Prerna Bishnoi

its an occupation
culture.livelihood.place
people among flowers
washing dirty laundry in public

i follow...

BEING K.R. MARKET

1. Who did you exchange places with?

I went into the market thinking of sitting with a bangle seller whom I had met with earlier. Unfortunately her son-in-law passed away and she didn’t come to the market which led me to find a vegetable seller around the same area. Neha and I chose to sit with the same woman.

2. What did you consider while getting ready or dressing for the event?

My aim was to look as inconspicuous as possible in the sense I didn’t want to scream out which strata of society I belonged to or even for what purpose I was there. Although I knew and accepted the fact that because of my complexion and lack of knowing the local language I would be considered an ‘outsider’ I still wanted them to consider that I was there to become a part of them even though I was from a different culture. I went in with a background that I had come from Faridabad to look for a job in Bangalore and having lived in Bangalore for sometime I had taken on some of the traits of the women there (which was something I observed in 2 Rajasthani women who had lived in Bangalore for a while and were selling sprays in K.R. Market).

On the basis of previous observations I wore a synthetic saree with a mismatched cotton blouse. I wore a bindi which is what most Indian girls wear more so in the south. I wore bangles in one hand which i later split and wore in both hands based on observations of the women in K.R. Market. I also put a safety pin through all the bangles to keep them together. I drew a swastika tattoo on my forearm which showed my religion. I also oiled my hair and tied it back into a bun and wore a gajra of orange flowers a tradition among women in the south.

I made sure I carried my money in a removable pocket tucked into my saree much like the pothlis carried by the women at the market.

3. What were the events that occurred and what happened?

On arrival at K.R. Market Neha and I were shocked to find out that the bangle lady we were supposed to sit with was absent on account of the death of her son-in-law.

After talking to a few women in and around that area (since that area was relatively unknown to us) and finding out if they knew hindi, and telling them that we were there to shoot a film that required us to sit with them and behave like one of them for 2 hours we found a lady selling vegetables who was willing.

We introduced ourselves to her under pseudonym’s of Lakshmi and Gauri. For a good 20 minutes she was busy telling her friends and family about the shooting till we asked her to keep it a secret which she did respectfully.

For quite sometime we interacted with her relative (brother or brother-in-law) who worked in the local wine shop. Unfortunately he treated us like people from a different social strata offering us tea, coffee and breakfast. Hence it took us a while to get comfortable sitting in the space and for all the excitement to die down.

We received quite a few curious stares as we clearly looked a little out of place, culturally. Luckily the message of the shoot didn’t travel; instead we started spreading the story of our lives in Faridabad. But all of that didn’t stop this one woman clad in a burqa to look at us for a while, make us uncomfortable, snigger under her breadth and say “ yeh aap kya kar rahin hain, aisa kaam apko shobha nahi deta!”

After some time we made a breakthrough in terms of our disguise. 2 ladies who looked like they belonged to the middle class, looked at us strangely but dismissed their doubts when they questioned us about the prices of the vegetables and bought vegetables from us.

By this time the ‘amma’ of the shop had taken a back seat and entrusted the vegetables to us. In fact she didn’t even bother to collect the money from Neha, she allowed me to arrange her goods and sell them and Neha to keep the money from the transaction. In fact she didn’t even bother to count the money when we handed it to her in the end.

Another interesting incident that occurred was this group of young boys who passed by us and started eave-teasing us under their breadth. As if they weren’t so sure as to who we were.

During one of our attempts to sell some vegetables, because of some misunderstanding we sold it for a lower price (actual price 2 for Rs.5, our selling price 3 for Rs.5), amma went after the customer took out one vegetable to get it to the right selling price.

One muslim man from Lucknow found us quite interesting. He realised without us telling him anything that we weren’t from Bangalore. He seemed overly friendly with us and the ‘amma’ who didn’t really respond positively to this chatty man.

