Tag Archives: sketchbook

Six months in Seoul

The allure of travel has kept us on our toes. Literally.

During the last ten years we have moved from Delhi to Munich, Munich to Singapore and this week we complete six months in Seoul. Being peripatetic has its rewards but it also means getting to know a place intimately, calling it home, making ourselves comfortable and then leaving everything we were drawing comfort from for another place.

Before this new leg of the journey gets interesting, before you realize it was all worth it, moving is plain scary, no matter how many times you may have done it.

Countless nights are spent laying awake in bed, staring at the ceiling, riddled with doubt and anxiety that invariably comes when you are about to push yourself out of your comfort zone.

Moving to Seoul felt no different until at my farewell dinner a friend gave every attendee a fortune cookie and I got this message inside mine.

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Never has a moulded scrap of flour made more sense.

Do something you always wanted to do. It’ll be fun. This message hit the nail on the head!

Sometimes we are so worried about the outcome of a decision that we forget why we took it in the first place. In our case it was because we wanted to live in a new place, make new friends, explore yet another part of the world, learn about its history and culture and traditions, read its books, hear its songs, watch its sunsets, drive on its roads, work at its offices, learn its language, taste its food, drink its coffee, basically spend time discovering it at our own pace.

We spent the last six months doing exactly that and truth be told the ride has been bumpy at times but it sure has been very enjoyable, especially with a sketchbook in hand.

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Gwangjang Market

is worth a visit not just for the finger-licking good street food as all guidebooks promise but also for the experience of buying that street food and eating it in a traditional market. Not that I needed any convincing. I love visiting traditional markets. I have loved visiting traditional markets before they were ‘traditional’.

In the little town I grew up in Eastern India, my parents used to take me to the local bazaar every week. Too little to help in any other way my job was to hold the cotton tote bags tightly to my chest until the vegetable seller finished weighing baskets of potatoes, onions, carrots, brinjals, green beans my parents had picked out and nodded in my direction.

I would keep my eyes peeled for that signal and would immediately stand on my toes and hand the ‘vegetable bag’ to him or her. Then we would go to the fish section and the poultry section and I’d hand the ‘fish bag’ and the ‘poultry bag’.

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Sketch of a Mung Bean Pancake stall in Gwangjang Market using dip pen and ink

More than the vegetable peels, fish scales, feathers and blood strewn alleys, more than the glinting knives and weighing scales, more than the stench of open drains and smell of sweat, more than the feel of weathered notes and wet coins exchanging hands, more than the loud street cries of merchants and haggling by their customers and the screeching of chickens about to be slaughtered, more than buzzing flies and limping dogs, more than the rough leathery hands of shop owners, more than the waves of people we pushed through and more than the glow of bulbs and hurricane lamps that painted everything a lurid yellow, more than anything at all, I remember how important I felt to be entrusted with this responsibility.

For my parents it probably was just a way to keep their child engaged but for me it was a big step up. Like all my friends I was in such a hurry to grow up.

A great deal of growing up has happened since.

These days if I were to make spaghetti meatballs, I’d get a cleanly wrapped portion of minced meat off a shelf inside a clean air-conditioned space. I buy lemons that come in protective casings such that I can’t touch or smell them.

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Jeon Alley, Gwangjang Market

Only when the fish monger showed my mother how deep red the gills of hilsa were and how firm its body was and how clear its eyes were would she pay him, but not without examining a few other pieces and definitely not without the friendly haggling.

And now if I need a bed sheet, I lift a finger and order it online.

Progress is essential and elemental, I know. Progress is important. Progress is also placing experiences similar to the ones I had as a child inside invisible glass cases and labelling them ‘traditional’ as though they are rare exhibits.

Progress is sending what once was commonplace on the road towards extinction and that maybe inevitable but it is disconcerting none the less.

So when I can read about Gwangjang market, built in 1905 and called Seoul’s oldest ‘traditional’ market and one of its largest, I knew I had to go, not just to sketch but to get a feel of the familiar while I still could, albeit in a foreign country.

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Gwangjang Market

Narrow lanes lined on either side with shops cheek by jowl selling  pajeon, gimbap, sundaeguk, bibimbap and tteokbokki ran into one another like a maze. Massive waves of people from students, office workers, tourists to the elderly hikers you see a lot of in Korea rolled up from all directions to eat at those shops manned by hardworking ajummas in short perms and red lipstick. Sound of chatter and cacophony melded into the smell of hot oil and the lurid colour of shop signages. The glow of bulbs hanging low over trays of food added to the visual drama and lent the space a honky-tonk aura.

