Tag Archives: sketch

Three seasons, one sketchbook

When I finished my latest sketchbook, it struck me how this particular set of drawings reflect changing seasons.

The initial pages were drawn when the weather was still warm but not hot. People were romping about in shorts and light coloured tops and ordering cold citron tea, but Bingsu was on its way out from the menu and dainty looking Chuseok (Korean Thanksgiving)-themed goodies were filling up the shelves.

Mid-sketchbook you see traces of fall – sketches of people facing or with their back against cafe windows that frame trees ablaze with the most brilliant shades of yellow and red. Temperatures drop but those in denial keep their hemlines low. The rest of us take refuge beneath light coats and wrap scarves around our necks. Hot chocolate drink starts to look tempting but is definitely a good fortnight or even a month away from being the undisputed object of desire.

In the last couple of pages, winter arrives, but in phases. It starts innocently when a few woollen hats pop up on people’s heads here and there. Then with the first snowfall, out comes the cable knit sweaters, duffle coats and hooded parkas and finally on a day like today when it is -12 degrees outside I see people milling about in overcoats, oversized down jackets with faux fur trims, striped woollen mufflers, fitted cashmere blazers and distressed leather boots. And this is only the outermost layer.

Some cafes have their heating so high that it prompts people to peel off their winter clothing layer upon layer as soon as they get seated until everyone has a small pile next to them or on the chair while others have the temperature setting so low that it makes sense to have everything on your body, even the backpack. See the last sketch.

people 101

A lot on the mind and on the table

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Five friends and a conspicuous bag charm. Seen at Alver Cafe, Seoul

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Office meeting in progress. Seen at Angel-in-us cafe, Seoul.

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(L) I once saw the most dedicated, zesty, sincere and patient tutor trying to teach the most distracted student who kept texting the entire time.

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Sipping the last dregs of Summer. Seen at Paris Baguette cafe.

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Seen at Paris Baguette Cafe, Seoul

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Fall colours outside the windows of Gontran Cherrier cafe, Seoul.

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(L) Fall colours vs furrowed eyebrows (R) This guy’s winter jacket looked like a satin and velour Tudor robe fit for Henry VIII’s court. Seen at cafe TerraRosa, Seoul

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Together yet distant. I drew this couple from the most coveted seat in Alver cafe, which is against a beautiful vertical garden. You can see some of it behind the lady.

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Interesting woollen hats seen at Paris Baguette cafe

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Winter brings out the puffy down jackets.

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(L) This lady bore an uncanny resemblance to the actor who played Mrs. Kim in Gilmore Girls! She had the same hairstyle, identical gait and spoke in similar staccato sentences.

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Keeping the backpack on for extra warmth.

 

 

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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!

craig-road-houses

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.

 

people 29.jpg

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.

 

 

 

 

 

Trip to the Antipodes series : Melbourne

 

25th December 2014 : Singapore to Melbourne  –  The flight was decorated with mistletoe and holly and in the middle of service, flight attendants pinned snowflake shaped brooch to their uniforms. “As a part of our special Christmas Menu, we have turkey today! Would you like to opt for that, Ma’am?” I was asked by the flight attendant, with immense hope and expectation, as if there was some tacit Christmas turkey consumption target, she had to meet and my choice of meal would greatly affect her cause. No thanks. I’ll stick with chicken I said and tried to smile as bright as her. I really tried. “How about you Sir?”, she moved on. ‘Ummm..what the heck..I’ll try the turkey!’ said my husband with enough benevolence for both of us.

Sketched on flight from Singapore to Melbourne

25th Dec + 26th Dec/ Melbourne :  Inflight sketch from from my seat; Hot chocolate and muffin at Starbucks; Rice paper rolls bought on Flinders street consumed at Fed Square with seagulls and people.