Towards the end of our time spent as vegetable vendors the amma’s relative came and bought us some tender coconut almost blowing our cover luckily it was a quiet time of the afternoon..

One of the highlights of my experience there was that Deepak passed right by us and didn’t recognise us.

Through out our time there, like most of the women around us, Neha and I engaged in some small talk. We tried our level best to keep it in Hindi but when we did break the trend and spoke in English we lowered our voices.

At the end Neha bought some vegetables from ‘amma’ who absolutely refused to take money for it till we forced her to.

4. What did you feel about what occurred?

Initially I was highly doubtful of this exercise especially when the amma we were working with started spreading the news about this film shoot and her relative started giving us some sort of special treatment. As time passed I was highly curious to read the minds of all those who passed by us and looked at us strangely making it seem like there was an ‘us’ and a ‘them’. I really wanted to know whether they figured out our ‘class’ or believed that we were just culturally different.

All the time we were there I felt this immense trust from amma and her friends and relatives. In fact I was quite surprised that this vegetable vendor just left all her goods to us and not only that, but trusted us with the money also. I was rather hesitant to keep the money with me, every five minutes I’d try and give it back to her.

While my mind was buzzing with observations, I had to focus intensely on my body. A lot of this experience was bodily. I was constantly aware of how I sat, that my feet were too clean to have them sticking out of my saree, that I smiled and showed my teeth much more than the people there, that I could yawn without bothering to cover my mouth. I was constantly trying to figure out where their eyes moved, I saw none of them looking above eye level to see and observe the people towering above us. I was constantly trying to keep in check my loud hand gestures as well as the content of our talk. Even while speaking in Hindi I had to be constantly aware of my language so that it doesn’t sound like I don’t speak the language too much. I was aware of the fact that I touched my face to wipe it many more times than they did. Little little things like that made up the entire experience. It was indeed thinking through the body.

When that muslim woman told us that the work we were doing doesn’t flatter us, her gaze was such that I was put off guard. Just when I was settling into this character and my surroundings she came along with that strange snigger which made me feel overdressed, for a minute I even thought we looked like prostitutes.

As time passed by the ritual of the labour- arranging the vegetables, chit-chatting with someone, staying quiet, keeping your eyes to the eye level, selling goods and coming back to arranging some more vegetables, started becoming meditative. There was a sense of calm that I felt. I also felt that in a strange way we were being accepted by that space. But there were times when I felt like a complete outsider to their community. There was also this feeling of being ignored.

In the end the tender coconut and the refusal to take money from Neha for the vegetables just overwhelmed me. It made me think of the fact that how much ever we may boast about being charitable we cannot match their generosity.

5. What were your insights about what happened? What are your thoughts after reflecting on what transpired today?

.  As an afterthought, I think it is very important to go into a space without a strong prejudice and preconceived notions. I think it was very important to unlearn our previous responses to the space and concept about the people. In that way we could just physically place ourselves in the space and mould ourselves into someone like them (I hate the idea that I keep bringing up the word them, it’s almost like in my head I’m going into the space with that notion of us and them). But somewhere there were activities of the nature of staring that made me realise that there is always an “us” and “them” may it be 2 different cultures or 2 people from different religions.

One thing I thought of was how being design students we are trained to observe our surroundings, question it, respond to questions, and take the opportunity to converse with people to get to know them. This proved as a disadvantage when we went into the space with the idea of merging with it. Our strong conditioning to question affected our body language. We were constantly looking around with a keen eye, noting things in our head, all these movements made us conspicuous. We had to force ourselves to just sit and absorb what came before us, in our line of vision. It was difficult to hold ourselves back from knowing more, observing more. But somewhere it was peaceful to just be.

Another insight was their way of living and working. They live in so much trust and co-operation. They are very clear about their work and another’s work. They see the distinction and they have a sense of understanding and respect for each other. That makes me rethink the notion I’ve had all along that Indians are competitive. Maybe it’s a certain class of Indians.

