Tag Archives: urbansketching

Happy Chuseok!

Today is Chuseok, or Korean Thanksgiving, one of the most important holidays in Korea when people travel across the country to their hometowns (or to the place where the eldest family member lives) and get together to share food, spend quality time with each other, and offer thanks to their ancestors.

Ever since we started living in Seoul, this time of the year has meant two things for us – one, a short getaway to a nearby destination, and two, the arrival of a fancy gift pack at our doorstep from my husband’s workplace containing mega-sized, perfectly shaped apples and pears! In Korea, if you’re visiting family during this season, showing up at a relative’s place with a gift appreciating your host’s hospitality is considered good manners. For Korean companies, offering gifts to their employees during Chuseok is a way of recognizing their hard work and also to boost morale.

But why fruits? I remember being very curious about the significance of a fruit gift set when we received our first one and found out that it reflects the traditional meaning of Chuseok, which is to celebrate the harvest season. As the holiday falls in autumn, newly harvested apples and pears serve as popular presents. Also, both these fruits (along with several other items like persimmons, chestnuts, jujube, meat, steamed rice, soup, dried fish etc) are placed on the memorial service table that is set in order to honour the ancestors in a ceremony called ‘Charye‘. 

The above sketch is of my husband carefully unwrapping his Chuseok gift from work few days back. It came in a very secure package marked ‘fragile’ all over it. Inside was a bottle of Sauvignion blanc and a bottle of Chardonnay, well, big morale boosters considering how this year has been faring! The fruit basket arrived a few days later.

With no where to travel to, I can’t think of a better way of spending our five-days holiday during a raging pandemic, than being at home and clinking our glasses to making it thus far. 

 

 

Orange on my desk

desk with orange copy - low res copy

With the onset of this pandemic, we’ve all had to make adjustments to our lives some of which I still feel like I’m coming to terms with. For example, spending inordinate amounts of time at home for days on end. Being in my own company isn’t foreign to me. I work from home and I enjoy it a lot but you still miss the social contact like meeting friends or in my case, meeting friends and going out with them to sketch especially in crowded places. Countless pages of my sketchbooks have been joyously filled with drawings of people at cafes, restaurants, parks, and subways.

But with strict social distancing measures in place back in February, when Korea saw an alarming spike in COVID cases (highest after China), stepping out of the house for anything other than buying masks or groceries was out of the question. By next month many offices were letting employees work from home. My husband and I weren’t just sharing a workspace, it dawned on me that we were going to be spending entire work weeks with each other.

The thing with an unprecedented situation is, however hard it rocks your boat, you look around, take a stock of your situation and say – ‘well, it could’ve been worse”. It took a while for us to learn and eventually adjust to each other’s schedules. And have a bit of fun in the process, at least one of us did. A month or two into the lockdown, I noticed an orange appearing on my work desk, every day.

Desk drawing low res

My husband couldn’t help notice that I forget to eat my fruits during the day. Instead of reminding me to eat one, he started placing a random fruit at different sections of the house where I hang out to check if my behaviour alters and discovered that only by keeping it here on this desk does the fruit get consumed. Indeed a lot of oranges were consumed this way!

I made this sketch on the day I found out that I was the subject of his social experiment. If anything has come of this besides a good chuckle, it is that I now eat my fruits without needing a stimulus. Not too bad!

Of all the changes that we are making in our lives right now, I hope this one sticks.

Draw your mess

wardrobe 1

Am I the only person who hasn’t put away their warm clothes yet? We’re halfway through August and now I am thinking how far can fall/winter be anyway? I may need that trench coat or the down jacket sooner than later. All that effort put in sorting, folding, stacking, and arranging would go to waste. This here is the train of thought that got my wardrobe looking like above.

I have been meaning to organize it for a while now but every month I end up carrying forward this task to the following month. Spending longer hours at home during this ongoing pandemic hasn’t exactly increased my productivity at housework. If at all, I’ve been slacking off.

It ain’t a pretty sight, I admit. Finding a somewhat coordinated outfit in this closet requires equal amounts of luck and patience. Meanwhile, belts have gone missing. Socks are hiding themselves in corners and crevices. Scarves have never become more elusive.  A wardrobe as cluttered and disheveled as this should stick in one’s craw but if you’re an artist, this scene can also get you all excited! And you find yourself picking up a sketchbook, some colour pencils, and drawing the mess instead of tidying it up. Well, there’s always tomorrow.

