I have quelled all sorts of curiosities when I am out sketching on location but never have I been asked this question. There’s a first for everything, I guess. Also this is the sort of thing that keeps one from becoming complacent lest you think you’ve heard it all!
So there I was on Norris Road in the Little India district of Singapore, wiping sweat off my brow. I had walked through a warren of roads and back lanes with many alluring sketch worthy subjects – and though my SPF50 sunscreen coated skin felt invincible, it was no fun wandering in the 2’o’ clock sun – looking for a shady spot to sketch them from.
And then right opposite this row of shophouses (see below), I spotted an awning. And under its shade were two rickety chairs made of plastic. Both the chairs and the awning belonged to a Bangladeshi catering restaurant whose cash counter was manned by not one but two burly men who knew not how to smile unless they saw the face of money, perhaps.
But I was there only for the chairs, rather for the permission to occupy one of those soon-to- be-disposed or already disposed chairs and remain undisturbed for a while. They couldn’t have cared less. So I got to work but not before doing a quick reconnaissance of my location.
Inside the restaurant were lurid posters of hilsa and mutton curry covering parts of the ochre wall that was peeling off in places. The food delivery guys were marching in and out with urgency, suppliers were parking their big vans by the pavement and from what I could see of the kitchen, there were uniformed men wearing white toques barking orders and swinging their arms to the tunes of spices and gravies.
The next 20 minutes were uneventful on my chair except for the usual distractions such as tourists stopping by to check what I was up to, kids pointing me out to their parents and random people rushing with a bag of groceries to their car and slowing down just enough to get a peek at my sketchbook and immediately averting their eyes when I looked up.
The incongruity of my situation – a lone person doodling in the middle of the day in the middle of the road while the rest of the world goes about its business – is never lost on me. But what’s changed over the years though is how I’ve managed the unsolicited attention it generates. Instead of exhibiting reticence which was the go to response in my early sketching days I’ve asked myself time and again why everybody from babies in arms to the elderly hobbling along with the aid of walking sticks take an interest in someone making art. What is so special about that?
Could it be that our need to create something is primordial? It may not get tended to very often by a lot of people, but it is sitting there in a dormant state inside each of us and gets stimulated every time we’re exposed to the process of creation. I’ve seen my husband – a guy who loves to eat but cannot boil water in the kitchen without help – watch ‘Jamie’s 15 minute meals’ or Gordon Ramsay’s cooking shows with great veneration for hours on end. I don’t expect a three course meal anytime soon but he’s picked up some cool tricks along the way. For all you know, breakfast in bed may not be a distant dream for me, after all.
In the same vein, I feel that if my art could ignite even a little spark of interest in someone, I wouldn’t mind sitting on a rickety chair so much in the mid afternoon heat in front of a catering restaurant and being asked by a couple of Bangladeshi tourists if ‘we’ sell Masala Chai.
“Well, I don’t know”, I said to them truthfully but they were peeved and left in a hurry probably mourning the death of customer service. Their sour departure was replaced with the most unexpected arrival of one the taciturn cashiers from the restaurant. After a long glance over my shoulders, he wanted to know more about what I was doing. Wait, what? There may have been a smile involved.