The Eye of the Beholder

Human beings are conceited creatures.

I am authorized to issue this sweeping denouncement since I have taken an Art class. Now this might seem like a non sequitur, however, anyone who has been in a studio class, that involves students drawing one another, has encountered the frailty of the human ego. After just 3 meetings (and 3 such portraiture sessions) I had alienated more than half of the student body.

The reception to my drawings ranged from abject terror (“  Oh my God, am I really that fat?”) to curiosity (“  Why did you make my eyes red?”) to belligerence (“  What the f***k Tushar.”).

I was surprised that people allowed their self-worth to be dictated by my doodles. It was so easy for them to dismiss the grotesque portraits as incompetence on my part (which it was) but instead they chose to take umbrage and declare life-long vendettas.

In the following weeks some rather strange drawings began to appear in class…

“  Nate* seems to have a drawn a modern day form of the devil, evil in human form. Right Nate?”

“  Uh…no that’s actually Tushar.”

“  Then why on Earth are his eyes red?”

Here Nate was nonplussed, as he didn’t want to admit to the petty motivations behind the caricature.

Ever magnanimous, I tried to help,“  Nate’s color blind,” I said.

Nate shot me an angry glance. I shrugged.

“  Oh that explains so much,” Professor Conant* said,” It must be hard living in a monochrome world Nate.”

Nate nodded, an ugly scowl on his face. I made a mental note to stay away from him for the next couple of days.

* * *

The following week Professor Conant once again misinterpreted a drawing.

“  What a funny whale Natalie*, it’s even got spectacles on.”

“  No, that’s my portrait of Tushar.”

“  You should pay more attention to scale then Natalie, that doesn’t look anything remotely human,” Professor Conant frowned.

Natalie nodded, agreeing with the verdict.

“  Tushar, you seem to be very popular this month,” Professor Conant said, turning to me.

“  It must be my natural charisma,” I said smiling brightly (meanwhile Natalie’s friend held her back from trying to skewer me with a graphite pencil).

Fortunately time and profuse apologies defused the situation and by the end of the first month everyone had gone back to making actual Art.

Everyone expect me, that is.

While my peers honed their artistic skills, giving diligent attention to shading, scale and perspective, I remained stuck in the realm of 2D stick figures. Group critiques were a trying ordeal. I was constantly afraid that someone would expose me as a fraud. Before the crits started I felt nervous palpitations like a corrupt politician sighting a horde of journalists approaching.

However, everyone was perplexingly nice, which considerably hampered my — and probably others’ — understanding of Art. I soon lost track of the numerous euphemisms used to describe my work:

“  So refreshingly simple.” (I had drawn a bottle and superimposed a smiley face on it.)

“  I think this is really good abstract art.” (A charcoal sketch of a tree that had got smudged in transit.)

“  I can almost feel the deeper meaning hidden in this.” (I had sprinkled grass on top of an empty shoe box for my ‘found-object’ piece, and there was certainly no concealed secret, other than the exorbitant price tag at the bottom of the carton.)

In late March the situation deteriorated further. While group critiques at least offered a modicum of anonymity we now started moving in a circle around the classroom to examine each individual workbench. Upon seeing an interesting piece we were supposed to bring the class’s attention to it. Inevitably, my drawings were subjected to extended scrutiny.

“  Who drew this?” Professor Conant asked one rainy Monday, standing in front of my bench, in a tone similar to a homicide detective discovering a gruesome murder.

After hesitating slightly — and looking around to see if anyone was willing to take the blame instead — I raised my hand from the other end of the room.

Professor Conant tried hard to smile, “  This is…very interesting Tushar,” she said.

“  Interesting?”

“  Yes, very interesting. Let’s keep moving guys,” she clapped her hands energetically and started the circular rotation again, taking one last look at the drawing and shuddering.

Somehow I survived the gauntlet of critiques and made it to the last month of the semester (Professor Conant by now had become adept at recognizing my work and strategically averting her eyes). In our penultimate class I was celebrating with abandon (in my head), like a shipwrecked sailor who finally sees the shore in sight, when Professor Conant made the announcement.

“  Don’t forget you have to hand in your sketchbooks by the next class.”

The complicated dance manoeuvre that I was executing in my mind was abruptly abandoned. I hadn’t thought about the sketch book for months.

