Tag Archives: dippen

If not for the toothless grandma

I’d have quit. And gone home.

Since the last couple of days, the sun has been blazing down on us in Seoul and it is becoming unbearably hot. I watched the temperature rise from the pleasant 26 degrees with soft mornings and breezy evenings to now 34 degrees when the air feels like it has its clammy fingers wrapped around our necks. Every other day, there’s an ‘Emergency Alert’ text message on the phone warning us about a heat wave, asking us to stay indoors and hydrated.

And yet, I thought, how hot could it be? When I tell people I am from India, they say, “Isn’t it hotter there?” Much hotter, I say. “Then this should feel nothing!“, they say. So I left the house one day with a sketchbook and pen and headed towards Bukchon Hanok Village.

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When I reached Anguk station it was already 2 in the afternoon. The roads were empty except for construction workers and few lobster red tourists walking doggedly with a map of Bukchon in one hand and a hand fan in another.

Completely disoriented by the blinding sun and blistering heat, I decided to fold away my own map and follow them. But they – a group of three women and I should’ve known – led me to a souvenir stall first, then to an ice cream shop and finally to a jewellery store where I abandoned them and decided to take matters into my own two hopelessly clammy hands.

For a person who doesn’t sweat easily, I was melting like a candle and it wasn’t a pretty sight.

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Sketching with the help of water, a hand fan and a toothless grandma by my side

Bless the kind staff of Emart, where I went in purely for the air-conditioning but pretended to closely inspect melons, for giving me directions to Bukchon. “..keep going straight and turn left. Just 5 mins.”, they said. I bought bottles of mineral water to show my appreciation. Melons were expensive.

So once again, I was on the road, in the furnace, but this time with dry armpits. And while that lasted, I managed to find myself a spot in the shade on this quiet alley called Bukchon-ro 11da-gil.

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Bukchon-ro 11da-gil

Travelers who haven’t visited Seoul yet may already have seen pictures of Bukchon Hanok Village on every guidebook, magazine and internet article describing Seoul. This area has a large cluster of hanok or traditional Korean wooden houses dating from the Joseon dynasty. These houses are not only picturesque but have been so beautifully preserved that a stroll down the narrow winding alleys they are lined with may well feel like time travel, especially if you arrive at an ungodly hour like I did and get the place entirely to yourself sans selfie sticks. Wouldn’t that be something?

It was. I hardly saw anything or anyone for the entire hour I sat on this street corner sketching except two stray cats, an SUV and the distant figure of a person hobbling in my direction. It was easy to imagine what a 600 years old office rush hour would look like –  noblemen and high ranking government officials emerging out of these houses while adjusting their elegant silk court uniforms and hurrying towards the royal palace – but my brain cells were too dehydrated to carry on with the mental imagery.

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A quiet alley in Bukchon Hanok Village

The air was still. And clingy. There was no respite even in the shade. The thought of quitting clouded my vision such that I lost sight of the lone approaching figure that was now standing behind me. Dressed in a lemon yellow floral patterned dress was this slightly bent, excessively wrinkled toothless grandma looking intently at the sketchbook on my lap and then matching my drawing with the scene in front. With a nod of her head she asks me to go on.

Umm..no, see it’s too hot. I was leaving..“, I say to her pretending to pack up but she keeps nodding and pointing to my dip pen. She doesn’t understand a word I’m saying. Sigh! I feel like the performer who’s obligated to perform because one person showed up.

But sometimes that one person is plenty, if they care. So I start again. Grandma leans over with interest or to compensate for her failing eyesight. More nodding. And smiling. She looks pleased. So I keep going like a 5 year old being watched while she finishes her school homework. Grandma sticks by me, sometimes pointing out features I missed drawing or decided to overlook. A stickler for details, this one.

When I finish the drawing I was giving up on a while back, she was still there grinning ear to ear. I could see her gums.

 

Making sense of most things

Having moved to Seoul only 4 months ago, I am literally a tourist in my own backyard. Most things I see, hear, feel and occasionally taste is new, different and foreign.

A change like this is exciting no doubt, but it can be overwhelming too. Imagine someone pitching 90 mph balls of new information at you, nonstop, everyday, right from the moment you got off the flight. The only problem is you have two hands to do all the catching!

And you want to catch as many balls as you can, as fast as you can because our first instinct when we travel to a new place is to try and make sense of the environment we are in, even before we start comparing it with the one we just left, praising it, deriding it or adapting to it.

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Seocho-gu neighbourhood, Seoul

Being a sketch artist, drawing constantly is how I make sense of my environment. Spending time at any particular place, observing it in a way I would never have if I was walking past, and documenting it on a piece of paper is how I catch those metaphorical balls of information and process them.