 

Back alleys of Gangnam

In my neighborhood in Gangnam, the back alleys are lined with outdoor BBQ joints, izakayas, cafes, small bakeries, basement game parlors, nail salons, copy and print stores, night clubs, food trucks, and convenience stores. As evening approaches the neon lights come alive. People pour in from all directions and the smell of food and the sound of thumping music and clinking beer bottles spill out from shops and pavements and fill the air.

During the day it’s much quieter though. With most people in offices, the alleys are empty save for the continuous flow of delivery trucks unloading beer kegs and cartons of food and supplies for cafes and restaurants. This is also the time when minor repair works and maintenance happen, so you hear hammers banging or drill machines making holes into walls or watch a crane hoist a window-cleaner up an office building.

In the sketches below I have captured the minutiae of everyday life over several months on random walks around my neighbourhood. The viral K-pop song ‘Gangnam style” that catapulted Seoul’s Gangnam district into international recognition synonymized this area with wealth, affluence, and a certain trendy lifestyle. True, the gleaming high rises, luxury cars gliding along Gangnam-daero and the swanky Gangnam cafes all attest to that image but as a 3-year-old resident of this district, I have loved exploring a different side of it – a slightly scruffy, often grungy and pedestrian side with loud wet markets, ugly utility poles, and dusty construction sites that live in the back alleys, away from the main thoroughfares.

Afternoon Tea with a view

Chloris Tea room

One summer afternoon I parked myself in the balcony of Chloris Tea Room facing a narrow back alley, ordered myself a cup of Rooibos tea, and looked out into this jumble of brick houses, utility poles, potted plants, hurried passersby, and a bunch of pigeons hopping about.

Back street architecture

Gangnam backstreet

As I turned this street corner a visual explosion of incongruous colours, shapes, and sizes of random urban objects compelled me to stop and make sense of my surroundings. The brick building seemed to be heavily ‘ornamented’ with all kinds of shop signages, AC condenser units, and pipes. There were trash cans leaning against it and a utility pole with car parking instructions stood guard. So much was going on in such a small space!

End of a workday

view from Paul Basset

I sketched this scene from a tiny Paul Bassett cafe inside an office building overlooking a busy alley. It was the end of a workday and out of the cafe’s large glass windows, I saw people spilling out of nearby offices and rushing towards bus stops and subway stations. If you’re curious about the ‘No Brand’ sign on that building like I was, well, it’s a brand by Emart (one of South Korea’s biggest supermarket chains) that sells products at super affordable prices. Their purple sweet potato chips and cheddar cheese balls are very popular!

Queen of hearts

Gangnam backst

There’s a small Korean dumplings shop around the corner from this Copy and Printshop where I often go to buy a prepacked set of 10 delicious steamed Kimchi dumplings for $4. One day on my way there, I saw this tourist in a baggy red sweater full of hearts leaving the shop with a bag of dumplings and her heavy suitcase, perhaps heading to a nearby hotel. She was looking at a map on her phone to find the way.

The Window Shopper

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Gangnam back alleys are rife with independent boutiques selling fashionable clothes and accessories. One day while I was out with my sketchbook looking for subjects, I saw this woman eyeing a red coat at the shop window of this boutique on her way to Gangnam Station. She seemed very interested and paused for few minutes in front of the store but eventually walked away. She probably wanted to give it some more thought.

Fall chores

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A common sight towards the end of fall is dead leaves getting swept off the roads and sidewalks.

Scary Hoodie

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Since I can’t read Korean, when I am out on the road my eyes naturally wander towards anything written in English. One day while waiting to cross the road, I happened to stand behind a person wearing this very amusing hoodie which was totally worth documenting!

Sighting of the Pig Head

Nonhyeon Market

I love visiting traditional markets in Seoul but didn’t know there was one, south of Han River, close to where I live! There’s so much to explore at Yeong-dong Market and as I walked slowly past shops selling beans, rice, tea, kimchi, bean paste, meat, condiments, sauces and a variety of fried snacks, I came upon this scene – a dog owner and his dog in matching outfits. The dog was clearly excited by a severed pig head displayed at one of the stalls and was pulling at its leash really hard and barking while the embarrassed owner did everything to calm his pet.