At the beginning of the semester we were told to buy a sturdy 8.5 x 11 notebook and draw in it whenever the Muse worked its magic on us. The idea was to slowly, but steadily, build a collection of drawings, adding a few new works to the corpus every week until by the end of semester we’d amassed several sketches. However, since the Muse had long since given up on me, over the course of 4 months I had drawn only half-a-dozen sketches (out of which 2 were stick figures). While I had followed the instructions to a T, something told me a nearly empty notebook would not pass muster.

I raised my hand.

“  Yes, Tushar?” Professor Conant said smiling, clearly happy at the thought of future classes sans me.

“  I was wondering how many sketches are supposed to be in the notebook?”

“  Well…it varies. Roughly about 50-60?”

“  50?” I asked, feeling my heart descend as if in an elevator.

“  50.”

I steadied myself by placing both my hands on the table. It was going to be a long week.

* * *

Being a mathematician of no uncertain skill, I soon devised a strategy that would allow me to meet the drawing quota while retaining my remaining sanity. I had 5 days till the deadline, ergo I had to draw 10 sketches every single day. And so in a week, in early May, I became even more prolific than Picasso (a phenomenon that critics around the world are glad was short-lived) .

Since the air was still chilly outside, I did the drawings sitting in the comfort of my room while my roommate played FIFA on his XBox. This was great for my well-being, however, it resulted in a certain monotony in my work. After 5 sketches of an Ethernet cable, 12 of my wardrobe and 25 of my hat (it was a good hat) I had exhausted all possible subjects. I sat for a moment in contemplation, thinking of the next possible victims for my art. Nothing came to mind. While looking around the room, my gaze fell on my desk mirror. Since time was going by, I decided to draw the mirror. Now while drawing the mirror, I was tempted to draw my reflection as well (narcissistic, I know).

In retrospect, it is strange that I so blithely ventured to draw myself, when I was well aware of my limited portraiture skills. After I had finished my first sketch, I realized something was missing. In my haste — I was following a gestural drawing style — I had omitted my nose (noses are tricky: not quite in the middle, not quite straight, even light contorts when it falls on them). The resulting image looked like a friendly Voldemort; maybe if you’d spotted him loosening it up at the bar, after a long day of filming.

I was repulsed yet strangely attracted by the creation, “ Hey,” I told myself, “ At least it looks half-human.”

Excited at the idea that I had improved, and would shortly be a worthy successor to Da Vinci, I decided to draw another self-portrait. Gazing earnestly in the mirror I tried to transcribe my face onto paper. This time I remembered the nose but left scant space for the eyebrows. I tried to mend my oversight but in the process made a pair of exceptionally hirsute spectacles.

As I turned to a fresh page I wondered whether van Gogh had faced the same sort of worries.

I sketched 25 more self-portraits, searching for that one elusive drawing that would capture me perfectly, that I would be happy to call my own. I never found it. It might never have existed. But I was proud of every single drawing I made that day, imperfect as they all were. When a friend stopped by she noticed the drawings, “  Uh…Tushar you know you don’t look that ugly, right?” I laughed, but when she had left I thought about it, and realized I didn’t find the portraits unsightly at all. They were flawed and lacking, each one missing something, but every one also capturing something; and together perhaps they were beautiful. Even the noseless-me seemed to have acquired a roguish charm, as I flipped back through the pages to admire my handiwork.

I had never looked at any face as closely as I examined my reflection that day. And after the session with the mirror, each line was imprinted in my mind. I remembered each contour not as broken or smooth, normal or strange, beautiful or ugly, but as my own — which of course is above all that.

Somewhere in the middle of this drawing frenzy (and the revelations it brought), I paused a moment to wonder whether my earlier portrait subjects had been so irate not because I had drawn them poorly but because I had not looked closely enough. As the thought ricocheted in my pinball-machine like mind, I remembered a Confucius quip: “ Everything has beauty, but not everyone sees it” (I wonder if he drew self-portraits too). I would have spent more time pondering but I still had 15 more sketches to go, so I shelved my ruminations on Art and returned to drawing — moving the pencil just a fraction of a second slower and looking at the glass reflection for just an eyeblink longer.

* * *

The following afternoon, with the sunlight streaming through the classroom windows, I handed in my sketchbook with something approaching pride, for the first time in the semester. As I balanced the notebook on top of the pile, I idly wondered what Professor Conant would make of 27 assorted, poorly-drawn images of her not-so-favorite pupil. The thought was humorously terrifying but I didn’t worry too much because if I had learned one thing in the class, it was that the canvas was only a mirror, reflecting beauty that the viewer already knew; and that beauty was just a word — not for what the eyes see, but for what the mind feels.

PS: If you laughed while reading, head over to submit a laugh at the Million Laughs counter.

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