In the evening, we jostled against hundreds of people to watch the Christmas light show projected on Melbourne’s Town Hall, had great dinner, clicked some praiseworthy photos of Flinders station, sipped warm coffee and munched on deliciously fluffy chocolate muffin at Starbucks. If the first day on the trip is any indication of what’s to come, we were pretty optimistic. Then, came the abrupt uncalled for, unprepared for rain right after the coffee people shooed us away at closing time. Without umbrella and jackets, we shivered in the cold under the shop’s awning in the peak of Australian summer, and after a very long wait, deep in the throes of the night with hobos and drunk for company, we finally trudged back to the hotel in clumsy rain soaked shoes.

Karma caught up with me. I should’ve accepted the turkey. And with grace.

26th December 2014: On our Own – As much as I love the Indian cricket team, I didn’t accompany my husband to the famous Boxing Day Test match between India and Australia held at Melbourne Cricket Ground. While my husband walked to his pilgrimage early morning, I set out to soak the city, explore, observe, experience and make impressions. It was a day with no itinerary and no agendas. I perched on the steps of St. Paul’s Cathedral and watched a sea of people, cars, trams criss crossing each other at the traffic signal.

26th Dec / Melbourne : Flinders Station sketched from the steps of St. Paul's Cathedral

26th Dec / Melbourne : Flinders Station sketched from the steps of St. Paul’s Cathedral. It was extremely breezy. I had a hard time holding on to the paper.

When my interest waned, which was by the time I finished this sketch, I crossed the road, bought myself some Vietnamese lunch from a Flinders street eatery and came back to Fed Square to finish it. The seagulls begged and begged for scraps but I was too hungry. The inimitable Immigration Museum consumed my entire afternoon and in the evening I went back to the same Starbucks for coffee and was quite pumped when the lady at the counter got my name right the first time. That instantly erased memories of the night before.

26th Dec / Melbourne : Right in front of the Starbucks was a green patch where stood this giant Christmas tree which everybody queued to take pictures with; Greek Dinner in the heart of Greek precinct

26th Dec / Melbourne : Right in front of the Starbucks was a green patch where stood this giant Christmas tree which everybody queued to take pictures with; Greek Dinner in the heart of Greek precinct was chicken and lamb souvlaki with pita and beetroot dip.

Having checked off one of the items on his bucket list, my husband joined me for sumptuous Greek dinner at DION. Between mouthfuls of souvlaki and pita, we talked about our day and tried to prove which one of us had a better time.

27th December 2014: Initiation to the Laneways – Vicolino Cafe on Degraves Street served the most surreal Egg Benedict I had ever tasted in my life. This breakfast perked me up so much that I immediately landed a detailed sketch of a creperie right opposite Vicolino in my sketchbook, while shuffling on the tiny stool I was perched on, in the cramped corner of a grungy back lane riddled with graffiti, exposed wires and torn posters. It was unconventionally atmospheric and an unkempt tipsy man slinking through the shadows with his beer bottle fitted the scenery seamlessly. Reams of tourists and locals streaming in and out of the narrow cobbled street, eating, drinking, shopping, people watching, fed to the palpable energy. We kept coming back like hopeless addicts.

27th Dec / Melbourne : Breakfast in the laneways;State Library of Victoria; Captain Cook's Cottage

27th Dec / Melbourne : I sketched this cute eatery called ‘Creperie’ while having breakfast at Cafe Vicolino on Degraves Street; a portion of the magnificent La Trobe Reading Room was tackled inside the State Library of Victoria; a tiny Captain Cook’s Cottage in the extreme right was sketched in the late evening under the tall shadows of English Elms.

Part of the day was spent admiring the fabulous octagonal La Trobe Reading Room in the State Library of Victoria. Ever since I read Pico Iyer’s insightful article ‘Shelter from the storm’, where he says, “..one of the best places to visit in any new city is the library”, I’ve been actively frequenting these emblems of stillness. Imagine cozying up to a musty smelling tome on a period reading table fitted with bottle green-reading lamps, under a spectacular white dome! I was wielding a sketchbook, but it had the same effect.

