Some artists need pin-drop silence to draw. Others paint in studios to the swell of classical music. But Sam Kulavoor, one of Mumbai’s most-popular urban artists, is most creative when overwhelmed by the bustle of city streets. In his first solo, Kulavoor has displayed sketchbook drawings that focus on moments of stillness in the midst of chaos. “They are slice-of-life moments,” Kulavoor says. “They are things you see everyday — a man stretched out on a cart, a couple of kids enjoying gully cricket — but don’t necessarily notice. You don’t stop and look. How nice it would be if people started doing that?” he adds.
Kulavoor points to a sketch of a man who has fallen asleep in the middle of Mohammed Ali Road, one of the noisiest and most densely-populated parts of the city. With firm, yet simple black lines, he has drawn out his form with the legs pulled up and the crook of his arm covering his face. There is no suggestion of what must have been a hectic backdrop. “I have chosen drawings that don’t give too much of a context,” the 32- year-old says. “I want the focus to remain on the subject and not the things around it. That way, viewers can fill in the blanks using their imagination. This guy can be anyone, anywhere.”
Growing up in Borivali, Kulavoor used to take the local trains down south to attend junior college and later the JJ Institute for Applied Arts. “I used to sketch at lot on train,” he says. Now, he works at Bombay Duck Designs, a graphic design studio he has founded. Over the last few years, Kulavoor has worked on a number of projects, some of which stand in stark contrast to the “ambiguous” and “suggestive” art in this show.
In his Kala Ghoda Musings, a series of black-and-white drawings that he completed this year, every aspect of the bustling area was carefully detailed. People, buildings, signs, the smoke rising from coffee cups — Kulavoor didn’t miss a square inch. He is perhaps best known for his Ghoda Cycle Project, where he documented the colourful customisations and jugaad that characterise bicycles in India with felt-tip pens. This time, Kulavoor has tried to maintain the feel of a sketchbook. Hanging on the walls are drawings of crossed feet, a set of clapping hands, a pair of dangling legs. They are simple and focused. He hasn’t included a single face. “I don’t want to give away too much,” he says, “and faces tend to do that.”
Apart from his desire to avoid “handing everything to the viewer on a platter”, Kulavoor says that the sparseness of the sketches draws more attention to each stroke. Every sketch was a rushed, harried effort. Most took him five to 10 minutes as he clutched a sketchbook in the middle of a crowded street. “That kind of pressure pushes me to do the best in whatever limited time I have. You can see that tension in my drawings,” says Kulavoor.
The lack of time also means that he never has the opportunity to think about what he’s drawing. According to Kulavoor, that’s the crux of his art. “My lines are an expression that needs to come out quickly, without too much planning. Drawing is something that I feel; it’s impulsive and instinctive and I have to let it out. Once you’re planning things and your mind comes into the process, your drawings lose half their charm. You can always tell when a line has come out as a reflex, and when it is weighed down by too much thought,” he says.
He never leaves home without his sketchbooks and, whenever he has a break — in between meetings — he wanders on the road to see what he can find. “The basis for everything I do is observation,” he says. Although Picasso holds a special place in his heart, his environment is more of an inspiration. “I love the city. It’s a melting pot. There are millions of things to notice, and I’m good at observing them,” he says.