As opposed to the clinical white spaces we are used to shopping in with clearly marked aisles and properly arranged shelves, a traditional market is a place where the first order of business is to lose your bearings and be overwhelmed by what you see, hear and smell.

Check and check.

I had a vague idea of where I was.

Perhaps, the Jeon Alley.

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Jeon Alley in Gwangjang Market

Some dishes are so popular in Gwangjang Market that they have entire alleys dedicated to them! In Korean cuisine, Jeon is referred to pancake-like dishes made by pan frying a mixture of rice or flour batter with vegetables, meat, seafood and poultry in it.

I couldn’t have been in the Yukhoe (steak tartar) Alley or the Gimbap (similar to sushi) Alley considering all the fervid grinding of mung beans that was happening around me. The jerry-built enterprise right before me had 5 ajummas working together like a well-oiled machine. Two in yellow tops were stationed at the ‘kitchen’ frying Bindaetteoks (mung bean pancakes) and piling the golden discs one above the other on the counter; one was serving the pancakes to customers gathering on the long wooden table while two more were luring people in to the shop.

And in all this madness if any of them managed to catch a breath, they’d leave their stations and come over to check my progress. I was sitting on the ground wedged between two other Bindaetteok stalls. But I was sketching them.

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Sketch of Gwangjang Market with the drinks that a kind elderly couple bought me

In return the band of ajummas kept an eye on me, nothing more than a glance in my direction from time to time and once shooing a drunk guy away when he tried to get too friendly with me. I got sober visitors too. A tour guide stopped by, a magazine editor gave me her business card and an elderly couple bought me some cooling drinks (see above).

On my way out I got the ajummas to fix me a piping hot plate of mung bean pancake. And while I savoured the crispy goodness in my mouth, I saw three young backpackers doing the same and talking about how good it tasted and how cheap the food was (4000 won for two big pieces) and how glad they were to have visited. They couldn’t wait to tell their ‘mates’ all about it.

I hope they do, ad nauseam.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Allure of the Back Alley

I don’t know about other places but Singapore has one of the most alluring back alleys.

In my five years of life here, I’ve come across some beauties in Tiong Bahru, Geylang, Jalan Besar, Kampong Glam, Joo Chiat and Bras Basah. There must be countless more in many other neighbourhoods waiting to be noticed, admired, talked of, written about by some passersby who’s using it as a short cut to the next parallel road or to the car park this very moment. I hope he’d slow down and look around.

I know, I’ve always wanted to find a proper excuse to linger in these intimate spaces that have way too much character. Without startling the wayward neighbourhood cat or the dumpster diver, the only way to do this was to sit down and draw this beautiful mess.

Back Lane of Seah Street.  

This is the back lane of Seah Street.  To combat overcrowding, back lanes were retrofitted to already existing shophouses in the early 20th century, to provide access for fire fighting, drainage and ‘scavenging’ – which in this case refers to allowing night soil carriers to collect human waste from each house. Thankfully those days are behind us!

And so I did. As you can see, there’s a lot going on, each element adding to the overall characteristic of this grubby stretch – a large green dumpster, a chipped wooden door, a spiral staircase, air conditioners, ducts, vents,  cables, wires, pipes, switchboards, broken wooden planks, windows, wired fence, tinned roof, tiled roof, a bamboo pole sticking out with wet laundry, cracks, damp stains, spots, litter, cobwebs, weeds and what not. Don’t miss the bright red drum cylinder on the bottom right, used for burning offerings during the hungry ghost festival.

And this is only a small section of the alley that I captured in the 15 minutes I had. There’s so much life in here!

Abeautifully grubby back alley in Geylang

A beautifully grubby back alley in Geylang Serai.

And not all of it is still. While I was here, I met the back alley denizens. They were mostly in uniforms – chefs, cleaners, waiters, drivers, some sitting on their haunches, smoking, others unloading a truck of supplies or sweeping the litter or rushing out of the hot restaurant kitchens to get fresh air. It would’ve been business as usual except I was turning out to be a rather amusing distraction with my yellow stool, sketchbook and all.

At first they ignored me, only stealing furtive glances, but when they saw me staring forlornly at the squalor for a prolonged period, they warmed up.  Each of them came over to chat, but mostly to criticise my work. It seemed like the obvious thing to do. And they were brazenly forthright. Amid snorts, grunts and sterile stares, I may have snagged some approving nods.

