The streetside artist sat on his stool, sipping on tea out of a paper cup, bundled in a jacket to ward off the chill. His eyes were intent, peaking over the cup, on the lookout for customers. As the serene sunset cast its lovely glow over the lake, the lakefront was bustling with activity, people not wanting to miss the scenic view. Probably wanting to glimpse the only touch of nature in this man-made jungle of a city.
Children cried in the arms of exasperated parents, often hands extended towards the newest attraction. The Ferris wheel, the bumping cars, the candy stations… there was much to be attracted to. Peddlers and hawkers selling all kinds of odds and ends, displaying their wares to customers and haggling prices with them. The noise of commercial activity seemed to intensify around the most peaceful time of the day. Probably ensuring a light heart and an even lighter purse... The requisite in
a consumer fueled society.
The streetside artist locks eyes with me. He beckons me to his tiny desolate corner with hopeful eyes and promising words. At this point, there is one thing about me that you should know. I cannot say no to anybody. In traffic jams when the peddlers sell their cheap products, I buy them. Simply because I cannot walk away indifferent. I am no saint or paragon of compassion; it is weakness on my behalf which stops me from firmly yet politely extricating myself from this situation.
So, like the weakling that I am, I trudge over to his corner and ask his price. I accept my fate when he names it, not knowing whether or not he was overcharging me. I sit at the stool reserved for his subjects. I took a look at one of his samples depicting a pretty girl with her head tilted to the side. I wondered if he could bring my features out as flatteringly. I break out of my reverie to look at the artist and give him an awkward smile for a pose only to find that the corner wasn’t so desolate anymore.
People thronged behind the artist, intently looking into the easel as if waiting for a miracle to unfold. Feeling invaded and fighting back my intense embarrassment, I sit in what I hope is a passably straight posture and put a smile on my face, not wanting to look grumpy in a ‘customized portrait’. I probably still ended up looking very out of my element.
Soon the crowd passed by when no miracle happened.
I watched as the crowd thickened and melted until it was just the two of us, sitting on our respective stools. Me studying the artist and the artist studying me. Gaze flitting up and down to capture fleeting expressions. Sometimes his hand reached down to quickly snatch a sip from the paper cup while setting it down with equal swiftness. But his eyes followed a fixed path, from the easel to my face, and then from my face to the easel.
Weirdly enough, his gaze did not feel heavy or uncomfortable. Simply probing. I wondered what the man saw in the hundred faces he must have splayed across the paper in the same deft strokes that he recorded mine. Was he able to make out hurt or sadness? Could he glean suppressed anger or lurking mirth? Could he show all of that with the play of light and shadows across a paper?
As I sat there, a few more people strode by. Every now and then a starry-eyed lover passed by, dragging their other half, almost always the indifferent opposite to their disposition. More crying children with their scolding parents. A few revellers with dragging feet, probably after the pedalled boat rides. A few stayed to watch. Even fewer eventually decided to hand pictures of relatives to him to sketch, receiving which he shouted in the general direction of a tea stall.
A few more similarly dressed men appeared out of nowhere and began pulling out easels. Taking the photos. I watched these other men start similarly sketching their subjects. Customers breathed down their necks like a debtor on the first day of the month, eyes drinking in every stroke with an earnestness unparalleled. These men must have had ice water in their veins to be this calm in the face of that. Sometimes a satisfied smile graced the customer’s face, looking at the subject of their love back to the subject of the artist. Sometimes frown creased their foreheads.
I looked back at the artist to see him still on his project, concentration in every line of his hunched back. We studied each other, me committing every tiny detail of the scene before me to my memory. The artist, paper cup fully drained now, furiously shading on the piece of paper, hands stained black with the charcoal he was using. I suddenly realized that I’d dropped my smile a long time ago. I started fidgeting, impatience finally having gotten better of me. I was about to ask him how much longer as he said, “Done, madam”.
I counted the sum out carefully before depositing it in his hand. Only then was I handed the paper. I studied the picture. I wasn’t pretty in it, but I wasn’t ugly either. I simply looked back at myself. I looked up from the paper to see him hastily pocketing the cash. Noticing my gaze, he opened his mouth to perhaps defensively retort about his art. But I cut him off before he had a single word out, “It’s nice.”
Ishani Mukherjee is a 1st-year student of History Hons at Hansraj College. Her hobbies include observing people (read staring at people till they get creeped out), writing about her observations, reading pretentiously long books and holding long, snarky conversations in her head with herself. She loves talking about said books over a cup of hot chocolate and you are always welcome to join the conversation, if you ever find her outside her room that is.