By the time we ambled through the splendid Fitzroy Gardens and arrived at the doorstep of Captain Cook’s Cottage, nobody was home. It was way past visiting hours. But the silky grass, the lulling breeze and the slanting rays of the golden sun causing the stately English Elms to cast tall sombre shadows called for a brief stopover. I captured some memories on paper before ending the day at Nandos. I sketched our food order number, which was 29, while listening to our neighbours blithely discussing their recent trip to Singapore. They sounded very pleased.

28th December 2014: Away from the CBD – Starting the day with a Laneway breakfast was a no brainer! Back on Degraves, Cafe Andiamo served the most scrumptious crepes with strawberries and vanilla ice-cream that melted by the time I finished my sketch. Well, the day was hot. And by the time we finished a 2 hours walk along the waterfront from Southbank Promenade to South Wharf along the Yarra, we were cooked and toasted by the blazing sun.

28th Dec / Melbourne : Laneway breakfast

28th Dec / Melbourne : Laneway breakfast at Cafe Andiamo

A very long ‘passion fruit smoothie’ break later, we landed ourselves on a silky green patch of land beside the Ornamental Lake in Melbourne’s Royal Botanic Gardens, where I sketched this scene because sometimes you’re so overwhelmed with what you see, you need to express your joy and gratitude in some way.

The evening was quiet except for the screeching of the cockatoos. It was getting colder, pleasant actually. I took my shoes off and rubbed my feet on the grass, releasing a raw earthy smell. A slanting golden light coloured the trees, plants, bushes and shrubs of variegated foliage, arranged like little jewels along a turquoise lake, that held their reflection in absolute stillness. It was one of those rare moments when you sense a primordial connection with your environment.

28th Dec

Dinner was at Blue Train, back at Southgate promenade, which was now teeming with evening strollers and joggers. The lesson that I took away from eating here, was to garnish my future homemade pizzas with spring onions – it makes a phenomenal difference!

29th December 2014: Taking it easy – Just when I thought nothing could top my love for the stately English Elms of Fitzroy Gardens, we found the conservatory. It is one happy rendezvous of plants and flowers in all kinds of shapes, sizes and colours, arranged in pleasing designs. There are empty cages hanging from the top, a tiny bridge  with railings at the centre and old fashioned benches for people to rest and take photos. Soft muted light streams in through the beautiful arched transom windows. Obviously I sketch.

Lunch was at Cumulus Inc. at nearby Flinders lane and I cannot say this enough – If you’re ever in Melbourne, eat here at least once. Unparalleled customer service (which seems to be the norm in Melbourne, though) pales in comparison with the food. Your taste buds will experience a firework of flavours. Probably this should be their tagline.

While I was sketching the conservatory, an old British couple breathed over my neck. They were pretty intrigued and while leaving said. "You're clever, aren't you?".

29th Dec / Melbourne: While I was sketched in the conservatory, an old British couple breathed over my neck. They were pretty intrigued by what I was doing and while leaving said. “You’re a clever girl, aren’t you?”. Ahh..ummm..mmm..I’ll be better prepared next time.

St. Kilda’s Pier hogged our last evening in Melbourne. We strolled hand in hand (more so coz I needed something to cling on to) on the historic pier with waves crashing on either side and the wind throwing us off balance. It was an exciting change from what we’ve been doing past four days. The day ended with an intensely golden sunset and the sight of penguins swimming to the shore at dusk.

 

Absconding with a reason!

Hatching the plan

Having tackled the drudgery of life for an entire year (also known as living!) we decided to get our lungs some antipodean air and come back ably renewed and refreshed to pick up the yoke of 2015. By the way, Happy New Year folks!

Seeing it through

That innocent decision birthed in a moment of romantic wanderlust was followed by endless reading, preparing, planning, discussing, arguing, booking, packing and apprehending. The process was tedious and grossly unromantic. But we didn’t give up. Not because the smell of adventure kindled our vigour. The flight tickets were non-refundable.

Front Cover of my trusty Moleskine Japanese Album. I gave it a facelift!

Front cover of my trusty Moleskine Japanese Album. I gave it a facelift!

