Tag Archives: peoplesketching

Sketches and stories from India

Ever since we moved abroad which was a decade back, we have been visiting India once a year to spend time with our parents and to catch up with relatives and friends. Only this time I decided to carry a sketchbook with me to document my time there.

This series of sketches is a result of that little side project amidst all the meetings, greetings, feasting and frolicking that happened while we were there over the holidays.

Meet the parents

My parents live their retired life in a two storied house in Kolkata, a metropolitan city in eastern India. My dad spends most of his time reading at his desk and is surrounded by a large and ever increasing pile of books. From time to time, he would holler for a cup of tea and would drink it sitting at his desk. In order to spend time with my dad I sit on his bed next to the desk and read or listen to music. This is where I sketched him as well. He doesn’t move much which is perfect.

baba at desk

Since my dad is tied to his desk, my mom is in charge of running the house. She buys groceries, milk and fish, supervises the cook and the cleaner, waters the plants, pays the cable guy and calls the electrician, plumber or the doctor when something or someone needs fixing. Spending time with her has always been easy. She’s likes to talk, listen and laugh at silly things.

When I was home, every morning she would flip through the Bengali newspaper and narrate news articles to me that caught her attention. One day it was about a couple that jumped together from a ferry into the river Ganges and the next day it was about a policeman who slapped a women because she pulled his jacket.

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Bengalis love their fish

I have often been snubbed by my cousins who grew up in Kolkata for not fancying fish as much as they do. Nevertheless, when I visit my parents at least one meal of the day has to have a fish dish. Everyday before lunch the fish gets washed, liberally coated with turmeric and salt, fried in mustard oil, put in a gravy and served hot with white rice. It’s interesting is how easily and seamlessly I fall into this rhythm when I visit home and fall out of it when I leave.

Here’s a sketch of the cook working her magic on the catch of the day.

fish in the sink

On the Road Again (and again..)

Much of my time on this trip to Kolkata was spent on the road, inside cabs, taking my elderly parents around to visit doctors, getting medical tests done and at pharmacies buying medicines for them. Sketching would often help me relieve the stress and anxiety that accompanies this sort of thing.

I’d use the cab window to frame the passing scene and when something struck a chord, I sketched it. This scene was my view from under Maa flyover, at Park Circus Seven Point Crossing. Everybody seemed to be in a great hurry to go somewhere. Engines were roaring, cars and bikes were honking and hawkers were peddling candies to those stuck at the traffic signal. What caught my eye at this busy junction was the pristine white dome and the minaret seen in the distance against a pale blue sky, creating a juxtaposition of chaos and calm.

biker kolkata

Sketching on the road wasn’t limited to subjects outside the car window necessarily! If you’ve travelled in a cab in India, chances are you have encountered at least a handful of Indian gods and goddesses. My Uber driver had the entire dashboard of his car turned into a shrine which I had to draw. Besides several framed pictures of goddess Kali, you see lord Hanuman hanging low from the rear view mirror carrying the Gandhamadana mountain, as told in the Ramayana!

Hanging from another thread is a copper kalash (vessel) charm complete with a miniature green coconut and few plastic mango leaves stuffed inside and decorated with the auspicious red swastika. Don’t miss the ‘Jay Maa Kali’ (hail mother Kali) written on the windscreen and Kolkata’s iconic yellow ambassador taxi seen right ahead.

uber driver kol

Morning epiphany

One of the joys of my India visit this year has been in the ability to use Colgate toothpaste every morning. We don’t find Colgate in Korea, so coming home once a year to a familiar taste felt like a treat and a reminder that you really can’t take anything for granted. The Dettol hand wash  is also a standard fixture inside Indian toilets.

colgate

Switching roles

My dad taught me how to play scrabble when I was ten to help me expand my vocabulary. It took me four years to beat him. He was more happy about it than I was!

It’s interesting how as parents grow older you switch roles with them. Few years back I taught him how to play online scrabble. Since then we’ve been playing everyday, sitting thousands of miles apart. Even when we go without talking for days, I know he’s okay because he’s making his moves! And occasionally when he wins I’m the one beaming with pride! This sketch is of my dad playing scrabble with me on his tablet and trying to hide his tiles so I can’t see them.

baba at scrabble

Mom and the stray (cat)

Or the stray and the patron saint of all strays in my parents’ neighbourhood. My mom starts her day by feeding crows in the morning that caw on the electric poles in front of our house. Sometimes during the day a brown mutt climbs on top of our garage where he’s given biscuits and milk and lastly this fluffy mottled brown cat that makes the most soulful meowing sound is at times allowed into the house to say hi in person and given fish, bones and belly rubs.

But mom doesn’t stop at feeding them. She names them, talks to them, disciplines them(the brown mutt was recently chided for pairing up with a really ugly black mongrel with no prospects), gets anxious when they don’t visit ( fluffy cat who didn’t make an appearance during Christmas and new year was probably feasting elsewhere) and worries about them when she travels.

