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A particular kind of Bengali trauma

In the middle of a pandemic, the once familiar sit-and-draw competition has become an unlikely symbol of our lost world

Sit-and-draw is a particular kind of Bengali trauma where your private knack suddenly becomes public spectacle.
Sit-and-draw is a particular kind of Bengali trauma where your private knack suddenly becomes public spectacle. (Biswarup Ganguly)

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a Bengali child in possession of a good family must be in want of a knack. Others call them hobbies but Bengalis, with full pride and prejudice, like to say, “My child has a knack for singing or the sitar.” My mother, a dancer and a singer in her time, hoped I might show a knack for the sarod. Alas, I was tone deaf. Luckily, I turned out to have a modest knack for drawing. With a sigh of relief, I was packed off on weekends to art school, where I encountered the world of sit-and-draw competitions.

The pandemic has turned our world upside down and the art world is no exception. Art Basel’s Art Market Report says global art sales fell 22% in 2020. A post-pandemic world will have to reassess whether it needs that many biennales and art fairs in the first place. Collectors are showing more willingness to buy art based on an online image, without seeing it in person. In March, Christie’s sold a record $70 million (around 518 crore) in digital artwork. But smaller galleries have been struggling to stay afloat.

In India, some galleries started offering Instagram tours of their collections. The Bihar Museum biennale, the first of its kind, planned as a physical three-month event, was pushed back by a year and eventually became a hybrid seven-day event this March. But while much has been written about the impact of covid-19 on the Indian art market, what about the humble sit-and-draw competition?

A physically distanced sit-and-draw sounds like an oxymoron. A sit-and-draw has to have swarms of children squished into a cordoned-off space with their crayons and pencils while their parents hover outside anxiously, stepping on each other’s toes as they try to monitor their child’s knack. I have seen sit-and-draw competitions with full-fledged cloth and bamboo barricades to keep tiger parents at bay.

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If sit-and-draw was sold as friendly competition when I was a child, now they are far more ruthless. Our street in Kolkata has hosted a sit-and-draw on the pavement every year during Kali Puja. Lately it feels like a high-stakes civil service competitive examination. Loudspeaker announcements tell parents to move away from the drawing area and let the children draw as they please. That doesn’t stop some mother from hissing: “Babu, stop daydreaming. See how nicely the little girl next to you has already coloured her scenery.” But Babu just chews his pencil nervously, his paper unblemished.

Every time I walk past a sit-and-draw competition, my heart skips a beat. Sit-and-draw is a particular kind of Bengali trauma where your private knack suddenly becomes public spectacle. As a six-year-old, I was doubtful about art school. I liked drawing but on the floor at home, with a piece of chalk. I enjoyed drawing animals—elephants, tigers, swans; I meticulously drew in all the animal vahanas of the gods. I could not understand the point of drawing bowls of fruit.

Even worse, art school hammered home the concept of drawing within the lines. Every time your crayon stroke strayed beyond the margins of the pencil-drawn figure, “drawing miss” looked pained. Soon my drawings had thick black lines around my humans, animals and mountain ranges, Lakshman rekhas to keep my deviant crayons in check.

Our finished artwork graced our home—my sister’s oil painting of a village scene with the gulmohar tree in fiery bloom and my depiction of a zoo where the figures at the back and the figures in front were all exactly the same size. It was as if my childhood self, reluctantly coerced into keeping within the margins, had decided to rebel against the diktats of perspective.

Before every sit-and-draw competition, children are made to practise the perennial favourites—Summer Vacation, Day at the Zoo, My Favourite Pet, Durga Puja. I can imagine the daydreaming boy’s mother despairing: “But he knows how to draw Summer Vacation. We practised at home, for goodness sake!”

It’s like a trial run for life itself. Can you follow rules? Can you deliver your project by the deadline? How do you deal with the pressure of competitors, all racing to the finish line around you? How do you cope with the stress of a ticking clock? (“Participants, we have 15 minutes left. I repeat, we have 15 minutes left”). Do you have the presence of mind to adapt what you practised at home to the topic assigned? Did you remember to bring an extra pencil? Get set, draw.

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The pandemic has wrought havoc in the sit-and-draw world. 2020 saw no sit-and-draws in my neighbourhood. Kolkata’s Nehru Children’s Museum’s webpage has a bright red notice from the secretary informing us that the final round of the 48th sit-and-draw competition has been postponed indefinitely. The Nehru Children’s Museum contest is legendary, the Ascot of our sit-and-draw calendars. Even I have taken part. I can only imagine the plight of all those Green (five-eight years), White (eight years, one day to 12) and Blue (12 years, one day to 16) group sit-and-draw finalists who must now sit-and-wait. The topics for this year sound reassuringly familiar—My Pet, Seaside, Village Scene. But then I discover even sit-and-draw cannot escape real world turbulence. The Blue group has to choose between Republic Day Tableau and Life During a Pandemic while the Red group (for handicapped children) is offered Cyclone Amphan. Last year, I remember, during Durga Puja I came upon the results of a sit-and-draw contest organised by the NGO Meghdutam Foundation plastered on the walls of a pandal. Almost all of them featured the Goddess slaying the green spiky corona-asura.

My sit-and-draw career never progressed beyond a third prize trophy which we still have, discoloured and dusty, featuring a sort of voluptuous Ajanta fresco-ish lady blowing a conch shell. But once you have sat-and-drawn, it’s in your blood forever.

Bengal is probably the only state whose chief minister sometimes paints live on stage. Mamata Banerjee insists: “I am not a painter but a commoner. Mine is a casual approach.” Her artistic skills and the prices for her paintings have raised eyebrows. She remains undeterred. And when she was barred from campaigning for a day during the 2021 assembly election, she sat in protest and painted. For Bengalis, it didn’t feel unusual at all. It was like sit-and-draw all over again, just the dharna version.

Now, in the middle of a pandemic, a sit-and-draw has become the unlikely symbol of our lost world. Others will look at art auctions and gallery openings and museum attendance as yardsticks by which to measure a return to normalcy. But I will look forward to a world where we will once again sit and draw Village Scene/Summer Holiday, not Pandemic Life. We will not fret about physical distancing and breakthrough infections. Instead, we will have other things to worry about. Like “Babu, you have not started colouring yet! There’s not much time left. Why did you draw so many people and animals at the zoo? You will have to colour them all now.”

Until then we can sit-and-daydream.

Cult Friction is a fortnightly column on issues we keep rubbing up against. Sandip Roy is a writer, journalist and radio host.


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