In pursuit of the perfect location

Couple of days back, on a late afternoon I was in Kampong Glam scanning streets, alleys, sidewalks, cul de sacs in search of a proper place to sit and sketch from.

And as I was squirming in the intense heat, politely turning down offers to peruse Persian carpets on sale or to sit down for a Turkish dinner that could be had as the busboys promised with a view of the radiant Sultan mosque overlooking the entire Arab quarter, I realised that the ‘perfect location’ can be as elusive as anything good we pursue in life.

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Sketched from the lovely Working Title cafe on Arab Street

Like the perfect job, perfect partner, perfect wine or the perfect vacation, if finding the perfect location needed to be worked for and sweated over, I was doing just the same but without any success in sight. Kampong Glam cafe that normally offers an unobstructed view of the palm fringed Bussorah Street had two black vans parked right under its nose and Haji Lane packed with tourists and Friday night revellers had zero real estate to spare. My patience was fraying.

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Row of shophouses on Arab Street

Just as I was harrumphing about the lack of a single spot of shade on Baghdad Street for me to crouch under and sketch, I wondered if ‘perfection’ is subjective and therefore if it is possible to calibrate our sense of perfection and still feel accomplished? I wanted to try.

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And by that I mean, despite being occasionally interrupted and accidentally elbowed by passersby crossing the narrow ‘five foot way’ right behind me did I consider the Working Title cafe on Arab Street the perfect location? Heck, yeah! I sat by a big wooden table on the foyer all by myself for the next hour sipping coffee, looking across the road and sketching this row of beautiful shophouses.

 

‘Surreal but nice’

was how I felt when Bon appétit, commissioned me to illustrate an article for them. Those who haven’t watched Notting Hill, this is what the awestruck bookstore owner played by Hugh Grant says about his chance encounter with a revered Hollywood superstar, played by Julia Roberts in this über popular romcom.

Anyway, what I mean to say is for a person who loves food and to feed, has hand written recipes tucked inside every drawer, purse and in between the pages of old diaries, watches cooking shows to lull her to sleep and cooks not just to eat or feed but to create, Bon appétit magazine has been an unvarying source for reference and inspiration for many years, a reliable friend that always has my back and also spurs me on. Hence the fuss over my chance to contribute to my fav publication!

The assignment was to illustrate for the an article called: Let’s Chaat: A Guide to Indian Snacks. I was to draw (and salivate simultaneously over) 6 popular kinds of Chaat along with a cover image of a table laden with an assortment of Chaats. Chaat-  if you don’t know already – is a colourful and incredibly addictive Indian snack with layers of textures and flavours packed together that surprise, excite and pleases your palate at the same time leaving you craving for more and then more. It’s pretty easy to whip up too.

Check out the article to learn more and those feeling hungry view my illustrations pronto for instant gratification. Hope you enjoy and bon appetite!!

Chaat Table

Assortment of Chaats

 

Gol Gappa

Golgappa

 

Samosa Chaat

Samosa Chaat

 

Sev Puri

Sev Puri

Bhel Puri

Bhel Puri

Aloo Tikki

Aloo Tikki

Dahi Vada

Dahi Vada

Craig Road shophouses

 

are fascinating as are all shophouses in Singapore that thanks to the Urban Redevelopment Authority have been beautifully restored and are feast for the eyes!

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Yesterday I was here with a friend who I didn’t see for long and in the midst of catching up on life and such we both sketched. Above is my take on Craig Road shophouses sketched with a dip pen and brown ink and colored using watercolours.

This isn’t my first sketch on Craig road and wouldn’t be my last but what’s interesting to note here is how each of these sketches have served as progress markers on my journey as an artist. And that is why when you look back and probably cringe at your last work – which I often do – you must turn around and forge ahead with gusto because even if it’s a slow and gradual process, growth is inevitable when you’re committed.

This time I’m going to take my own advice.

 

 

 

 

Things no one sees

are the ones that keep me occupied for hours. If you’ve read my earlier post –  Had people watching – you must be aware of my penchant for practicing flânerie, especially at cafes and how I channel my people watching / observation skills into making art.