 

Tale of two cities

Once every year, I and my husband are India bound. Only this year, in addition to our self-prescribed vacation in Kolkata- our hometown, we squeezed in two days of Mumbai, to make the aquaintance of the prima donna of India’s west.

Mumbai

Marine Drive

Marine Drive

Even if you’re new to Mumbai, just like me, chances are Mumbai isn’t new to you. You may still have a fair idea of what to expect and experience, thanks to the innumerable books ( Elephanta Suites by Paul Theroux, Sacred Games by Vikram Chandra ; Shantaram by Gregory David Roberts, Maximum City by Suketu Mehta, Narcopolis by Jeet Thayil) and movies ( Salaam Bombay, Slumdog Millionnaire, Metro, Bombay and plenty others) that have expressed the ethos of the city through narratives and plots based in the dusty folds of this audacious, over populated, rambunctious metropolis.

If Mumbai were to impress you, the first time visitor, she’d spew her impressive credentials upfront, like being the financial and commercial capital of the country, the mecca of Hindi film industry, the melting pot of communities, cultures and so on. But she doesn’t because she’s isn’t pretentious. She is industrious, sharp witted, resilient and hopeful, qualities I saw mirrored in the people I met on my short visit. The driver of our car that we hired (for 8 hours worth Rs.1500 or S$30 from Savaari Car Rentals) for the day, was an immigrant from Bihar, rather a country bumpkin who arrived in the 80s with nothing on his back, worked his way up, learnt English, married a local and now drives tourists around and guides them through the very city he was once foreign to. Mumbai is rife with stories like this.

Leopold Cafe & Bar

Leopold Cafe & Bar

After a lazy walk and sketch along Marine Drive – a picturesque promanade, our first stop was Leopold Cafe and Bar for breakfast. One of the most popular haunts in the city (especially with the backpackers), has been around since 1871. I don’t know how much the interior has changed since the old days, but even today, this ensemble – of dark wood furnitures, chequered table cloth, dated wall paintings and old fashioned ceiling fans seem right out of musty sepia toned photographs. What is new however are the bullet holes, from the heinous 2008 terrorist attacks.

We order omelettes with toasts, a plate of über-delicious melt-in your-mouth keema and bread to be washed down with orange, lime and watermelon juice as illustrated in my sketch. I request the geriatric guy manning the cash counter to put the cafe’s seal on my sketches to officially validate my visit. He approaches this gargantuan task with dopey eyes and few vapid sigh. Perhaps, I should’ve asked for a tissue instead. His social ineptitude is quickly compensated by the cafe manager, flips through my sketchbook and hands me two postcards in return.

“You didn’t sketch the bullet holes? he said. I was surprised he asked. It didn’t feel right to record the horrific reminder of an incident that shook the country and carry that with me as a trip souvenir. If that was so, I could’ve bought those kitschy Leopold branded coffee mugs with an image of bullet shots. Yes, the cafe hasn’t shied away from cashing in on the sentimentality.  Nevertheless it’s a survivor- Leopold opened for business, three days after the incident – and survivors don’t need to hide their scars.

Breakfast at Leopold cafe

Breakfast at Leopold cafe

We turn the corner, walk a few hundred meters and meet the shimmering Arabian sea, the towering Gateway of India at it’s bank and the proud, historic, magnificent Taj Hotel. I have watched this scenery and read about it so many times in my life that my first impression wasn’t of wide-eyed wonder, but that of disorientation – I was recalculating the perspective, size, distance anomalies my mind’s eye had made while visualizing this scene. ‘I imagined The Taj to be aligned with the Gateway” ; ‘The space in front of the Gateway isn’t as expansive as I had thought’ was what I was muttering.

Taj Mahal Hotel

Taj Mahal Palace Hotel

The gate way is barricaded by a voracious slew of photographers (mostly natives of Bihar) dangling chunky DSLRs from their shoulders and thrusting sample photos of people posing with these iconic monuments, into you face. Being Indians, we aren’t accosted by them as much as the foreign tourists. But still a ‘ Sir/Madam, please take a pikkchur..berry nice foto I taking..you like..see this one..or that one..only 20 rupees’ sneaks in now and then.  My husband waves his DSLR and asks, if he could take ‘their’ picture instead. All at once they are shy and recede a few steps.