Making a decision (at least trying to)

When things started falling in place, this is what the itinerary looked like : We’d spend 25th Dec to 31st Dec in Melbourne and Sydney, Australia and from 1st Jan to 10th Jan we will hire a car and drive around scenic routes in the South Island of New Zealand. So naturally, even before deciding what to wear, my one track mind was thinking of ways to capture the experience in pages. It made lofty promises of filling sketchbooks and loose sheets with astounding art and demanded I buy suitable art supplies to be able to achieve that. We debated day and night, weighed pros and cons, charged each other with a salvo of arguments, defended with smart retorts. It wasn’t easy. ( Yes, I have a fertile imagination and a very active inner dialogue). But we came to a decision.

 

Justifying that decision

Backcover of my Japanese Album decorated with stickers I collected from various locations - some bought, some handed for free by museums, souvenir shops, tourist info centres who thought it was 'such a neat idea'!

Back cover of my Japanese Album decorated with stickers I collected from various locations – some bought, some handed for free by museums, souvenir shops, tourist info centres who thought it was ‘such a neat idea’!

It would have to be Moleskine’s Japanese Album with 50 pages, 165gsm.

It ticked almost all the boxes. The idea was to carry something handy that fits in the bag easily, isn’t heavy and definitely not intimidating for my subjects. A smaller page would also mean lesser time investment when filling it. But most of all, I was hunting for something, where I could illustrate the entire trip, the whole 19 days in one continuous sheet of paper, where daily events can merge into one another and the observer can see everything without having to turn the page! Wouldn’t that be fun! As you can see from the picture below, the Japanese Album fits the bill! The only quibble is that the paper isn’t great for watercolours, but accepts light washes. I took that in my stride coz, the aim was not to produce elaborate frame worthy paintings, but to document the journey by illustrating my thoughts, misgivings, explorations, observations.

 

This is how the sketchbook looks when I open it

I unfolded the sketchbook and laid it on the floor of my study.

Going for it

I documented every single day on the trip starting 25th December 2014 and ending on 12th January 2015. It took a bit of getting used to initially both for me and my husband until with a bit of discipline it became second nature. Every single morning I’d sense the potent urge to record my observations for that day and my travel partner would learn to give me time and space, sometimes patiently lingering in the background or finding things to do on his own. In that sense, the 50 pages worth of memories that I hold in my hand is a collaboration.

In the first two pages I drew every single item that went inside my blue Herschel daypack that I carried on the trip, for sketching on the go. It weighed slightly less than 5Kgs, although I learnt to downsize based on what I wanted to carry on a particular day.

This is what I packed in my backpack for sketching on the trip

This is what I packed in my backpack for sketching on the trip

I’ll share the rest of my sketches from the trip on this blog, accompanied by little stories. Should be fun! Regurgitating and reminiscing begins.

 

New kid on the block

Shopping, eating, drinking and sometimes gawking at the mind bending architecture of shopping malls is what we relate Orchard Road with in Singapore.

Sitting with a book in a quiet meditative corner isn’t what you particularly come to Orchard for. Well, you can be adamant and try sitting in a cafe perhaps, burying your head in a pile of text, but what you can’t do is obstruct the relentless stream of people gushing in and out through its doors with shopping bags, the drone of their collective orders of latte and green tea jabbing your focus, their hot fervent gossips about the latest bag, gadget or underwear tingling your ears, and their restless animated bodies scuffling to find that elusive ‘perfect’ seat’ making you want to stand up and offer yours.

Library at Orchard Gateway

Library at Orchard Gateway – a section of the wooden theatre-style seating gets sketched here

Well, the good news is, as incongruous as it may sound, Orchard Road – the queen of glitz and glamour, has gained a public library in its armoury. And as soon as we got a whiff of the news, my friends and I rushed to check it out, sketchbooks in tow. Clearly the space wasn’t designed in a hurry – the new kid on the blocks, spanning across two floors, has lot of style and panache! One of the floors have wooden wiggly, wave shaped book racks flanked by a theatre style seating affixed with plug points and lights.

