Tag Archives: urbansketchers

If not for the toothless grandma

I’d have quit. And gone home.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Bukchon-ro 11da-gil

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

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

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A quiet alley in Bukchon Hanok Village

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

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

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

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

 

Sweet company of strangers

may sound oxymoronic in isolation but in the context of my creative life, it is the most heartening spin-off.

Just the other day I was at Newton Food Centre, a popular hawker centre in Singapore to tend to an urgent and irrepressible desire of eating handmade meatball noodles. And to combat the heat from the red chillies floating in my gravy I ordered a glass of lime juice from San Ren Cold and Hot Dessert Stall, where in between taking orders the lady boss was brashly chopping water chestnuts with a gleaming pocket knife on the same table where I was seated.

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The lady from San Ren Hot and Cold Dessert Stall chopping water chestnuts

Even though we were only a few inches apart, as far as she was concerned I was a fly on the wall. But to me she was a fine subject, one that I hoped would hold her posture long enough to warrant a quick sketch.

“Drawing me, ah?” she said to no one in particular. The words were tossed in the air for someone, mostly me because I was the only one sketching, to catch and respond.  When I looked up I wondered to myself if I had ever in the past wanted someone’s tightened jaws and deeply furrowed eyebrows to relax so badly. All across the table lay freshly hacked pieces of water chestnuts.

Only the ones sealed inside transparent packets with green trimmings remained whole and even they knew what was coming and shrivelled a little in fright. Not wanting to share the fate of mutilated chestnuts I said to the lady as bravely as I could that I hoped she didn’t mind me drawing her.

But I doubt she heard me because I didn’t hear myself.

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(L) A San Ren Dessert stall patron eating Cheng Tng

My mumble was cut short by another retort, not directed at me, yet again. I was still the fly on the wall. “Looks like me ah!..come, look, look” said San Ren’s lady boss and the tormenter of countless water chestnuts in an urgent tone to a uniformed elderly cleaning lady who was clearing our table.

In exchange of a short cursory nod she had pulled my sketchbook away from my hands and was coarsely flipping through the pages.

The white haired cleaning lady joined in and because we didn’t speak each other’s language instead of words she offered me the sweetest smile of approval and chuckled with glee at my most recent work. Then she summoned every stall owner within 50 feet to check out what I was doing.

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An elderly cleaning lady (in uniform) at Newton Food Centre aka ‘auntie’ flipping through my sketchbook.

Meanwhile having retrieved my sketchbook I got back to work again. A patron of San Ren dessert stall was wolfing down a sweet bowl of Cheng Tng. I sketched him and then some random people waiting for their food or eating but it was becoming increasingly difficult to carry on.

When sketching people I try to be as discreet as possible, so as to not make my subjects uncomfortable in any way but this is hard when you have a conspicuous audience made up of bulky, oil stained shorts and t-shirt clad, cleaver wielding stall owners smelling of garlic, palm oil and sambal standing behind you, rather hunched over, following every mark you make on your sketchbook and immediately matching it with the subject by looking at that person directly in the face until he or she feels like a mounted taxidermy exhibit.

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Lunching at Newton Food Centre

From their enthusiastic nods and thumps ups, I knew my hawker center audience meant well but any one I tried to sketch under their intense scrutiny left in a jiffy. “Sketch auntie’, ordered San Ren’s lady boss offering the elderly cleaning lady to be my next subject.

I didn’t fail to notice that the knife and the water chestnuts had been put away. Maybe she was finally warming up to me and if sketching ‘auntie’ would keep the knife under wraps I was happy to oblige. Only auntie didn’t have the luxury of posing for a portrait. Dirty plates beckoned. So we parted with a hug. When her kind eyes met mine, I think she seemed a little proud of me.

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Newton Food Centre, Singapore

I went to Newton Food Centre that day to fill my belly but came back with a fuller heart. It is true of every country I visit or every place I go with my sketchbook. It does not matter if I speak the language or not, whether I look like the locals or not, just by sitting among people and drawing in their midst I’ve been accepted and spurred on by total strangers, even the ones that don’t bond so easily.

As I got up to leave, the San Ren lady spoke again.”Come back soon”. It sounded more like a grunt than an entreaty. Only this time she looked straight at me.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A little victory and the big win

Two kinds of people attract unwarranted attention at cafes.

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Out of office but chained to work – I saw this guy sitting at our neighbourhood Starbucks with one hand on his head and the other checking emails on the phone oblivious of the beautiful breezy evening, the sound of  birds and music flowing in the air. 

One, babies because they are tiny, cute, cuddly and non-judgemental humans who if you happen to catch after a recent feed-poop-nap session will bear smiles that will warm the cockles of your heart. From what I’ve seen one doesn’t even need to know the baby. It is perfectly acceptable to nod, wave or point at them from your table  without offending anyone around.

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(L) How many ways are there to hold a pen? This girl was wielding it like a dagger! (R) Here’s a elderly woman seen at Tiong Bahru Bakery wearing a short polka dotted dress and red lipstick( with matching nail polish!) rocking her wrinkles and laughing with wild abandon. I never liked the phrase – ‘twilight years’. This is how you turn it upside down.

The other kind is me. I have nothing in common with babies. But I still get pointed out, fussed over and smiled at by strangers. Shy reluctant children have been shoved in my direction by mothers with utmost urgency.”Go kiddo go, see what she’s doing!”. And then right behind the kiddo you find the guardian standing at a safe distance peering at me with equal interest.