I liked how people there are willing to make their thoughts known to the other either through words or actions. I like the level of comfort they have with each other- may it be a customer salesman relationship.

A Talk to Remember

-with Lata Mani

Having read Aesthetics of Display I had a good idea that Lata Mani was going to be someone I could learn a lot from. The truth is I had no idea what was in store. The discussion was overwhelming. It was more than I ever imagined. Although I thought of it as a complete overdose of thoughts, ideas, beliefs and view points, today sitting a week later to write and reflect on that day I can’t believe the knowledge that I thought was going way over my head has stayed  with me (at least some of it).

I always knew that every individual thought differently yet there was a similarity among certain individuals. I became aware of the fact that there is a particular way in which I think, my opinions are formed but I never quite understood why? It was the first time I actually became aware of the term “conditioning” and applied it to my life. When I think about it, my life is similar to that dog’s life (not to be degrading) in Pavlov’s experiment on conditioning. I have lived on certain kind of food, environment, and people, reacted to and observed certain behaviour- actions and reactions more importantly my responses have been reinforced. Hence I am constructed.

Another interesting concept is naturalized response. The conditioned responses become so ingrained that one no longer identifies them as conditioned or constructed. Instead it becomes one’s natural response.

For me, sitting in Srishti, I feel like I am unlearning. I am becoming aware of the fact that a lot of my responses are conditioned. That awareness itself is pushing me in the direction of unlearning. I am now conditioning myself to question, research, and look at things from different perspectives. I now understand my surroundings. I understand people in a particular setting of society. For example when I became the vegetable vendor and had to be invisible this behaviour to question and observe everything around me made me stand out in that space, for the women vendors there neither engaged in answering nor questioning people. It just seems like these women have accepted their surroundings for what it is. I feel that conditioning involves a strong feeling of acceptance.

Another thought that stuck with me is thinking from the head, heart and body. I knew that the heart has an opinion but I always thought it was my head doing the talking for the heart. I feel that for the heart to start thinking I need to realise for myself the difference between my head and heart. But what I do understand is the body doing the thinking, to just let your body receive and react to the environment. An interesting statement that Lata Mani made was that “the body is the most unconditioned self.”

When I touch something with my hand my body doesn’t have any preconditions. My body senses things as they are. So in a way thinking through the body is the most naturalized response. But I also feel that thinking in general should involve all three- the head, the heart and the body together. However all this is easier said than done but at least her talk has made me sensitive to the world of thinking.

Performance and Pedagogy

Jyoti made me look at the world in a very different light- performance. Usually I associate performance with theatre and theatre with the conventional form of theatre or should I say the conventional notion of theatre since I have now realised that we can draw parallels between our daily life practices and theatre as a form. There’s a front stage, a centre stage, a back stage, there’s a rehearsal, an audience … It’s almost like Shakespeare’s words “all the world’s a stage” coming to life.

INVISIBILITY

I think I have become a fan of performance as a research methodology since I find it so effective. When I did the invisibility exercise I gained a lot of insight and knowledge into the lives of the people at the market more than any other medium. It was a very conscious performance to be accepted as one of them and in the process I had to, through the discipline of the body and mind convince them of my act.

Through the same exercise I touched upon the idea of the body as a site of discourse. I was fascinated to know about “embodied knowledge”, that my actions and body movements, eye movements, talk about who I am because all these actions have come to be because of my upbringing. Hence if I had behaved the way I usually do at the market it would have clearly shown my alien identity. In fact that is what differs other activities that we have done in the market from this one.

Similarly the women vendors, their way of sitting, walking, making hand gestures, eye movements communicate the kind of society they are from, and them as individuals in that society. Hence one of the reasons why performance is such an effective medium is because it uses the body. It makes an individual aware of the thoughts of his body as opposed to only being guided by the mind. For me the plain and simple shift from calling everyday activities a performance makes me aware of my body and mind. I’m not saying that it takes away the “natural” response from me but

When I sat down with the vendor, our relationship was based on truth; we told her our intentions behind this act and who we were. When we were about to leave we decided to buy some vegetables from her as a sign of our gratitude for letting us carry out this activity with her. Hence although what we “took” from her wasn’t tangible but it did make us feel thankful.