 

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Just a guy alone with his coffee savouring a quiet moment 

So far it’s been fun! Sketching is a mindful exercise and extremely gratifying, but sketching people is enlivening. There isn’t a moment of dullness or monotony because no two people you sketch can be alike. They differ not just in their attire and mannerisms but also in their interaction with/reaction to their surroundings.

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This couple started out acting all lovey-dovey, listening to the same music, leaning on each other, holding hands and then everything went downhill from there in the next 10 mins until one of them stormed out. Ah, the capriciousness of love. 

These people captured in my sketchbook can be generically labelled as say, the coffee drinkers of Singapore because that’s what they’re technically there for but that’s not the only thing they do or if you’re observant enough, that’s not the only thing you see them doing. I once sketched a chain-smoker with a lot of swagger sipping coffee and blowing smoke into the ‘No smoking ‘ sign right next to him.

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Two very fashionable ladies and a guy sitting in between them with hand on his head. One of the women was ranting in Japanese and the two were mostly zoned out, I think. 

That same week I had also sketched a girl who was part of big group that ate and drank quite liberally at the cafe but right before leaving she was the only person who cleared every bit of trash on their messy table before walking out.

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This bunch of pimply faced boys were from Anglo Chinese School and were studying ‘O level Topical Physics’ at Starbucks. They were all plugged in to their phones, swinging shoulders from time to time and sipping Macha lattes. These surely are different times!

With each sketch I get to peep into a stranger’s life for few minutes and capture them living an ordinary moment which otherwise would have gone unnoticed, unaccounted for. For example the Chinese grandma wearing jade bangles and a frumpy top on what seemed like her first trip to Starbucks was another fun subject to sketch.

 

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(L) This cute grandma had a strident voice, a blue clamp holding her red hair and jade bangles around her frail wrists. From the way she surveyed the place and the patrons sitting around her from time to time and inspected her cup of latte, it seemed like her first time here at our neighbourhood Starbucks. Don’t miss her colourful shopping trolley!

She looked out of place and excited at the same time to be holding probably her first cup of latte in her wrinkled hand. She may never know this, but 2 meters away I was touched to have witnessed that moment and document it in my sketchbook.

 

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It was really hard to believe that this guy was eating Tiong Bahru Bakery’s Kouign Amann ( which by the way is top notch) with such indifference. 

All sorts of students, specially pimply restless school students plugged in to their music sipping frothy matcha latte are common sight at the local Starbucks and always make great subjects for drawing.

 

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(L) – Serious discussion taking place. The guy in the centre doesn’t look amused and kept quiet through the entire conversation. 

You see them day and night hunched over a pile of books, fervently highlighting something or the other with coloured markers on their notebooks with their laptops open on the side. This subculture is unique to Singapore, something I haven’t witnessed in any other country I’ve travelled to and therefore having them in my sketchbook is also special.

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(R) The rare sight of someone reading a physical book and then looking up to think about and then reading again. That’s an indie comic book in her hand and a guitar by her side. 

It’s hard to imagine that only three months ago I had this incredible fear of drawing people which I write about in the post What if and how I get over it and now have come to enjoy it because it feels as if for once I’m not rushing through life and letting it pass by me but consciously stopping to smell the flowers.

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(L)- This woman had an impermanent tattoo on her hand. The word ‘Love’ written in bold with a glitter pen stood out and and yet seemed incongruous with her austere style. She was alone and seemed lost in thoughts. (R) – I spotted these two women on a late Sunday night. They were mostly gregarious but at one point I saw one of them point finger at the other in a menacing way. 

Well, I don’t know where it’s going to take me and if anything will come out of this but as long as I cherish these little stolen moments and revel in the ordinary stories of ordinary people, I will continue to document them in sketchbooks and share with you. Hope you can stop by!

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(L)- A chain smoker with a lot of swagger. He didn’t care about the ‘No Smoking’ sign next to him; (R)  – My husband reading ‘Harry Potter and the Cursed Child’ on the day it got released. 

