Tag Archives: Little India

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Dickson Road

 

in Singapore’s Little India neighbourhood is at a 10mins bus ride from my home. It has a row of slightly run down, mismatched yet beautiful shophouses which I only ‘discovered’ the other day after having lived in the vicinity for 6 years. Six years! Over a glass of lime juice bought from a hole in the wall eatery I began sketching this scene from a sunny spot all the while mulling over one question – what took me so long to find this place?

I hadn’t started sketching until recently is the answer I’m going to settle for. There are millions of things vying for our attention day after day and in our bid to process all the information bombarded at us we see everything but observe nothing. Not if you are somebody who likes to draw from life, though! You sirs and madams, single out the Mandarins on the supermarket shelf not because they are on offer but because you are wondering how much Quin Gold mixed with Cadmium red will get you that specific shade of orange.

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Shophouses on Dickson Road sketched using my fav tools – dip pen and ink

In a rare instance when you are stuck in a subway without your sketching supplies you start making invisible contour drawings with your eyes of the people in the compartment. You scrutinize the shape of their nose, the arch of their back, colour of their eyes and hair along with skin tones, postures, attires and so on. Because you have this wonderful habit of documenting what you see you’re forced to slow down and focus on your subjects and with continued practice you inculcate a keen sense of observation. When your station arrives you leave with the image of a tired construction worker carrying take-out food in a red polythene bag typical of hawker centers and a Zen mom snoozing peacefully while her toddler tries to pry her eyes open. Or something of this sort.

Sure, this kind of information doesn’t serve an immediate purpose but instead of thinking about doing laundry, calling parents, cooking dinner, checking Instagram, unclogging the kitchen sink and chasing an overdue payment all at the same time, when sketching I get to park a single thought in my mind for a prolonged period of time. It is akin to meditation with all the promised benefits but without the numb legs from sitting cross legged in lotus posture.

Since I frequent Little India so much, it is impossible to have not walked on Dickson Road before but I clearly didn’t remember it. And now that I’ve drawn it, I won’t forget it.

Skewer-y Thaipusam

“I am Karna”, said a voice on my right. Since I didn’t look up from my sketchbook, he said, “You know Karna, the warrior prince from Mahabharata? ”. When I am sketching in crowded public spaces, I am used to people peering over me, breathing over my neck, appraising my work like art connoisseurs, pointing cameras to my face, nudging friends to take a look, but rarely does one talk to me while I am working, except slipping in a few words of encouragement when they leave, to which I nod or smile in bashful acknowledgement.

 
But not Karna, the warrior prince from Mahabharata. He wanted to butt right in.
 
Thaipusam celebrations in Singapore

Thaipusam celebrations in Singapore

 
His gigantic frame in an untucked white pinstripe shirt and loose trousers leaned against the yellow barricade and faced me. A mop of dark curls, slick and shining with oil was pushed back; round dancing eyes like two pingpong balls smiled under the shade of bushy eyebrows and an inch wide moustache revealed the largest, whitest pearls I had seen in a long time.  ’The skill you have there’, he said pointing to my sketches and folding his hands and looking heavenwards, ‘is God’s gift’. He scrunched up his eyebrows such that the long tilak on his forehead disappeared between the folds. First time in my four year stay in Singapore, when I finally mustered the courage to watch Thaipusam – a Hindu festival celebrated by Tamils by honouring Lord Murugan –  up close, I was victim of small talk.
 
Thaipusam in progress

The kavadi bearing men are bare chested, bare footed and wear yellow, orange or red loincloths

 
But, when you’re on foreign soil and want to make sense of the place, it isn’t a bad idea to indulge local voices to tell you their stories, from their perspective, laced with their sentiments. I didn’t want to kill the story yet, if there was one. So waving at the pilgrims, I asked Karna, a question that was on the top of my mind, “Aren’t they in pain?”.  There was no blood, it was hard to tell.
 
 
“When you fast and pray for 48 days, your body is prepared to endure such pain”, said Karna,  slightly irked at the mushy overtones. But for the uninitiated, Thaipusam is extreme. Thaipusam isn’t for the faint hearted. Even the befuddled spectator needs to keep her nerves. The sight of these men, regular men – perhaps one of them is your office colleague, your school teacher, a neighbourhood grocer – turn into a pincushion overnight, with scores of metal skewers fastened to their chest and back, one going right through the cheek or tongue, a gigantic, elaborately decorated canopy balanced on the head will elicit the question I just asked.
 