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Spotted at Coffee Academics on Scotts Road. This guy demolished a heaped plate of food in mere seconds and left. I had a really hard time keeping up!

The sight of an adult playing with crayons and watercolours in a room full of adults doing adult stuff like buying bread and drinking coffee is often met with the same amount of incomprehension as is reserved for all kinds of anomalies. What’s interesting though is how people react to this anomaly!

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(L) Even though it’s difficult to hold a large baguette sandwich in one hand and eat, do not ever, not even for once free the other hand by letting go of the phone –  that kind of guy.

That same reluctant kid would turn around chuck the phone, notepad or whatever he was being engaged with and demand a sketchbook pronto. If not that day, I will see him or her appear the next weekend armed with a colouring book, efficiently applying a green crayon over a lion’s mane. Little victory!

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(R) Quick sketch of my husband eating his free birthday cake (from Starbucks), reading Vikram Seth’s Suitable Boy on kindle and watching the 5th One Day International : India vs NZ on his phone, all at the same time. Indians beat the kiwis by 190 runs that night. 

Adults on the other hand need an acceptable reason for doing something they were weaned off in fifth grade. “You must be an architect/ engineer/designer.” – I am not asked this but told. Only then can they explain to themselves why I have the permission to sketch or paint and they don’t because they are none of these things.

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A passionate speaker seen at Starbucks who used her hands much more than her voice to get the point across. I was very convinced even though I don’t understand a word of Malay.

I do it for fun, I say and am met with blank stares. Even an year ago I’d have been uncomfortable with such attention and would have looked up Craigslist for a cloak of invisibility. But not anymore. I’ve been sketching rather feverishly over the last couple of months to know that practice not only makes perfect, it also makes courage and confidence in reasonable amounts.

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(L) This guy had a laptop cover that looked exactly like a shiny marble countertop! I had a teeny weeny urge to chop vegetables on it but it passed very quickly. (R) This lady was eating alone at the table next to mine and before taking each bite she’d hold the sandwich in front of her with both hands and contemplate.

So now I hold my ground and sound convincing not to defend my actions lest I am adjudged frivolous but to get at least one of them to pull out the child that got buried under years of adulthood. And sometimes it works.

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The most common sight at our neighbourhood Starbucks is that of students of all ages studying alone or in large groups.

I am plied with questions starting from how expensive my sketchbook is to what paints I use to where I bought the paint box from. And then I’m invariably told how much each one of these people loved to draw when they were small.

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(L) Girls in cropped halter neck tops, nose rings, green hair highlights and beaded bracelets. The cuddly soft toy didn’t seem to fit in but it was trying very hard. (R) Stripey here had little hope of getting his assignment done that night coz he constantly looked up to check out every passing girl. 

I don’t see them wielding a sketchbook the next day or the week after but the stares become infrequent. Maybe some day I’ll catch one of them absentmindedly picking up a stray pencil and doodling the coffee mug they’ve been drinking from on the back of a receipt. What a big win that would be!

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Behold the rare sight of a man holding and reading an actual newspaper, turning pages instead of scrolling up and down or zooming in and out on a screen. Sorry about the morbid headline but that’s what he was reading.

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Two random people eating and drinking at the same cafe, minding their own businesses, oblivious of each other’s presence but united on a double spread.  I like when that happens.

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This lady looked like someone who’d look fabulous in a mid 19th century Victorian gown complete with a flowery hat, silk gloves and a parasol! 

These sketches above are from my latest sketchbook of random people I’ve seen in various cafes in the city along with my observations. I hope you enjoy looking at them as much as I have enjoyed drawing them!

How far would you go

to get yourself a sketch? I’ve faced some uncomfortable situations trying to finish a drawing when conditions have been less than ideal. And by that I don’t mean having to draw my Martini glass because drawing anything else would need craning my neck from time to time, and wouldn’t that be an errant imposition? No, I didn’t mean that at all!

I’m alluding to conditions slightly more disagreeable, situations where you’d need to muster the will to see through the process, and in my case the likes of trying to find a smidgen of dry space to stand on and crack open my sketchbook inside Tokyo’s Tsukiji Fish Market and having to make do with a slick pavement of fish scales, grime and dark coagulated blood from the monstrous piles of tuna flesh stacked on a handcart behind me. Or squinting my eyes to guard the midday sun in Mumbai’s blistering heat to capture the Gateway of India. Or hanging from a kiddy stool typical of Melbourne’s laneway cafes for half an hour and having my feet stomped upon by countless tourists incessantly just to get that pretty patisserie across the road on paper.

I would go on with my exhibition of bravado for the sake of art but I rather not. My bragging rights have been put into perspective after reading viral posts about artists who’ve ventured into war zones, conflict-ridden territories and uninhabitable climes to report, record and interpret what they see of this world through absolutely fetching drawings.

Well, let’s just say we’ve all endured different degrees of discomfort in the process of making art en plein air. And just as these instances remain etched in memory soaking in masochistic pleasure juices, so are the times that deprive us of them, the times when everything go right, the environment is ideal. Rare they may be, but definitely not extinct. Once in a long while there’ll be a perfect view spread right in front of you and although it’ll be midday and the afternoon heat will char your skin as if on fire, the branches of a raintree in the corner will be aligned such that the sun will be blocked out and on that very spot of shade will stand a table with a lone chair that by some astonishing stroke of luck will be unoccupied.

What do you do when that happens? This below is what I did –

Shophouses on Tyrwhitt Road

Shophouses on Tyrwhitt Road in Jalan Besar sketched from a foodcourt that faces this view