Boiled pig heads are used at a Korean ceremony called Gosa intended to bring good luck to someone starting a new business or buying a new car or moving into a new home. The head is placed on a table along with different kinds of foods. Those who visit the ceremony stuff cash into its mouth and ears. When the ceremony is over, everybody eats and drinks together. These days, however, people have even started replacing the real thing with a sugar-coated cake resembling a pig head.

The Sign Walker

EDM signage

The guy with the ed:m sign (an education consulting firm) is a permanent fixture on the busy stretch between Sinnonhyeon Station and Gangnam Station. Come rain or shine, he’s always there. What I find unique and also heartening about this guy is how intensely absorbed he always is in his books and therefore oblivious of his surroundings and the passage of time. For me, this sign-walker stands out more than the sign.

Follow the leaves

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Only a few meters up this alley lies the famous Kukkiwon, also known as the World Taekwondo Headquarters. On weekends, I often see parents heading there with their kids dressed in white Taekwondo uniforms. My interest, however, lies in visiting a small park on the side of this alley which I accidentally discovered one fall afternoon by following this line of Gingko trees and their fallen leaves. When I crave nature, this is where I go for a quick fix.

Slice of Gangnam

Gangnam scene

This sketch isn’t of a back alley but of a view from the back alley of Teheran-ro – one of the busiest roads in Seoul, choc-a-bloc with cars and lined with tall gleaming skyscrapers and lampposts that have the Korean flag fluttering from them. Sometime last year for a certain period of time, all the Korean flags were replaced with flags from different countries of the world. Everytime I walked along Teheran-ro with my husband, we had a ‘guess the flag’ contest.

Tulip Lady 

CB in gangnam

One of our favourite things to do in spring is to walk around the neighbourhood in search of cherry blossom trees. Since they are around only for a week or two, we try to spend as much time outdoors as possible. On one such excursion, I saw this woman walk past a hardware store under a row of cherry blossom trees with a tulip plant in hand that had a single blooming red tulip. Everybody else had sandwiches or coffee in their hands. It was lunch hour. I wondered if the plant was for her own work desk or bought as a gift for a friend she was going to meet later in the day.

The Bargain-hunter

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Right before the onset of winter, I found this guy perusing winter coats at Vin Prime, a thrift shop in one of the back alleys of Gangnam. He didn’t buy anything but he browsed for a long time and let me finish my sketch from across the road. My hands were freezing.

 

 

 

 

Hello again!

I have been away from the blog for a long time, so long that it makes coming back a little difficult. For the past few days and weeks, I have been mulling over what I could say to make my return feel less jarring.

For a while I toyed with the idea of making a comic which would in succinct panels illustrate why I was away. Or maybe a chronological account of what I was up to all this while would best demystify my unexplained absence. But I realized to produce anything of quality befitting the dramatic re-entry I was imagining in my head would take time.

And the last thing I want is to spend more time away from blogging. I have missed telling stories. And I have missed hearing from those who read my stories. If not for that one reader who in her comment on my Instagram page nudged me to start writing again, I would still be standing at the threshold, hesitating.

For the lack of a clever way of expounding my year-long absence from blogging, I will state the facts as plainly as possible.

Last year, in the month of May, I suffered a shoulder injury which took a physical and psychological toll on my body. What started as a nagging pain in my left shoulder that I thought would disappear on its own in few days only got intense and agonizing with time. The following weeks were spent undergoing physical therapy, taking muscle relaxants and pain medications and receiving half a dozen injections but they brought little relief.

The doctor advised me to rest my shoulder and back completely. My deteriorating condition made it difficult for me to sit upright for long. Very soon I was unable to write, draw, cook, clean or simply hold a book up to read. It required Herculean effort to lift a bottle of water to drink. I couldn’t tie my hair or dry myself with a towel after taking a shower. The pain remained unabated. My left arm hung limply from the shoulder and the medication caused such drowsiness and nausea that I spent days in bed, sleeping or in the toilet, throwing up.

self portrait covid

Eventually I got referred to a shoulder surgeon at one of the biggest hospitals in Seoul. MRI revealed frayed shoulder tendons and a rare congenital condition (found in a small population) that had caused the inflammation, and hence the pain.

The treatment? More medication, continued physical therapy, and plenty of rest.

I was told that in the next six months to a year (possibly more) I should regain some of the strength and flexibility back in my shoulder. “Really, that long?”, I remember asking my doctor incredulously. For me, coming to terms with this long recovery period was most challenging. It meant depending on others for simple tasks; it meant not being able to do things I loved doing; it meant being in pain for longer than I had expected. Other than a flu here and a sore throat there which took most a week to heal, I had been blessed with good health. The complacency that comes with that sort of thing is a deterrent to you ability in handling stress and ambiguity. Lesson learnt.