 
But bearing a kavadi or physical burden by undertaking such painful ventures is how one expresses gratitude to Lord Murugan, the god of war and victory. “In return the god, protects you from misfortune.” says Karna.  As each devotee passed by, I searched his eyes for signs of exhaustion, discomfort, resignation. All I got was a misplaced sense of calm.
 
Devotees approaching Tank Road

Devotees approaching Tank Road and the supporters are cheering them on, singing religious songs and clapping

I had joined the procession midway on foot from Dhoby Ghaut station, and reached Tank Road, where they were slowing their march and queuing up to enter the Sri Thendayuthapani Temple, which would terminate their 4.5 km trek from Sri Srinivasa Perumal Temple in Little India. Canary yellow barricades had been laid on roads directing the devotees and separating them from the curious spectators, omnipresent photographers and culture-shocked tourists. Volunteers were directing people at road crossings with urgency and handing out water in plastic cups and food from capacious tents pitched along the road, to exhausted participants and their families who were walking with them, cheering them on, singing religious hymns to drum beats. The police were calm and observant from their posts.
 
Close-up of a Thaipusam participant

Some kavadis are flower and peacock feather embellished wooden structures with arched metal frames that are supported by skewers hooked to the chest and back of the bearers.

 
‘It wasn’t like this before, you know’, said Karna, when a group of devotees slowed before us, offering a close up. A bunch of supporters, perhaps friends and relatives circled a thickly skewered and canopied man and broke into a perky devotional song, clapping their hands animatedly. The man started swinging and swaying to the chants along with his kavadi. The ankle bells tied to his feet tinkled. The energy was palpable. I don’t understand a word of Tamil but my feet didn’t need to. They were tapping on their own.
 
“Even a few years ago, there was much greater fanfare and spirit; now there are too many restrictions on what you can and cannot do”, said Karna, reminiscing. “ The music used to be so loud, it would ring in your ears long after you left.”
 
Thaipusam in progress

A kavadi bearer, swinging to the beat of drums

I was frantically sketching, trying to capture the guy with at least three dozen lemons hooked to his back, quickly outlining the exhausted drummers catching a breather and getting the many kavadi bearers balancing a gigantic mass of flowers, peacock feathers, folded metals and sharp skewers down on paper. The jubilant yet awestruck crowd guarding the fanfare made the scene complete. There was almost a kilometre long wait to enter the temple and at having their subjects come to a halt, the photographers went delirious.
 
Kavadi bearing devotee swinging to the drum beats

A not-so-extreme kavadi of milk pots balanced on a wooden rod. He still has his tongue pierced.

Few steps away from the temple door, decorated with banana leaves, a pilgrim was approaching with his kavadi on two wheels. It looked like a wooden toy chariot. The steel skewers hooked to his back flexed under the load and stretched his skin, while he negotiated a bump on the uneven stretch. Standing on the sides, we clenched our fists and held our breath. The remaining few steps would end his arduous yet spiritual journey. He tilted his head, arched his back and pumped his chest. Then he pulled hard. The sidekicks cheered him as loudly as they could, their heave-hos bold and distinct, but the kavadi slumped back. Others glided past him with no trouble. Some people have a bumpy ride till the end. Or perhaps he’d asked for a much bigger favour.
 
The pilgrims entering Sri Thendayuthapani Temple to offer their kavadis to Lord Murugan

The pilgrims entering Sri Thendayuthapani Temple to offer their kavadis to Lord Murugan and end their arduous trek

 
Pilgrims exiting the temple, freshly relieved from their kavadis, seemed visibly transformed – smiling and spirited – with only red holes on their body – that they were now proudly flaunting as a proof of their penance.
 
Karna didn’t accompany me till the end. In fact, midway through our conversation, he abruptly shook hands, wished me luck and left me alone to experience the festival and make my own stories. When I reached home, the songs, the chanting, the drum beats and fervent clapping were still ringing in my ears. I think Karna would’ve approved.