THE UNKNOWN ARTIST
By Neel Anil Panicker
Restful—that’s what he felt after every ‘project’.
Then, he would put a cigarette to his lips, and lighting it, take a long drag inside, the slow exhalation through the nostrils, bringing him intense joy and relaxation, reflected in the way his bulbous eyes behind rimmed glasses shone bright, the pupils dilating to their maxim ala a bat’s wings.
He was easy to spot; this despite the thickening melange of busy as a bumble bee harried executives, the ubiquitous laid back college goers, and the laidback backpackers—all converging in the ‘well—the Inner Circle meeting place of the central business district of Connaught Place, one of the oldest and most vibrant business cum leisure spots in New Delhi, national capital of India.
With a Starbucks pointing towards the main street on which whizzed past near non stop fancy big cars and vehicles, and a few other middle of the range shopping establishments including a teeny boppers’ favourite Deli just at the end of the turnaround, the well commanded pride of place and served as a magnet for quite of the lot of the mostly young crowd that anchored base to either grab a quick tea and biscuit bite, or a cigarette, or both. while they killed token, simply lolling around, chitchatting inanities, passing precious few minutes of me time before they would be once again sucked into the daily grind, working deadlines, meeting expectations, upholding standards or whatever it was that they needed to do to ensure that their lives and if their loved ones carried on smoothly without any major hiccups.
After my first sighting, I noticed him a few more times, and after that I had turned a pro as far as decoding this unusual man and his unusual pursuit.
He would sit quietly in his corner, on a low floor granite seating area that made a near circular arc around the well, and then do his thing.
His thing was a small wooden drawing board quote similar to any student’s examination board.
He would sit crossed legged, holding the board on his upper thighs. In his hands would be a sharpened Natraj pencil, that he would hold gingerly between two fingers—the tips of his right thumb and his index finger firmly caressing the pencil’s edges.
Thus ready. he would raise his head and scan his audience. Once he had hunted his prey, the spotting over, he would set down to capture the image.
His bumble fingers would get to work, and the next hour or so, he would on a plain white paper draw a perfect pencil sketch of the quarry.
Occasionally he would look up, his hawkish eyes minutely studying the contours of his subject’s face, the jawlines, the physical nuances unique to a person, and then head bent, his hands would trace perfect lines on the page.
Under a quarter of an hour later, he would inspect his creation, eyes scanning in microscopic detail every single etch and line and curve, occasionally darting furtive glances at his subject to ensure that every single attribute of his prey was highlighted in a picture perfect manner.
Once completely satisfied with his creation, the man would roll over his drawing paper, and in place would be the next empty white space waiting to be filled in with his ‘creation.’
But before that, his much needed 5 minute cigarette break.
Many a times as I would watch this aged artist, a sixty something frail old man with long silvery hair and always clad in a starch white kurta and pyjamas, I would wonder what passion made him sit countless hours under the hot blazing sun and draw portraits of unknown people, what hidden motivations drove him.
I had almost made up my mind to simply walk up to this quaint mystery artist and talk about his peculiar passion and his artworks.
I thought I would do the same the next time I passed by him.
But then unfortunately corona struck.
Now, three months later, and closeted inside four walls, I wonder what’s happened to this mystery artist. what’s he doing now that he is forced indoors with no subjects to spot and hunt and shoot.
Maybe, I wil still get to know that once the black shroud of the deadly contagion lifts and his subjects step out of the safety of their homes and converge in lunch time around the well—simply hanging around. chitchatting. smoking cigarettes and sipping hot piping street side chai, while all along, and quite unknown to them, their facial expressions, lilting laughters, lovely smiles and the minutest of oddities get captured for eternity by a quant old man with a fondness for wielding the pencil and an intense liking for non-filter Goldflake cigarettes.
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