 

 

 

 

 

To whoever’s Bangkok bound

and time crunched ( or not) but wants to make the most of his/her visit to this incredible city, I give you  24 Hours in Bangkok , written and illustrated by me and published in Selamta Magazine, the magazine of Ethiopian Airlines.

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Hand drawn illustrated map of Bangkok

This above is the map illustration accompanying the article. I drew it with a dip pen and sepia ink and coloured it using watercolours. By creating a compilation of little watercolour sketches of the sights, I wanted my map to convey that ‘sense of place’ to the traveler; take him/her on a visual (and at times, sensory) tour of the city even before the flight lands at Suvarnabhumi airport.

For the armchair traveler and if you are one, this map should work equally well. As you trace your eyes across the sights on the map, following the paths marked out, I hope you can taste the sweetness of the ripe mango served with fragrant rice at Baan Khanitha or sense the calmness of your surroundings while resting on the wrought iron bench at Jim Thompson’s House, be awestruck by the sheer size and beauty of Wat Suthat as you follow the orange robed monks there and finally at the end of a long day, feel your aching muscles spring back to life at the healing hands of your masseuse at Ruen Nuad Massage Studio.

Whether you travel actually or virtually, I hope my write-up and hand drawn map takes you places. And since we’re talking about maps, here’s another one I drew of Mumbai for the same magazine. Check out : For the love of maps

 

Discombobulated

is how I’ve been feeling over the last 72 hours. It is hard to describe but suffice it to say that my body and mind are at two different places, miles apart from one another and I, for the life of me cannot reconcile them. Tricky state to be in really, but if you knew how I got here, you may want to try it too. And I hope you do.

Well, three weeks ago this is how it all started –

Trip Sketch final 1

This is the first page of my concertina travel journal that I took along on the journey.

Traveling to the land of Chinggis Khan, passing through the same vast Steppes of Central Asia where he and his mighty army lived in and trampled across to conquer nearly half the world had been one of those dreams which you birth quietly while turning the pages of a history book but keep bottled up inside thinking it might be too lofty to see the light of day.

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My husband’s minion flip-flops were such a joy to draw!

But ours just clambered up into reality after years of planning. And on the way to Mongolia, we spent a week in Seoul in South Korea by hanging out at ancient palaces, sipping persimmon tea inside traditional tea houses, whizzing through local markets in search of mung bean pancakes and shopping on neon lit streets of Myeongdong.

Two destinations clubbed together on the same trip couldn’t have been more different, not just in terms of landscape and the lifestyle of people who live there but also to the degree they transformed us as travellers when we set foot on their terrain. While it was fascinating to explore the mix of quaint and cutting-edge cohabiting in Seoul, the city never pushed our boundaries or threw us out of our comfort zones as traveling in Mongolia did at certain times, especially when we were in the countryside and yet it left the most incredible and also indelible taste in our mouth.

Now that I’m back home in Singapore, there are stories to tell and sketches to share from this epic journey of ours but not until I can steer my mind away from where it is comfortably dwelling, which is here –

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View of Ulaanbataar city from our room in the hotel (Tip – Request for a room on a high floor with mountainside view if you stay at Shangri-la, UB)

and (mostly) here –

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The ubiquitous Steppes of Mongolia

here –

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A lone Ger on the Steppes

…and here –

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Horses running wild in the vast Steppes

From our apartment window in Singapore I can only ever see a sliver of sky squished in between two Goliath high rises. Sigh! But then again I have access to running water, privacy, ensuite bathroom and high speed wi-fi. It may not be very long until you hear from me again, after all.

 

 

Had people watching

been a competitive sport, the shelves in my house would be heaving under the weight of trophies. It’s true! Given the bonafide introvert I am, observing the world keenly from inside my bubble of solitude has always been my schtick, perfected with years of practice starting with those long train journeys my family took during school holidays when I’d keep myself endlessly entertained while my sister and parents nodded off as soon as the train moved.