It’s only 10 in the morning and the heat is punishing. I stand in the shade of the towering Gateway and sketch the Taj hotel. The details of the facade are mindboggling, so I try to simplify while little streams of sweat trickle down my lower back. Right on my left, locals and tourists are making a beeline for the ferry leaving for Elephanta caves, ‘only a 50 minutes boat ride away’ – reported our driver later in a tone that hinted our misjudgement in skipping the site. We squint our eyes at the shimmering jetty and at the fatigued tourists fidgeting in the sun, waiting in a queue that is snaking around one arm of the gateway and walk away.

Gateway of India

Gateway of India

I try to squeeze in a quick sketch of the Gateway before we step inside the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel to cool down. The interiors are as regal as I had imagined with sparkly chandeliers, nifty flower arrangements and luxurious upholstery. Waiters flitted around obsequiously ushering, chaperoning, and in some cases placating indignant guests. One side of the lobby was lined with premium stores, mostly vacant and the other side was fitted with glass cases flaunting Taj’s flamboyant past. Photographs of notable guests from Jac Kennedy, Mick Jagger, Oprah Winfrey, Duke of Edinburgh to Beatles adorn the walls. A smart uniformed staff in a saree and well coiffed hair was manning the ladies room and proffered a rehearsed smile when we entered. Each time a guest left the stall, she promptly flushed the toilet ‘again’ and wiped clean the wash basin. When we left, she smiled again.

Cooling off Inside Taj

Cooling off Inside Taj

Very slowly, we drive past the Bombay High Court, admiring the impressive neo-Gothic building from 1848 and made a short stop in front of the Victoria Terminus Railway Station ( officially called Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus or CST ) because I couldn’t, rather wouldn’t leave Mumbai without pinning this massive, 1888 built, palatial world heritage site down on paper. Perhaps, more than the Taj or Gateway, it was VT’s cocktail architecture – Victorian, Italian, Gothic, Mughal –  and sheer size that made it an absolutely delightful ( albeit challenging!) subject to gawk at and sketch. Once again pressed for time, I simplified – my pen obliterating the numerous arches, windows, turrets, grotesques friezes, bas reliefs and other embellishments so painfully put together by the architect – to capture the essence of the place in simple urgent strokes.

VT Station

VT Station

Tearing away from VT, we insisted on visiting Dhobi Ghat – which in our driver’s opinion was suited ‘for foreigners’. Not entirely, though. Our senses might be numbed to sights of men and women washing laundry in the open, along ponds and streams, but this was something else. This was large-scale, to the stature of ‘Central Laundry Station of India – the headquater of all laundry units across the country’, if something like that existed.

Dhobi Ghat

Dhobi Ghat

Amid a grungy shantytown bordered by railway tracks, all we could see far and wide were clothesline hanging spotlessly white sheets that were fluttering in the breeze. Down below, it was all business –  network of concrete troughs fitted with floggng stones, were filled with water, where the clothes would be soaked, scrubbed, washed, starched and dried by taut swarthy men and their families. This 1890s establishment now has a website http://www.dhobikalyan.org, where you can register for a tour.

The Shoe House

The Shoe House

One of the most famous public beaches in Mumbai – Girgaum chowpatty, looked practically abandoned and therefore unrecognisable in the swelter of the afternoon whereas during Ganesh Chaturthi celebrations, hundreds of people gathered here to immerse the idol, jostle for an inch of space. The white toasty sand reflected the sun right into our eyes, sending us scampering for shade. Post a ‘gola’ (ice shavings) in kala-khatta flavour from one of the venders, we settled for a drive around adjoining Malabar Hill – the dwelling grounds of the rich and famous. Our driver insisted we stop at Hanging Gardens, built on top of a water reservoir and admire it’s greenery and the sweeping view of Chowpatty and Marine Drive from it’s vantage point.

The cynosure of all eyes however, was this giant shoe house, which was infested with giggly school kids, who just couldn’t wait their turn to climb it.

Having about two hours to spare, we headed towards Dharavi– one of the largest slums of the world- that popularly wears the ‘genuine leather goods at great bargains’ tag.  There are thousands of leather factories in the district that churns out handbags, jackets, wallets, belts and what not. And in the absence of middlemen, the shopowners offer wholesale prices, which is quite low, while making decent profit at the same time. The catch however (isn’t there always!) is – if you have refined tastes, it will be hard to find something you like from the scores of knock-off designs that the shopowners proudly exhibit and the parsimonious yet fashion conscious college crowd readily laps up. Just keep looking till you find ‘the one’ and haggle when you find it.