Upstairs has even more interestingly designed seating areas – some with a glimpse of the streetscape, some reminding you of an airport lounge and some cozy and secluded, just the way you want it. Though primarily stocked with design and applied arts books, the fiction and cookbook section is pretty verdant. The book drop off and borrowing points are niftier and there’s a huge section of magazine drawers aligned in straight rows with lush glossy covers staring out at you, giving the impression of a heavily postered wall!

While the Central Library at Bugis, still remains my mecca, this one’s a new favourite. Finally, Orchard Road isn’t all about spending anymore.

 

 

Looking up at windows

Mid-Autumn

I have always been fascinated by windows, although I wonder why? If I’m carrying my art paraphernalia, more often than not, I’ll seize the opportunity of sketching them. And thankfully, there are plenty of alluring windows across the world to keep me busy, from contemporary sleek designs that are minimalist and functional to traditional, ornate and decorative ones with superfuous embellishments.

For example the woven bamboo windows in Japan, Gothic windows, stained glass windows, casements, tilt and turn windows in the West, classical chinese windows, louvered windows in  tropical countries or Arab world’s projecting oriel windows enclosed and carved with exotic wood latticework. Some are functional while others are pieces of fine craftsmanship.

But then, could it just be the physical attributes – shape, colour, form, design that render windows as interesting subjects and make them sketchworthy? I reckon, my fascination is beyond the superficial. There must be something deeper.

Besides their make which is anything but monotonous, windows assume a character often borrowed from the environment they are in and evoke an immediate sense of place. Like these louvered windows of Straits Chinese shophouses in Singapore’s Chinatown (in the picture above) which by themselves are interesting no doubt but when laced with a string of red lanterns around their neck, during the ongoing mid-autumn festival, they look bright eyed, coiffed and spruced up. They seem to be rejoicing, perhaps singing a happy song!

Bordeaux Window

In addition to the ethos they live in, windows also assume a character that is refracted by the souls that live behind them, open and close them or peer through them, which could be anything from cheerful to doleful, nifty to sloppy, careful to negligent and is left to the imagination of the onlooker like me to interpret in a hundred ways.

Like this window in Bordeaux, south of France (in the sketch above), that caught my eye not just because of the ornate Gothic architecture encasing it and the filigreed balcony though both make it an attractive subject but because of the colourful pinwheel spinner that separates it from others in the same building. The pinwheel lends it the character of being cheerful, lighthearted, playful, romantic perhaps; and it hints at a story that is open for speculation. Did a little girl tie it there when she was playing in the balcony? or was it relegated as a window decoration by the old man whose grandchildren forgot to pack it in when they left? Maybe the newly weds who just moved in, bought it at the village fair and put it there? I would never know but I adore the touch of mystery that tickles the mind.

windows 3

I’ve seen windows with clothesline slapped across their chests with pinafores, socks, drawers and vests fluttering in the sun, while many have potted plants and flowers set outside them, or a handcrafted easter egg, a gnome, pair of toads, an wooden owl or a fiery crystal dragon resting on their sil – all lending character, telling stories, making them fascinating to absolute strangers. Some windows have gnarled black cables criscrossing their face while some share a patch of rampant vegetation growing from the corner of a drainpipe running alongside. Sometimes on a chilly winter evening the sight of a half drawn lace curtain inside a glazed casement window, hinting at warm bodies moving unsteadily lets you believe in possibilities as many as your mind can conjure.

Perhaps that is why I am fascinated by windows because not only are they attractive in their own right, they don’t impose on your imagination as rigid unflinching objects, rather feed off it as volatile subjects arousing a multitude of sentiments in each one of us who looks at them with a different eye and that is enough for a creative person to pick up a pen and sketch them pronto.

windows 4

Singapore – Moscow – St.Petersburg – Moscow – Singapore

Itchy feet strike again.

I am accompanying my husband on his official trip to Russia for 9 days and that up there will be my itinerary. The plan is, on the days he doesn’t work, we’ll explore the sights together and the days he works – which is most of the time – I will be on my own on the streets of Russia with a sketchbook and a map. Mixed feelings! On my own I’d amble along the streets without an itinerary, direction or purpose, just soaking up history and culture as it comes. But trying to record the sights and experiences in sketches, requires planning and a certain amount of alertness. The former is convenient, the latter is revelatory.