Between looking out the window and reading or pretending to read, I’d scrutinize fellow passengers, examining their face, expression, posture, hairstyle, attire, demeanour, language, idiosyncrasies, almost anything I could see, hear, smell or touch and build colourful profiles in my mind and fine tune them as I gathered more information. If someone snacked, I’d take a peek at what they were eating, if someone spoke I’d try to discern the accent or diction, if someone read, well, you can tell a lot from the kind of book/magazine a person reads. By the time my parents woke I could single out the person most likely to be trusted with our bags while we took a trip to the toilet.

It wasn’t just entertaining and edifying (from a sociological perspective) but a great way to feed a curious mind. It still is.

Replace the stifling railway cabins with university dorms, doctor’s chamber, social gatherings, long queues at taxi stands and now cafes – my  venue of choice for practicing flânerie with all the flair it deserves.

This is where I must tip my hat to the French for coining a word for ‘sauntering aimlessly’ but (mind you!) not mindlessly and thank early 19th century flâneur writers such as Balzac and Zola who strolled the grand boulevards of Paris actively observing passersby for raising a seemingly frivolous practice of ‘people watching’, the prerogative of the indolent, up the lexicographical and social ladder to an art form even.

And to cultivate this pursuit in the same spirit, this 21st century denizen has picked up sketchbooks, pens, watercolours, crayons and what not.  Observing manners and mores of people can be amusing but immortalising them in drawings is certainly more gratifying. All these drawings done on location capture fleeting moments that I, the flaneuse had witnessed on several occasions over the last month.

people 1

(L) This old man had ordered an incredible number of pastries which he finished at lightening speed before his wife ambled into the cafe. All she saw was a cup of coffee on the table.  (R) My husband reading on his kindle while I was drawing.

people 2

(L) This bald guy in green had a very difficult discussion with the woman sitting opposite him. After she stormed out, he looked extremely despondent.

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These three guys who I drew around my husband (to keep him company on the page) were having a heated political discussion about the relation between China and Hong Kong.

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(L) This old guy wearing very colourful clothes and a funky hairstyle with spikes seemed like someone who did not want to age at all.

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(L) A little girl making her daddy feed her soft toy before she agrees to take a bite! (R) My husband reading a Jo Nesbo thriller.

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(R) A Starbucks employee on a cigarette break. He looked exhausted and seemed to be contemplating something.

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(L) A studious guy with the most innocent smile had three fingers missing from his left hand, but he couldn’t care less. (R) From his formal attire, this guy looked like someone straight from work winding down at the cafe. He was tapping really hard on his phone screen.

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Two intense gamers who looked liked they were in a serious relationship

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(L) I couldn’t hear what she was saying but whatever it was, she was saying it with plenty of gusto. Don’t miss the clenched fist!

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(R) The cafe I walked into had at least 30 people plugged in to their laptops, tapping away at the keyboard with a drink on the side. They looked like corporate clones.

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This guy had really tiny hands which seemed to have a life of their own. His audience (whom I didn’t get to draw) were at the receiving end of his frantic gesticulations.

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(R) The girl was reading, writing, consulting a book, listening to music, checking her phone drinking latte all at the same time.

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She said : “So if I die, you get 2 million?”. He said, “..Yes, that’s right, in Singapore dollars”.

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Spied upon two guys with pompous hairstyles. They had an incredible number of wires coming out of their various devices.

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She threw away every bit of trash on her table into the garbage can and wiped the table clean before leaving. It says a lot about the person.

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(L) This hip grandma was fawning over her grandchild the entire time. She was wearing green eye shadows and just before leaving she touched up her makeup, put on red lipstick and gave me a thumbs up for drawing her. (R) A guy who kept fidgeting and sweating in his chair until he couldn’t take it anymore and left.

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Just two guys chilling at our neighbourhood Starbucks.

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People eating lunch at a food court on Orchard Road. And since we’re in SE Asia, you see a a lot of noodle bowls and chopsticks.

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A guy wolfing down his breakfast.

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Ending this series with the sketch of this very cute grandma I found dozing at a cafe yesterday. She was waiting for her granddaughters to finish shopping and fetch her.