I did feel the need to give back to an individual so why not to an entire society which led us to the Switchboard project.

SWITCHBOARD

The idea of switchboard came up as a form of sharing with the people what we had been doing there. While brainstorming about switchboard we touched upon the topic of ‘giving back’. This need to give back strengthened with time. If we had been there for a shorter period of time we wouldn’t have had such a strong feeling to give back. I think over time our relationship with the people and the space had grown or rather recognition had made it possible for me to feel a sense of belonging and acceptance. Sharing the pictures was a way to show them through a physical form that they had truly been a part of our work and life and that it is a 2 way process.

The other half of the switchboard project was an interaction between us and the people there. We had pictures of the market and the people had to respond to these pictures through their bodies by forming silhouettes. The nature of this project itself included the body and performance as a research tool. Through the forms that the people made we could see their reaction to the different elements in their market space.

What was interesting was the way they used their body to respond to silhouettes. Since with silhouettes it is the association they make with it and then your body responds to that association.

BODY SCULPTURE

This activity as the name suggests was one that used the body completely. We had to form freeze frames that visualised what the director (of the freeze frame) liked or disliked about the market. We handed over the directorship to the people at the market for them to express their likes and dislikes. For some this ‘performance’ was the opportune moment to express themselves and their observations sans words. The way they positioned the bodies also spoke about the connections they made between body and communication. How they saw a drunk, an authoritative posture, the action of beating, subservient body posture… Again I come back to the fact that for me the reason why performance is a research methodology is because the body is an embodiment of knowledge and experience making the body a site of discourse.

This performance in a way broke the ice between ‘us’ and ‘them’ to such an extent that one lady felt comfortable enough to use this as a forum to narrate her story. It feels like a great deal of intimacy and compassion can be achieved through the body. Breaking this barrier of inhibition led to a smooth sharing of thought, knowledge and experience. This exercise was an informal give and take with no hierarchy there was no distinct feeling of being “the initiators”.

jnana bharathi

jnana bharathi

where 12 hours on the august day 18 will be spent-DOA

My reflections

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2 responses to “Prerna Bishnoi

  1. geetu

    I wore bangles in one hand which i later split and wore in both hands based on observations of the women in K.R. Market. I also put a safety pin through all the bangles to keep them together…..I could yawn without bothering to cover my mouth….I saw none of them looking above eye level to see and observe the people towering above us”
    Prerna- you have picked up so many nuances…you amaze me.

    “But somewhere it was peaceful to just be”
    This is lovely -that you could realize this amidst all the chaos in the market. We are trained as designers to see a particular way, to observe our world almost like a consumer. Voraciously seeking information. To simply be and have been happy in that position is a nice observation that you have made.

    “That makes me rethink the notion I’ve had all along that Indians are competitive. Maybe it’s a certain class of Indians.”
    Prerna- you keep referring to ‘class’ in your response. It seems that the experience highlighted this aspect of, dare I say ‘culture’ for you. What is class in your opinion and how is it perceived? Is it a visual manifestation of affordance or a visible practice or behavior?

    • prernab

      I have used the word ‘class’ as a form of behaviour that is influenced by one’s economic status. An economic status influences lifestyle which in turn might condition an individual to think and thus behave in a certain way.
      However I have thought out 2 senses of this behaviour, one being the actual existence of this economic status and hence this “conditioning” which results in such behaviour and secondly a desire to achieve this economic status which fuels similar behaviour.

      In the market, my physical appearance and language made me stand out but what I wanted was that people should relate to me in terms of economic similarity which influences a particular behaviour that is similar to all belonging to that economic standing irrespective of regional cultural differences.

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