In Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities, Marco Polo describes different cities to Kublai Khan, the Chinese Emperor, when he’s really only describing a single city – Venice. To Marco, Venice’s houses, canals, and even its drains, are like entire cities in themselves. It would be apt to say that Mumbai isn’t much different. On looking closely, every gully, chawl, workshop, restaurant, sculpture, or building would appear as miniature cities whose rules are merely extended to the megalopolis. If one wishes to walk through these micro-cities and document the lives thriving therein, a way to do that would be to photograph them; writing is another option. Meet the group who took one step further and decided to chronicle Mumbai’s many neighbourhoods via sketches! Urban Sketchers Mumbai has been exploring and sketching every cultural, commercial, religious, and residential nook of the city.
Founder Kishan Dev first came to Mumbai from Delhi in 2009. “As an artist who was keen on sketching, I was dismayed that there was no such group in the city to join and sketch with,” he told us. Wasting no time, he started a meetup group with four other artists. Soon, different artists began to join and the circle grew larger. Since January 2016, it has become a part of the global Urban Sketchers forum. Usk Mumbai, as it is known, has a singular motto: be present at the location to sketch what you see and like. That means, no sketching from photos, or even memory. “As you sketch from life, you learn a lot about the proportions of different elements, their details, and actual colour tones,” Dev explains.
The sketching group has been bliss for several artists in the city. “Before I joined Usk Mumbai, I would sketch at home for practice, but it wasn’t enough. Sketching outdoors has added to my visual library. I meet so many people on the sketch-walks and learn so much from their art,” says freelance illustrator Girish Malap.
Of late, Dev has been conducting several workshops in collaboration with Doolally Taproom, “Doolally didn’t have a problem with the fact that we are not-for-profit when they contacted us for the workshops. In fact, they provided sheets of paper and pencils to all the participants. In these workshops, I first tell the participants to lose their fear of sketching in public. That’s where it all starts. You have to stop wondering what people may think of your drawing.”
When it comes to sketching outdoors, the group has experienced many a hitch in the past. There are some places in the city that require prior permission or have restrictions about carrying equipment such as easels. Other places simply don’t let the artists sketch. For this purpose, the group petitioned to the Archaeological Society of India (ASI) for these restrictions to be removed. They were granted a letter by the ASI that now lets them sketch at all heritage sites in the city.
Joining Usk Mumbai does not require you to be a professional artist or have an evolved style of sketching — individual styles practiced with any medium are cherished. The group’s diverse professionals include students and teachers from different fields, doctors, architects, and engineers. “Mumbai is a vibrant city. Every part of the city tells a story,” said Abishek, a banker and regular participant of the group’s sketchwalks. “In the sketchwalks, I pull up conversations with the locals of a particular locality to know what they have to say about it. Through my style, I try to depict the nuances of a place in my sketch. If there was a man pulling a bullock cart, or if I see a bird sitting on a tree branch, I sketch it out. My sketches tell a story about what happened in the place around me while I sat and observed,” he continues.
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