I don’t know if there are more on my Mom’s roster for strays but know this much that as long as she’s around no one’s turned away hungry or without love. I get the sentiment. To assuage other concerns I bought her a bigger bottle of hand sanitiser!

mom and cat.jpg

An old acquaintance

This flower lady has been delivering flowers to my parents for as long as I can remember. Besides meeting my parents’ daily flower needs, she’s delivered flowers for all the big events in the house- my wedding, my sister’s wedding, our grandparents’ birth and death anniversaries and my nephew’s rice ceremony when he turned one. She’s a one woman show, exceptionally hardworking, efficient and persuasive. Except a few strands of white hair, she looked exactly the same. That day she was selling marigolds, hibiscus and tuberoses to my mom and saying how glad she was to see me.

flower seller

Vrroom Vrooom

My sister aligns her holidays with mine, so we can be together at least once a year even for a few days. This is also when I get to see my nephew who is 3 years old now and loves cars, actually anything that has wheels. Whether sleeping, awake, in the tub or on the pot, some sort of vehicle can always be found clutched between his fingers!

The other day I caught him playing in the balcony with a toy set of construction trucks, all lined up neatly in a row. A lot of active excavation, shovelling, loading and dumping was happening with appropriate sound effects on a flat marble surface! The nonchalant crow perched on the balcony railing wasn’t actually there. I added it to keep the little guy company.

ishaan cars.jpg

One smelly affair

The fish market in my parent’s neighbourhood is the loudest and the most crowded. Aggressive fishmongers sitting on their haunches holler names of fish and their prices to the passerby. Thrusting a fish in your direction they’ll say, “look, how red the gills are and how clear its eyes are”, guaranteeing its freshness. Sometimes a recipe is narrated on the spot!

If you take the bait, they will immediately weigh the fish on their hand balance, bit of friendly haggling over the price occurs, and after scaling and gutting, they’ll cut the fish into pieces using a long curved blade attached to a wooden base (and held down by foot) called boti and put it into your bag, moving on to the next customer, pronto, repeating everything you just heard.

fish market kol.jpg

The mobile bazaar

The last sketch in this series is of the narrow lane right outside my parents’ house that sees a bevy of activity from dawn till dusk. In a span of one hour, I saw a guy selling bedsheets, a cobbler yelling if someone needed to fix their shoes, a garbage collector, a musical instruments repairer, a fishmonger and a vegetable seller who brings his cart right outside the door of my parents’ house every day for my mom to check if she needs something. He had green peas, radishes and chubby looking aubergines that day.

vegetable hawker

Three weeks can vanish in the blink of an eye. Though we click pictures of all the special moments during our stay with the family, there are innumerable feelings, sensations, thoughts and revelations that we have from time to time, no less stimulating than others, which slip through the cracks and fade away with time.

These sketches were an attempt at catch them one at a time and deposit them into the memory bank only to be relished later. Until next time, Kolkata!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Life sucks but first, coffee

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Alver Cafe in Gangnam, Seoul

said the coffee cup sleeve at Alver cafe (see above) near my house in Gangnam-gu.

Without a modal verb – may or might, the message seemed frighteningly definitive, especially when I picked up the tumbler to drink and my fingers covered the last three words!

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(L) I was sketching this animated bunch of girls at La Eskimo cafe, and by the time I drew two the group left. The guy was promptly picked up from another table and put with the girls that got drawn. Talk about creative license!

It can be the strangest of things at the most unseemly places that prompt you to run a spot check of your life.

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People of Paris Baguette below my apartment.

I’m almost 4 months old in Seoul. Among other things I still pine for my friends, the huge libraries filled with English books and the well-stocked art shops of Singapore where I spent many good hours. And I am still discomfited by the fact that I don’t live a mere 4 hours away from my parents anymore and should they need assistance, it’ll take me a while to be with them. But in these 3 months, we’ve ironed out most of the kinks relating to the move and by extension, our lives because that’s what moving forward entails.

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(R) My husband was watching India vs Pakistan:ICC champion’s Trophy on his phone and reading William Dalrymple’s “Return of a King” on his kindle thus proving men can (selectively) multitask.

The initial surprises (like, what! local banks don’t have provision for joint accounts?; A watermelon costs 14 dollars?; Supermarkets don’t store half the things we are used to buying) and challenges (like properly separating trash or paying utility bills online) have been had and subsequent discoveries (you can get anything from a skillet to a golf ball home delivered; apartments have speakers on the ceiling through which you hear random announcements being made in Korean by the building management) have been made.

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(R) Two men eating Mango ‘Bingsu’  – Korean shaved iced dessert with sweet toppings at Paris Baguette. 

I don’t convert the price of every item I buy into Singapore dollars anymore. And I definitely understand the subway system better. The wide-eyed, fresh off the boat look is wearing off.

As more time passes, I feel that the memories we made in the last seven years of our lives in Singapore are migrating further into the cortex of my brain.  I don’t reach for them as often as I used to because I am making fresh ones.

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(L) Sketched this lady wearing work clothes and eating a big salad on a late Sunday night at Paris Baguette.