The biceps is one of the most exercised muscles in the body, my doctor had explained in halting English. He backed that up by picking up the pen lying on his desk. “There, I just used my biceps”, he said. That’s why healing is slow. So slow, I realized, that it takes a long time to sense any sort of improvement.

But it’s there. It’s happenning. I know because I opened a jar of olives today and it didn’t hurt.

It took me a year to be able to do that. I have still a long way to go in terms of recovery and I don’t know if wishing to get back the shoulder I had is unrealistic but in the process of dealing with this crisis, I have made few good changes and adjustments in my life. And if they stick, why, I should still have gained a lot!

For now, I am happy to be back here with the renewed desire to share my stories again and drawings, of course. The above sketch is a current self portrait of a first time mask-wearer with improved shoulder strength.

 

 

 

 

Winter sketching

Seoul winters are long and cold. And as much as I love the cold, I don’t especially cherish the fact that it puts an end to my outdoor sketching routine. By November temperatures fall to single digits, winter coats are out, room heaters are on, signalling my retreat to the warmth of cafes along with my art supplies.

Friends who live in similar climes have suggested wearing fingerless gloves. Pictures on social media showing artists sitting in snow covered landscapes in their winter gear doing oil paintings makes you wonder if you’re trying hard enough?

Last winter I did try. And quickly realized in barely one sitting how ill-equipped my body is to pursue something like this. In a matter of minutes, my fingers became numb and refused to move across the page. My nose was running, lips froze and the ears started hurting. It was over.

A year later, the older and wiser me heads straight to the warmest spot inside any cafe and parks herself there. These sketches are from those visits. Each sketch tells a different story but one thing common across all sketches is the pile of winter coats you see about the cafe drinkers. They’re either hung at the back of the chairs or piled on top of the table or on empty seats. I find the floppy sleeves sticking out of their crumpled masses really funny!

crayon alver

These women were talking loudly about something very funny. I was amused just looking at them laugh so hard. As I don’t speak Korean, every overheard conversations feels like a missed opportunity!

crayon startbucks

The Christmas trees were out early December and a lilting voice from the speakers urged Santa baby to hurry down the chimney every single night.

craypn starbucks

This hygiene-conscious couple had a big bottle of hand sanitiser with them which they took turns to take to the washroom each time one had to go. I never know what i’m going to see next!

PBsanta

During Christmas, the Paris Baguette next to our house had Santa cut outs all over the store and had installed an excellent Christmas tree which made the hideous looking Christmas tree in our building lobby look even more drab.

Alver cafe1

On weekends Alver cafe is packed to the gills. You can always see a bunch of people standing nonchalantly waiting for other people to finish their coffee and leave. As long as they have a phone, waiting doesn’t seem to be a problem!

dino kid

Vrooom Vrooooom…pow..pow..pow..vroommm..whooosh- we were treated to an intense Dinosaur flight with sound effects by this little guy. There was head butting, arm wrestling and a lot of pushing and shoving. It was by far the cutest thing I came across in a cafe!

starbucks patrons

Underneath the powder blue coat this lady was dressed like a character from Great Gatsby. Only partially, though. Top half- Sequin top, vintage looking chandelier necklace with matching bracelet and earrings. Bottom half – distressed denims

alver cafe 2

The crowd at Cafe Alver

Christina day out

After spending an afternoon with my friend Christina exploring the insanely busy Dongdaemun Shopping Complex we stopped by a nearby cafe with big windows and sketched. This was the view from my side of the table. I love how Christina has no qualms about me sketching her! She always says yes when I ask for permission and is never bothered by the outcome

Alver cafe

Interesting couple at Cafe Alver

Alver 3

Alver 2

The guy seated in front of me was reading, listening to music, eating and drinking all at the same time. Meanwhile someone in the corner started applying makeup as soon as her companion left the table to go to the washroom

Alver 1

When the food arrives the food paparazzi goes click, click click!!!

Starbucks sketch

The Girl With The Strawberry Tote Bag

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.

mom at dining table.jpg

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!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Polka-dotted brolly and a wiseass tote bag

I am forever in awe of the things I see when I am out sketching.

