The Project

Understory brings together fieldwork experiences that do not fit the narrative of a professional project or a dissertation. Though these stories seem irrelevant in formal spaces, they shape our approach to the field, and come alive in their retelling.

Understory is an ecological term for that layer of the forest that lies between the tall canopy and the forest floor. Here, trees don’t reach the light and have learnt to adapt to shade. Our project recognises the stories that remain in the dark. We invite you into this shadowy mid-layer, above the gritty forest floor of field notes and data yet away from the canopy of finished projects and manuscripts. Away from direct light, the understory is a vital and sustaining layer of the forest. Like it, our stories are a way of being in the world.

In April 2020, we sat together, across the internet, to share our stories and talk about this project. We realized how cathartic it was for these stories to have listeners or readers. We talked about the words we had to omit to come across as clinical and dispassionate researchers. Together, we mulled dilemmas and allayed self-doubt. Many hours later, we decided to create a space in which people could express themselves without fear while gently rethinking certainties and our relationship to the field.

We created this shared space as a companion to objective ‘research methods’ courses. We hope these stories help readers validate their own anxieties and false starts.

We recognise that ‘field’ arises when the ‘fieldworker’ intervenes with an enquiry. Paying attention to the observer’s entanglements helps to understand the nature of the observed. Colonial ethnography generated ‘truths’ about societies and produced an enormous amount of information to govern people better. We think it is better not to ignore the fieldworker’s own truths in the field.

Our logo, Potli Baba, is a storyteller who lives on the wild side. She is what cultures have called, “a witch”. She carries a potli, a shapeless bag, with old stories and fables collected along her way. A potli can exist in our psyche or as a forgotten folder on a laptop. It could house accounts that may be considered threatening, non-academic, unprofessional or plain humorous. Potli Baba is inspired by the Indian television puppet-series, Potli Baba Ki, and Baba Yaga in Clarissa Pinkola-Estes’ book, Women Who Run with the Wolves. In the television series, Potli Baba grows younger as he recovers stories left by his mother under rocks. In the book, a young Valissa, is pushed to Baba Yaga’s distant house to collect firewood. There she is invited to excavate her ‘true’ self, one which has not been ironed out by social conditioning. Baba Yaga represents the wild, instinctive self which is hidden, camouflaged or worse shelved away in order to fit into prescribed spaces. We hope you find yourself at home with Baba Yaga. Delve into your potli and understory to recognise your stories that lie hidden. May you feel younger, lighter like Potli Baba, wild like Baba Yaga and grow flowers in your understory.