Packing for Russia

Packing for Russia

However, this isn’t the first time I plan to sketch while travelling. I’ve done it before in Cambodia, Japan and Malaysia, though with trepidation and on a very small scale. I was disorganised, clueless and conscious of people watching me and judging my craft. It was more like testing the waters before taking the plunge. If ‘testing the waters’ mean everything from timing my sketches, revising the itinerary to include that time to analysing the patience threshold of my travel companion while I take sketch breaks every 2mins; by ‘the plunge’ I mean an exhaustive record of my trip in sketches, no matter what.
And I am consciously moving towards that other end of the spectrum because for travellers like us, who prefer gallivanting across cities on tight itineraries, adding another element such as sketching slows us down no doubt, but isn’t counter productive.
‘Travelling is like pressing the reset button’, said a travel writer on TV the other day. So, I’m banking on Russia to clear my mind and reboot my machine, so I return home fresh and renewed. Catching a glimpse of Snowden would have been a bonus but we’re landing at the Domodedovo airport.

Wrapping sticky rice dumplings at an old Chinese temple

One of the quickest, most authentic and fun way to get intimate with a city is to speak with the taxi drivers. Seriously, two strangers stuck in a vehicle for a while might as well talk and if possible learn something from each other. It might be an anomaly in many parts of the world, but most taxi drivers in Singapore are amicable and have given me the lowdown on everything from local food, culture, religion to people and politics. Even job leads and life wisdom, though unsolicited.

'The general of the north' - a revered Taoist deity in the Xuan Dian Jian temple, Singapore

‘The general of the north’ – a revered Taoist deity in the Xuan Jiang Dian temple, Singapore

Naturally I had no qualms about asking my cab driver the legend behind Duanwu festival, also known as the Dragon Boat Festival or rice dumpling festival, to which I was headed. The venue was Xuan Jiang Dian, an eighty-plus-year-old Chinese temple atop a hill at 85 A Silat Road, where a group of us were invited to hang out, sketch and watch the making of rice dumplings and eat them, of course. “Why don’t you check the story on the internet?”, asked the cab driver.
I could but I pressed him to narrate. Because a folklore is desultory when read in black and white. Because a folklore needs a voice to come alive, its inflection to set the mood and often a pinch of hyperbole to build momentum and pique the right amount of interest.
Sticky rice dumplings wrapped in bamboo leaves

Sticky rice dumplings wrapped in bamboo leaves

When we stopped at the second signal, he began with the disclaimer that there are more than one version of the story. I nodded in eagerness, while he cleared his throat. “Long, long ago , an honourable Chinese minister who’d offended the king, was banished from court. In despair the minister committed suicide by drowning himself in the river on the fifth day of the fifth lunar month. When locals failed to find the body, they rowed their boats into the river, beating their drums loudly and splashing their paddles on water to scare the fish. Some dropped sticky rice dumplings wrapped in bamboo leaves into the river to feed the fish and keep them from devouring his body.”
“Fascinating!”. But when did this happen? Who was the minister?” Which river did he drown in? I was curious.
“Dunno lah! All I know, is every year on fifth day of the fifth month of the Chinese lunar calendar, which is…June 12th this year, we race dragon boats and eat sticky rice dumplings for a month.”
Volunteers at the temple wrapping the sticky rice dumplings

Volunteers at the temple wrapping sticky rice dumplings

The temple was a sight to behold, with bright red lanterns, fiery looking dragons with long tails and formidable statues of Xuan Tiang Shang Ti, the resident deity, also known as the general of the north, dressed in imperial clothes, residing inside one of the most exquisite lacquered alters, I have ever seen. With his red face, large bulging eyes and long flowing beard, he is supposedly one of the most revered Taoist deities. “Notice that his right foot is on a snake and the left one is on a turtle”, said Victor Yue, a salt and pepper haired Engineer who’s a Chinese temple geek, and an excellent storyteller.
Aheng who's taking it easy with a cigerette between his fingers, is actually the temple's spirit medium who goes into a trance twice a week and offers consultation to devotees on their issues ranging form medical, marital to spiritual.