They are not momentous, life altering events or rare, one of a kind objects. In fact, they couldn’t be more humdrum and yet I am hooked in the deepest and most profound way. Every minute spent observing life and documenting it in my sketchbook feels more honest, real, fulfilling and joyful than any other job I have held and drawn paycheques from. And I often ask myself why that is?

And each time I find myself thumbing through my drawings in search for answers.

These sketches are from my latest sketchbook. All 24 pages filled with drawings of people in different cafes and eateries in Seoul. The sketchbook starts roughly at the time when the city was emerging from the throes of winter. The sun felt warm on our faces, the breeze wasn’t bone chilling and there were leaves on brown spindly branches. We were reaching for lighter coats and winter boots were being stowed away.

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When I saw this girl in my first drawing, wearing a baby pink flowy shirt with her sweater casually thrown over her shoulders, drinking a matching pink drink I felt spring tiptoeing into our lives. And it was. The next couple of weeks were spent hiking, reading books in al fresco cafes and chasing cherry blossoms around Seoul.

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Fresh, new, colourful could describe everything – the weather, our clothes, food (strawberries were in) as well as our soaring moods! The two women in the drawing above wearing whacky, bright coloured jackets epitomized the ‘if you’ve got it, flaunt it’ nature of the season.

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See the guy in the red glasses enjoying his meal in the drawing below? I noticed him from the end of the room and eventually drew him because in a world of distractions, it was interesting to see someone so deeply engaged in just the one thing. He used his hands to pick up the food, admired it and then put it in his mouth very gently. With eyes closed he relished each bite as if to taste the ingredients and appreciate the workings of the recipe. To me, it looked like the food was nourishing his soul as much as his body.

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After the hubbub of Spring, it rained incessantly for days. The skies were grey and everything felt wet, cold and damp. I went out for a cup of hot tea to shake off the gloom and what do I find in the cafe? The brightest polka dotted umbrella resting against a chair occupied by a guy wearing a cap so red that it could stop the traffic. He had ripped jeans on and a t-shirt with a plunging neckline that revealed a tattoo very similar to a paramecium I had once drawn in my Biology notebook.

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This drawing above is also my favourite in this series because here I was looking sloppy, moping around because the sun wasn’t out and my laundry wouldn’t dry whereas this guy was dressed fashionably enough to walk the ramp, rains be damned. And in veritable defiance he was carrying the most happy looking umbrella that screamed ‘in your face, crappy weather’ in bold letters. If something is unacceptable, there can be really creative ways to push back! That evening not only did I feel avenged, I returned home with a better attitude.

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The next drawing is of a bunch of elderlies licking on pink ice-creams. What you don’t see in the picture is how excited they were to see each other when they met at the cafe and how impatient they were for their treats to arrive after placing the order! I drew their droopy posture and wrinkled faces, but what I couldn’t capture and only witnessed was their child-like abandon at rejoicing something so basic and timeless – friendship and $1 ice-creams on sticks.

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My neighbourhood in Gangnam is a shopping mecca, the reason why cafes in this locality receive a lot of customers with shopping bags in tow. Sometimes to entertain myself when I’m drawing them I try to guess the contents of the shopping bags based on the label. It’s a fun game!

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And occasionally educational because that’s how I came to know about ‘8 Seconds’ (see the drawing above) which is Samsung’s high street brand. Did you know Samsung, the South Korean multinational conglomerate that most of us associate with phones and electronics has an established presence in the fashion industry? In fact Samsung launched ‘8 Seconds’ to compete with the growing local presence of global fast fashion retailers like Zara, H&M and Uniqlo.

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On one such day while playing the scintillating game of ‘guess what’s in the bag’ as if to challenge my speculative prowess walked in a girl with a canary yellow tote bag that said, “How to be Popular”. See the drawing above.  After finishing her food and drink I watched her walk out of the cafe with the bag held tightly under her arm.

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She didn’t leave a clue about the bag’s contents. But she left me the story – of a wise-ass tote bag sighting in Gangnam! And that I realized is what keeps me hooked and makes me come back for more. The story if you pare it down is an interesting visual which I capture in a sketch and my response to that visual stimulation which I narrate to you in words. And it’s addictive because collecting stories like these on a daily basis makes me feel like I am participating in my own life.

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Like I’m in the field, playing the game and not cheering from the sidelines. Like every day could have something to wonder about.

