me what was happening. I would pretend to not be a part of the group. This led me away from some of the other activities that followed, but it allowed fruitful dialogue in a different sense.
I have stuff to say
I spoke to two men who were glancing at the artists group in a quasi-intrigued fashion. When I asked why these women were doing this; they said that perhaps they were tourists and this is how they “enjoy”. When I played devils advocate and asked if they were ok with outsiders creating a ruckus in the name of enjoyment, they didn’t react much. I then threw the question: What if these women were expressing the needs, anguish and desires of the feminine in spaces like this? Are these spaces safe for women?
The trigger word “woman” made the man spill some seemingly personal stories. He seemed to speak with controlled anguish, pain and frustration. Domestic frustration. His story was about how women from low income groups have high expectations within families. They aren’t too satisfied with the husband’s financial returns. And they don’t have the skills to financially help out…and he said that the women were choosing divorce. I was quite surprised. Here was a man who was talking divorce as accessible solution for a woman of lower economic stature (he obviously knew folks connected to this “case/s”, directly or indirectly). When I quizzed him further, he said that his wife actually earns some money through her sewing machine skills and services, so I wasn’t sure if this were his story.
The other intervention bit began…the group had gone underground and was heading to the grill gated passageway. I stood on the other side trying to observe and capture crowd reaction on camera. The crowds were responding. Many of their actions were being mimicked. Some chose to “safely see” from a distance…people were taking notice and drawing their own inferences of what was going on. When I quizzed some, there were bizarre answers. A young man thought the mirrors were held to reflect light or building structures so my camera (on the other end of the road) could capture things effectively. When I briefly told him the intent and my perception of what the mirroring and mirrors probably meant, he was intrigued.
He lamented that many are really shy to be curious and initiate dialogue in public areas. They would assume and leave- rarely clarify and stay to know more.
The crowds were a bit frenzied with so many of these foreigners doing weird mimicking things. So when I reached there with
street "coffee shop" chat
my camera, I got a group of young hawkers all upon me. This turned into a rather interesting conversation. The boys started commenting on how I was this rich man and that my clothes and camera were an indication. They did start in a semi-mocking confrontational tone but I gently refused to latch on to confrontational mode. I instead gently challenged their notions of who they thought I was. As a child, I had lived around in the cantonment area so I told them that. They were stunned. Then, I told them I don’t wear branded clothes as many had just accused me of. I showed them my jeans and T- labels-these were local. This turned into a long and elaborate exchange of do’s and daily lives. Sharings like porn being a regular thing in their lives and internet as easy access to porn came out in confessional fashion. When I asked if the internet could be used for alternate purposes, they didn’t know what else could come out of this medium.
The highlight moment was when this young man, who worked at a butcher store, took off his shirt to prove to me that his meat eating habits brought him the abs and muscles. He said I needed to eat meat to physically be like what he was. He then detailed his local gym programme (push ups -100) and advised me to do at least the surya namaskar (a yoga salutation using the body) as my workout routine.
He also told me I should soon start eating good wholesome meat
I of course missed the “shaking and cleaning benches” bit due to this rather intriguing cross class boy-to-boy exchange. Richard’s sonic recordings of the indianscape playing out in loops down below (in the subway passage) and the red halo smudge of the walls reflecting sunlight made for a super chaotic meditative effect. I left.
I walked up the street and saw a bakery with those unique “shivajinagar stuffed onion” samosas. Just then, an old man approached me for some money. I decided to buy him samosa and bought two. I then decided to munch on one myself.
I ate a whole samosa. Just when I was done, a friend loomed out of the bakery stall stating that those mutton samosas were pretty good