Just the other day an elderly lady in the subway asked me where I was from and after I answered, she said, “Welcome to Korea!” with such burst of enthusiasm and warmth that I almost didn’t believe she was real. Then she hugged me, patted my arm and went on her way.

So from where I stand, life doesn’t suck. Also I am a tea drinker. I may adore Alver cafe’s brick walls with vertical gardens and glass partitioned interiors, but I am going to be a dissident and pass up on those wiseass cup sleeves next time!

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(L) Sketched this guy in Alver cafe wearing a blue silk knotted neckerchief especially because it seems to be a popular fashion accessory in Seoul at the moment among both men and women. Most accessory shops I’ve come across were stocked to the hilt with these!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

What Neil said

wasn’t new to me. But when a silver haired stranger with wise deep set eyes leans in from the other table to look inside your sketchbook and goes,’drawing is really good for you, much better than photographing. You know why?‘, you pay attention because from the way he draws in a deep breath and turns himself around to face you, you know he has a story to tell. And I am a sucker for stories. Also a stranger telling you a story makes a great story.

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My husband reading Jeffry Archer’s The Prodigal Daughter on kindle. We shared a sausage roll and had tea and coffee at Tiong Bahru Bakery.

Like every Sunday we were spending the morning at Tiong Bahru Bakery. My husband as you can see above was reading as per usual and I was scanning the room for interesting people to sketch while sipping on ginger lemon tea. That’s when Neil , ‘an IT guy from Sydney” as he called himself settled down at the next table, finished eating whatever he was eating and turned his attention to us.

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(L) A couple in Starbucks; (R) A couple in Tiong Bahru Bakery

Can you remember phone numbers?”, he asked. “We didn’t. Neither did heBut my mother remembered every phone number in her contact list until her dying days because she never relied on a machine to do the work for her‘. He said the last bit looking somewhat disparagingly at our smart phones or so I imagined. In any case, my husband quit looking at cricket scores and pushed the phone aside pretending it wasn’t his.

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This was my late Sunday night view at our neighbourhood Starbucks which is open for 24 hours every day. These high stools and shared table are especially meant for people who need to work or study. Don’t miss the girl with the Micky Mouse hoodie!

But Neil wasn’t there to deride technology; nor was he there to randomly dish out avuncular advise on how to disengage from technology. All he wanted was to talk about an epiphany he once had while watching the northern lights in Iceland. “For someone who loves photography..”, he said “..this was a chance of a lifetime”.

The last thing he wanted was a smudgy camera lens. Refusing to take chances by trying to clean it himself at the hotel, Neil went seeking for professional help, hoping to receive top-notch service. Here’s where the story goes downhill- the girl at the counter whose job was to only receive the item and pass it on to the appropriate person for servicing decided to be useful that day and took the matter in her own hands. She started wiping the lens with a cloth and before Neil could say stop, his only camera lens was irreparably scratched.

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(L) People reading physical books is becoming a rare sight. When I saw someone the other day lost in the pages of a thick novel, I had to draw her;(R) This girl was toiling away on a Saturday night with the help of a Frappuccino and gospel music.

The northern lights were beautiful..indescribable really!”, he said. Neil had slipped into a reverie. His head was tilted to the side and his eyes glazed over. “We watched the sky for hours y’know…and as far as I could see I was the only one without a camera“. We were crestfallen on his behalf. Before I could offer my first word of commiseration he said, “..but the incredible thing is without my camera, I could really see! Instead of looking through the lens I saw everything with my eyes..E..V..E..R..Y..T..H..I..N..G.. you know what I mean?”. He pointed to his head and said, it was all stored up there, intact and distinct, even though he doesn’t have a single picture to prove to his friends that he watched the northern lights. But I believed him.

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(L) This sketch is of a bunch of girls who were trying to study but couldn’t stop talking about the movie they came out from. Also they didn’t finish their popcorn! (R) This extremely hairy and incredibly talkative guy seen at Tiong Bahru Bakery was juggling two different conversations with two diff families on either side of his table. Whoa!

He asked whether he could flip through my sketchbook. Of course he could. We had to leave but were greedy for more stories and Neil, a lone traveler having found two perfect listeners in us was eager to share. ” So as I was saying to you..” He started again. We slouched back in our chairs. “..when you draw, you see things, observe things more keenly than ever..“. I didn’t check the time, but he went on for a while. We let him.

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(L) Just a guy seen at Tiong Bahru Bakery wearing a neatly ironed shirt and a very shiny wedding band. Seemed like he was new to the game! (R) How to make a statement: the case of rugged boots vs. chunky costume jewellery

These are some of the sketches of random people I did on my recent visits to cafes around Singapore along with my observations. You can find more under the ‘people sketches’ category in the side bar.

Neil was right. I only just realized that I may have sketched over hundred people in the last few months spending about 10 minutes per drawing but the incredible thing is I remember each one of them. Every page in my sketchbook takes me back to the actual scene. Every minute spent is accounted for. It is not just fun, drawing is a fulfilling exercise and you know it. But sometimes we all need a silver haired stranger with wise deep set eyes to sit beside us and tell us a story to help make sense of what we so love doing.

 

 

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.

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(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.

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(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.