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Isn’t that something? This sketch above on the last page of this sketchbook is of a woman I saw the other day, probably a teacher marking an answer sheet while talking on the phone. Judging from the red marks it didn’t look good for the student.

 

 

 

 

 

Observing People on Seoul subways

line 9aI take the subway to get around the city a lot. It’s silly not to. The subway station is almost at our doorstep and a ride costs slightly over a dollar which is great value for money considering how big Seoul is and how modern, clean, safe, punctual and fast it’s subways are.

Another benefit, relevant to the curious eyes of a sketch artist is the ability to observe people at close quarters! It’s even more fun when you’re fresh off the boat and your senses are so alert that they pick out the slightest nuances in your brand new environment.

In our early days in Seoul, all my brain did was to compare and contrast. When I saw people in the subways or cafes I didn’t just notice their physical features, I also involuntarily observed their posture, demeanour, hairstyles, fashion choices, personal habits and idiosyncrasies and compared those with people I had observed in other countries.

line 9bIt was a wonderful phase of learning and discovering!

One year down the road, it still is and I attribute my unabated curiosity to sketching because it always leads to uncovering interesting insights about the place I am currently living in.

For example sketching people on Seoul subways has led me to spot innumerable Seoulites reading online comic strips or enjoying baseball games on their phones.  A little digging unearthed the profound love for Manhwa (Korean term for comics and print cartoons) that I did not know about.

Engaging storylines, unique plot twists and attractive colourful artworks have made these webtoons (Korean comics released online on a weekly basis) so popular that some have been adapted into successful Korean dramas!

Line 9cThe love for baseball, the most popular spectator sport in Korea runs equally deep. It is believed to have been introduced to Korea by American missionaries in 1905 during the Korean Empire. The sport gradually attained prominence in the later years. And today there are 10 pro teams in the Korea Baseball Organization and over 8 million people watch the sport annually.

I am yet to add a South Korean baseball game to my list of experiences but if what I’ve heard – the electric music, roar of drum beats and the rhythmic swinging of people dressed in uniforms lending the game a rock concert vibe – is correct, then it’s going to be even more exciting that I imagined.

Line 9dSee some folks wearing surgical style face masks in some of my sketches? I was blissfully unaware of the poor air quality in Korea until I started sketching people wearing face masks not just inside subways but almost everywhere and kept wondering what could they be for. Fine dust, technically known as Particulate Matter (PM) has been acknowledged as a serious public health issue in Korea and it’s common practice here to wear these fine dust masks, available at almost all convenience stores and pharmacies, to block out harmful air pollutants.

Another observation I owe to subway sketching is about the popularity of the blunt fringe hairstyle with Korean me. Not captured in the sketches are the occasional hair flips by the said men to adjust the fringe followed by casual finger-combing and stretching the fringe dangerously close to the eyes possibly impairing vision but I wouldn’t know for sure.

Line 9eAlso, the number of people taking selfies (see above) and women seen applying make-up inside Seoul subways can put the most self conscious of us at ease. I have yet to wield a hand mirror to touch up my face while balancing without the support of a handrail on a moving train that’s packed to the gills with people but the day I manage such a feat with the practiced ease and nonchalance of Seoulites, I’d consider myself to be truly assimilated.

Until then I’m happy to be looking in, documenting what I see, feeding my curiosity and slowly adjusting to the place I now call home.

Hope you enjoy these pen and ink drawings on toned paper.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Sunday Afternoon

 

subs napping

Siesta in progress in the living room of our Seoul apartment. 

is the awkward empty space on our weekend calendar that we never know how to fill.

In between active mornings spent outdoors, long leisurely lunches and evenings spent mourning the end of the weekend comforted by Netflix and a bowl of salted popcorn, lies the vacant, vanilla afternoons.

Never earmarked for anything specific, this orphaned chunk of time gets adopted differently each week. On some occasions we cozy up to our Kindles and catch up on reading. On others we play scrabble. Or video chat with our parents. Or dive into the bottomless pit of social media.

But on some afternoons when the low-hung sky darkens with ominous clouds, the lulling breeze blowing in from the windows soothes our skin and the smell of wet earth fills the rooms, on those afternoons with the pitter patter sound of the first raindrops our eyelids become heavy. And even though we squint and blink trying to stay awake, la siesta takes over.

One of us sinks into the sofa, rests his head against the cushions and puts his feet up on the table. The other drops everything, picks up a sketchbook and draws the scene!