Like this random scene I sketched the other day of my neighbourhood in Seocho-gu, a district south of the Han river and found that in the shadow of glamorous looking high rises lining the main thoroughfares, there are these two/three storied honky-tonk buildings in the back lanes, covered with bold coloured signages, housing barbecue joints, fried chicken and beer stalls, underground bars, design studios, themed cafes, bubble tea stores, E-Marts and 7 x 11s, beauty parlours, English learning centres and an automobile repair shop, even.

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Pen and ink drawing of a random street in Seocho-gu, Seoul

And crisscrossing the scenery or most sceneries in this city are these ubiquitous overhead power lines flying out in every direction from utility poles.

Usually after the initial curiosity of people upon seeing a foreigner sitting on a foldable stool in the street and doodling in her sketchbook has been met, I am left alone. As time passes, the ripple I had caused by being there, starts to smoothen. The novelty wears off. I am offered a glass of water here and a thumbs up there. Furrowed eyebrows are replaced with nods and smiles. Conversations are initiated and had using hand gestures and monosyllabic English. Soon enough someone clicks a picture.

And just like that I become a part of the scene I was trying to make sense of.

Isn’t that amazing?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The girl with the selfie stick

told me there was going to be a parade.

What parade?

I am the kind of a person who likes to be prepared. Wikipedia, Google maps, subway routes and the weather app – all had been read and consulted with before I got here, inside Deoksugung Palace, one of Seoul’s four royal palaces to sketch with a bunch of local artists.

Then how did I skip the part about this parade? An oversight perhaps. All I know is finding a gaping hole in my pre-trip research, something I am a self-confessed expert of had taken the wind out of my sails was a wee bit soul crushing.

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Junghwamun Gate inside Deoksugung Palace, Seoul.

It’s the changing of guards ceremony. Happens thrice a day…here they come“, she offered kindly, mistaking incredulity for curiosity. Wedged between her body and her thin arm was a fat Japanese guidebook on Korea.

I could already hear the drums and the sound of marching footsteps round the corner. Grabbing a bench facing the mighty Junghwamun – the inner palace gate leading to the main throne hall – I quickly laid out my sketching gear and waited with a dip pen and a bottle of ink in hand. The Japanese tourist had her phone propped up with a selfie stick and was standing by the road, also waiting. You can see her in my sketch.

As the sightly procession of uniformed guards carrying colourful flags passed us by, we captured the event in our own way.

Before leaving she asked me if I was a tourist too and though I still feel like one, I found myself savouring the fact that I wasn’t and therefore could visit this palace and watch this ceremony as many times as I wanted.

What was even more uplifting was when I reached inside by bag and touched the reassuring crook handle of my umbrella. “Wasn’t it supposed to…”. 

After several balmy days, it had rained very heavily that day.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

She made me look fat

Sometimes while doing the most inane tasks like staring at your toe nails for example, have you ever been stricken with a surge of creative energy that makes you feel you could do anything?

I have and before it fizzled out I rode with it and some sketching supplies on the subway to Hoehyeon station, emerged out of Exit 5 and walked straight into a noisy, overcrowded, confusing maze called Namdaemun Market, Korea’s largest traditional market with 600 years of history.

The first order of business was to orient myself and then locate a discreet corner from where I could sketch without being in the way of either the vendors or the shoppers. I got hopelessly lost instead which wasn’t exactly surprising considering I was a first time visitor to a market that has over 10,000 stores and is visited by 300,000 people a day.

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Sketching on Fashion Street in Namdaemun Market, Seoul

To give you a idea, here’s a list of the items I saw being sold on just one of the streets – hats (all kinds imaginable and more), fur coats, dried nuts, dumplings, spectacles, stone seals, eerie looking ginseng with their sinewy roots stored in clear glass jars and miles of kitchen utensils. I was beginning to believe in the saying that if you don’t find it in Namdaemun Market, you won’t find it anywhere in Seoul.

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View from my corner on Fashion Street.

A map, which I had snagged from the tourist information centre in the meantime showed entire alleys and streets dedicated to cameras, bedding items, watches and jewellery, mountain climbing equipments, women’s, men’s and children’s clothing, stationaries and more.

When I spotted yards of army green stretched out in the form of military uniforms, T-shirts, caps, blankets, boots, sacks, compasses, watches and telescopes, I knew I had hit the ‘Military Uniform Street’ on my way back from the ‘Fish and Stew Alley’. Galchi jorim, or braised hairtail fish stew, one of Namdaemun Market’s famed food offerings along with Kalguksu (Korean knife-cut noodle soup) have to wait for my next visit.

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Namdaemun Market in Seoul – Korea’s largest traditional market. Drawn with dip pen and ink.

This visit was all about channeling my chance ebullience fuelled by the mood enhancing amino acid in my matcha latte for all I knew and perhaps the fact that I had been feeling pretty sketch-deprived lately. Seoul is still new to me. I don’t know the best spots to sketch from yet. Finding out can be fun but sometimes exhausting too when you just want to get down to business!