 

Kolkata

People, to be specific cousins and close relatives are curious, if the sanitised and systematic Singapore lifestyle muddles our visit to India; if we find it disconcerting to brace the heat, noise, dust, crowd, traffic, chaos; if we tire of the hackneyed idiosyncracies and the constant impedimets to get through each day.

‘Nothing has changed here’, they’d say plaintively.

To this, I’d say, ‘What, another shopping mall on VIP Road?’, gaping at the newbie. Mango and Marks and Spencer have stores in Kolkata? When I asked my sister in law, what does she substitute Mascarpone with when making Tiramisu, she said, “Why, I get all ‘foreign’ ingredients from Spencer’s ( food retailer) these days”. Sifting through The Telegraph’s glossy lifestyle section, one evening , I found hand purses of premium global brands advertised along with local ones. A walk through Park Street, led me to an Apple store sharing a wall with a RayBan, Prada, Gucci, Chanel sunglasses retailer sharing a wall with Pizza Hut; cafes of international design and standard and bakeries with fancy French names like Au Bon Pain, riddled with white tourists clad in hot pink salwar kameezes and Indian women in short skirts and body hugging blouses.

Gone are the, reserved, reticent and nervous school kids, specially girls burdened with moralities, chaperoned by their parents to and from schools or tuitions, lest they befriend the opposite sex and malign their family’s reputation. Such species have been replaced with fluent English speaking teenagers, confidently strutting along their male compatriots, texting on phones, cracking jokes, giggling – basically being young. They looked confident, equal and in control. They also look well groomed. The Indian comfort attire – the traditional Salwar Kameez – that was the default garb for majority of women, has undergone a ‘workplace appropriate’ transformation, making it smart and chic.

Having a cake at Flury's

Lunching at Flurys – the legendary tearoom on Park Street from 1927

The ubiquitus salwar-kameez has also been replaced with western attire, most common being denims. Dresses that remained the domain of the Anglo-Indians or the liberal bengali women are being picked up by more eager consumers that work in global companies offering a multicultural work environment. How can one not see this transformation?

Fashion is changing, so is the attitude. From where I see, looking good matters in this Indian city as much as it matters in any other city of the world. Top-end beauty salons like Jawed Habibs, which wwere populated by the well heeled, have cropped up like weed in my neighbourhood, with a one hour collagen facial setting you back by over Rs.3000 (or S$60). As the prices of commodities and services have increased, so has the disposable income and people have become conscious on what to spend their money on, which is not just on the basics anymore.

Annoyed with the traffic I was, but the city is on it’s way to build yet another flyover that promises to clear many terminal road blockages in future. Proposed metro lines, half dug shopping malls, gigantic residential complexes with cranes, exposed iron rods and metal sheets and men breaking their brown sun burned backs, make grey appearances all over the city, making it look like a perpetual work-in-progress. Nearly seven hotels are due to be operational in the city in the coming years, 3 new ones including JW Marriot, just on EM Byepass, which already has ITC Sonar Bangla and Hyatt.  A year after the liquidity crunch in 2008, the works on the projects have picked up after the economy and the stock market has rebounded.

Random guy at Flury's

Random guy having tea with a woman at Flurys

There was a time not too long ago when internet connection at home was a far fetched thought. There was this one cyber cafe in the vicinity where I had to queue up during weekends to get access my mails. My hapless parents have been struggling with the prehistoric dial-up connection for as long as I can remember. Two whole minutes of uninterrupted Skype call was divine. Then came broadband, offered by BSNL, which was an upgrade but not a smooth ride either.

On our way from the airport this year, I saw the city flooded with hoardings, posters, marquees advertising a Wi-Fi internet dongle with built in hotspot that can be fixed into any plug point and is capable of serving five Wi-Fi devices at a time. “Go Live, Go unlimited” says the tag line. What more – minimum paperwork, online bill payment and house visitation for servicing, if anything goes awry! A media report from last year states Kolkata has 4.4 million internet user now with 47% y-o-y growth which is the highest growth of internet users among top cities in India. If this isn’t change, what is?

While the city’s trials and tribulations which are in multitude, render an unchanged image to it’s residents, once-a-year visitors like us, who bring in fresh pairs of eyes, see movement. My send-off was from the swanking new state of the art airport terminal ( a magnificent glass and steel structure sprawled over 1,89,815 square meters that cost Rs. 2,325 crores) – a testament to the fact that things are changing. But sometimes the change isn’t so apparent because this city is like a goliath centipede with thousands of years of baggage, making slow but sure progress.