Departments July/Aug 2020

The Art of Getting Lost

By Seema Misra

At 5 am the roads lay empty. All the shops had their shutters down. Retired men gathered on the steps, reading their newspapers and sipping hot filter coffee in tiny steel cups. As the sun went up, business resumed in Bangalore’s oldest market, Chickpete.

Located in South Bangalore, India, this market dates to the 16th century. The city’s founder, Kempegowda, ploughed out multiple major trading roads here, leading to the development of markets catering to travelers.

I was ambling through these streets trying to “get lost.” In the process, many discoveries were waiting to be made…

The fragrance from street food vendors. Aromatic incense sticks being burned in the temples. The “clack clack” sound of lathe machines. Gutted computer parts being sold in the “recycled” market. The glitter of steel utensils. The swish of silk and cotton fabrics being displayed to customers.

You can find a world of wonders here, if you are in luck. Wonders that are certainly not found in the supermarkets that dot the smart city. And stories come free with the experience. Delicate gold leaflets for a very special “Tanjore” painting are sold at an old, run-down herbal medicine store. The grumpy owner is a Tanjore painter himself, and he sells you the stuff only if he likes you!

Hole-in-the-wall shops sell lace, beads, gemstones, and objects that shine. Vintage cameras that don’t (need to) work anymore. Peacock feathers and brass betel nut cutters. A shop full of mannequins—in various stages of undress. Another shop of just pickles—made in different homes from mangoes, jackfruits, olives, onions, tomatoes, and green pepper vines. Like chapters in a fantasy novel, every lane is dedicated to a specific product: Sarees, jewelry, second-hand books, pirated books, oils…

I have always walked these streets with some plausible motive or another: Accompanying a friend shopping for her wedding trousseau, buying art supplies, or getting an iron wok when I first started living on my own, just because it sounded fancy.

During this visit to Chickpete, I was with a group of artists, and we wanted to disorient ourselves a bit. Maybe see things with fresh eyes., so we each used a geo-tracker app and walked around the area, drawing simple shapes through our steps. It was a new way of exploring a familiar place, aided by technology with enough room for human intervention.

I also spent some time sketching in these streets. As an avid outdoor sketcher and a core member of the city’s Urban Sketchers group, I’ve become used to standing still and minutely observing various corners of the city, the kind they show in music video montages. Sketching familiar places in pen and watercolor allows me to experience layers of city life that I would have otherwise missed.

During the recent lockdown, I found some time to reflect on these sketches and weave them into a user manual—one that helps the reader to successfully get lost in Chickpete or any other familiar place.


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