‘Fashion Street’ had one little corner squeezed in between a fur coat vendor, shirt, pants and coat seller and a shop selling pink and cutesy Mickey mouse themed merchandise from where I made this drawing. Tons of people came to look and showed various signs of appreciation though I didn’t understand a word they said. What I clearly did understand simply because some things transcend languages, was when fur coat vendor in his excitement dragged Mickey mouse lady by the arm to show how I had put her in my sketch and she self consciously touched her waist and said, “She made me look fat!” and marched off.

 

 

 

 

 

Yeouido Park has a cool display

and I got to sketch it the other day when I was in the neighbourhood.

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Yeouido Park in Seoul with a transport military aircraft – Douglas C47 skytrain on display

To celebrate the 70th anniversary of Korea’s liberation from the Japanese rule, a transport military aircraft called Douglas C 47 skytrain was put on display in Yeouido Park on August 18th 2015 for 3 years. How lucky are we to have our visit coincide with the display of such a unique exhibit?

I had been eyeing it with absolute wonder on my long afternoon walks in the park for the whole month of March, when we stayed in the nearby Glad Hotel immediately after moving to Seoul. It stood out even more then because the park was barren. Waking up from the grey winter, the trees were skeletal and people were scarce, except during lunch hour when they would emerge in hordes from the nearby office buildings wrapped in coats and scarves to get fresh air and stretch their legs in the park.

 

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At Yeouido Park, sketching the Douglas C47 skytrain using dip pen and ink

Three months hence, the scene is different. The park is bathed in sunshine and the myriad shades of green on the trees contrast the aquamarine sky with pillowy clouds floating in it. I see gleeful children shrieking with joy while racing each other around the blue platform on which the C47 is proudly standing, followed by teenage boys and girls rollerblading hand in hand. About 20 meters away, a bunch of school boys in uniform are shooting hoops. Don’t miss the portable basketball goals in the sketch! They are scattered all over the asphalt pavement of the park.

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Close up of my sketch of Yeouido Park with its unique exhibit

What’s special about this military aircraft on display is that it’s identical to the one in which 15 members of the Korean provincial government flew home from Shanghai in 1945 to land at the Yeouido airport (now Yeouido Park). The provincial government of Korea founded in 1919 in Shanghai was operating as an interim government-in-exile to gain independence from the Japanese rule (1910-1945).

As you can see in my sketch, the display aircraft has a flight of stairs attached to it for visitors to climb inside and explore its interiors. Unfortunately it was closed when I was there earlier this week but fortunately I have time until 2018.

 

 

 

 

 

Ewha Womans University

was the location of my first sketchwalk with the Seoul Urban Sketchers. I had been waiting for this day ever since we moved here and the countdown ended last Saturday when I hopped on a train from Gangnam and travelled all the way to one of the most prestigious institutions in the country, to meet a group of 20 sketchers who gave me the warmest welcome I’d ever received.

EWHA b&wThe thing about urban sketching, especially in a group like this is that it is one of the most enjoyable and unique ways to see a city and learn about it too at your own pace. It is also a great way to make the acquaintance of locals, hear their stories and view the place through their eyes.

If not for Dominick, a fellow sketcher who I met at the sketchwalk, I wouldn’t have known that the tree whose massive trunk I was gawking at was a ginkgo tree. We found it while scouting for suitable locations to sketch from, inside the arboretum-like university campus.

They turn yellow in fall, don’t they?” I asked Dominick, pointing to the fan shaped leaves. I had seen pictures of golden ginkgo-tree lined streets on the Internet and couldn’t believe I standing before something that was capable of turning into such surreal beauty later in the year.

Yes, but did you know that the female tree produces a nut that is extremely smelly? It’s a nuisance!” he said.

I did not know that! A little research back home revealed that there are 114,000 ginkgo trees in Seoul and one in 10 are female and the nuts they produce are nutritious and tasty when cooked, but the butyric acid in their husk produces an offensive smell. Some say it stinks of vomit, others say it smells like rotten cheese! I read that the city employs over 400 people to wipe the streets and the sidewalks clean off the pungent ginkgo nuts.

So is this tree a male or a female?”, I asked Dominick but he didn’t know.

EWHA finalA short walk from the ginkgo tree brought us to this charming stone Gothic structure nestled in greenery . The sky was a cool blue and except the sound of breeze rustling through the leaves and chirping of birds, it was really quiet. It took me about 40 mins to finish the line work using a dip pen and ink.

I coloured the sketch later as I had to rush off to a book club but not without the burning desire to revisit the campus again in autumn if not before to determine the gender of the first ginkgo tree I met.

 

 

 

Do you sell masala chai?

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.

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Row of shophouses on Norris Road, Little India

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.

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Norris Road, Little India

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?

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Norris Road, Little India

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.

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Row of shophouses on Norris Road in Little India, Singapore

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.