Ah Heng, who’s taking it easy with a cigerette between his fingers, is actually this Taoist temple’s spirit medium who goes into a trance twice a week and offers consultation to devotees on their issues ranging form medical, philosophical to spiritual.

When I started picking his brain, Victor fed my curiosity with an enthralling tour of the temple and a crash course on Taosim and spirit mediums such as Ah Heng (see my sketch above) who are consuted on a regular basis by devotees to cure their ailments. The only thing that distracted me from our intense spiritual discussion was the smell of rice dumplings. Two volunteers had fixed themselves a make shift rice dumpling station on plastic chairs with a basket of steamed bamboo leaves, a tray each of rice, cooked mushrooms and pork.  
 
When friends tease and taunt you with stories of how hard it is to wrap a rice dumpling, how mothers and grandmothers still do it with ease and finesse and they can’t make it happen after years of practice; you are naturally instigated to try wrapping at least one and see for yourself, rather than agreeing like an idiot. When I hovered around the fringes of the crime scene, the volunteers dared me. “Want to try?” They were wearing surgical gloves and bandanas. “Go wash your hand first.”
Hanging the finished dumplings on the steel rod, to be boiled later.

Hanging the finished dumplings on the steel rod, to be boiled later.

The bamboo leaves are soaked in water before they are ready to be used.” said Victor. Three leaves overlap each other, two on one side and the third on the other, making an anorexic “Y”, which is then twisted to make a cone; into which goes a spoon of rice, a spoon of mushroom and a spoon of pork. The cone is then folded, tightly shut, tied with a string and hung from a steel rod hanging from above. To the two dumplings that I wrapped, the volunteers matched five each and giggled a lot, probably at my expense. Friends cheered me and clicked photographs as if I was wrangling a croc with my bare hands. But wasn’t I merely wrapping a very sloppy rice dumpling? 
 
Yes and no. My fruit of labour was shoddy no doubt but by rolling up my sleeves and getting my hands dirty ( or sticky) that morning, I had tacitly shed my wide eyed tourist garb. The volunteers warmed up to me. “Do visit anytime you want to” and “Eat one more dumpling, won’t you?” and “Did you see, she wrapped two dumplings?”. 
The rice dumplings were dropped into a large metal can of boiling water atop an open fire made out of wood and coal. “We can’t have such big pots in our homes, so my mother steams the dumplings in batches through the night, so we can have them in the morning on the festival day.” said Chao Zhu, a fellow urban sketcher, who was visiting the temple on a second consecutive year to celebrate Duanwu. I was curious to know if she could wrap rice dumplings nearly as good as her mother. “Gosh no! Unfortunately it’s becoming more and more obscure. I don’t think I can pass it down to the next generation.” Sadly there were too many heads nodding in agreement.
Four different types of dumplings laid out with hot tea and ketchup

Four different types of dumplings laid out with hot tea and ketchup

After the dumplings were boiled, the volunteers laid them on a table in separate trays with name tags indicating their type – Kee Zhang (plain rice dumplings with no filling), Zhang (Vegetarian dumpling), Bak Zhang ( dumplings with pork filling) and Tao Zhang ( dumplings with beans). Kettles of tea, disposable plates, cups, bottles of ketchup (to accompany the dumplings) were set up. After our fill, when we were ready to leave, the volunteers packed us the leftover dumplings. “Souvenirs from the temple!” said Victor.
Victor, regaling me with his stories

Victor, regaling me with his stories

Back home, I checked the internet all right –  Duanwu festival commemorates the death of the patriotic poet and revered minister Qu Yuan ( 340 – 278 BC) of the ancient state of Chu. He committed suicide by jumping into the Miluo river in Hunan province, because he was accused of treason and exiled by the king for opposing an alliance with the state of Qin.

So much for getting the facts straight, it’s still the cab driver’s dramatic narration that rings in my ears.