‘It’s still a man’s world’
On international women’s day, Hardnews caught up with Saroj Shah, the only woman sketch artist in Delhi Haat. For Saroj, Delhi is still unsafe
Souzeina Mushtaq Delhi
On a bright March noon, people were jostling against each other in the crowded Delhi Haat unaware of a woman quietly sitting in a corner with a pencil and paper in her hand. Her stall was embellished with sketches and portraits including that of politicians like Rahul Gandhi. Amidst these portraits was a sign board -- Rs 300 per sketch, Rs 1,000 for water colour painting. The sheer brilliance of her work tempted me to get a sketch on my own. As I approached her, she was busy drawing a portrait of a man. I waited for my turn. Soon after she finished, I asked her to draw my portrait. Flashing a smile, she offered me a seat and took out a white sheet of paper and a pencil. She asked me whether I want her to draw my face with my scarf. “Yehi shakal hai meri” (That’s how I look!), I said jokingly. “You either are a foreigner or a Kashmiri. I can tell that from your eyes,” she said. I returned her smile and told her that I was a Kashmiri. Her eyes twinkled.
Saroj Shah, in her early thirties, is the ‘only woman sketch artist’ in Delhi Haat. “Ask me, I can tell you how difficult it is for a woman to survive in Delhi,” she lamented while stroking her pencil. “I am living in Delhi for eight years now, and nothing has changed for the women of the city.”
While drawing my sketch, a man approached her with another sketch in his hand, and threw it on the table. “This doesn’t look like me!” he said, as his friends joined him. “Madam, you see and tell if this looks like me,” he asked me. I looked at it, then at him, and said that it resembled him. This enraged him and asked Saroj to trash it. She tried convincing, but in vain. Tired, she asked her husband to do some additional touch ups as she continued drawing my portrait.
“I did my best,” she told me with a sad smile. “When people don’t like my work, I get mad at myself, trying to find what went wrong.”
Born in a remote village in Bihar, Saroj was eldest among five siblings, all sisters. She couldn’t study after her matriculation as education for women was not encouraged in her village. “They used to say, ‘Ladki zyada padh ke kya kare gi?’ (What will a girl do with higher studies?” Her parents owned a dhaba and that is how the family survived.
Since her childhood, Saroj was interested in art. A born artist, she never learnt it from anyone. “I used to draw sketches of my teachers in school and get good grades,” she chuckled. Things changed as she was growing up. She fell in love, got married and moved to Delhi after her in-laws abused and tortured her. But Delhi was harsh. Being unemployed in the big city had its challenges.
“I worked hard. I knew I was an artist,” she said. “My husband worked as a waiter and I started my Mehandi stall in Delhi Haat after much struggle.” After working in Delhi Haat for some time, Saroj had to quit as she was bestowed with motherhood. It was during that period she started drawing again. With the support of her husband, who by then had also become an artist, opened a small stall on the pavement of India Gate. She worked there for four years before finding a space in Delhi Haat again.
“I approached the manager and appeared in a demo test. They were impressed by my art and offered me a 15 day stall in Delhi Haat,” she said.
But everyday life is a struggle for her. “Male artists make things difficult for me. They pass lewd comments about my work. Sometimes, I really get discouraged. I think too much about these things,” she sighed. Saroj told me that she also changed her ‘look to appear confident’. “Earlier I used to wear Saaris and lot of bangles, but then Madam (manager) suggested me to go for a makeover,” she smiled. Dressed in yellow shirt and jeans, with a light coloured scarf around her neck, Saroj isn’t shy anymore. She takes art classes in summers and helps police in nabbing the culprits by drawing sketches. “But I don’t know where I will go after that. India Gate Pavement is also closed after the gang rape incident.”
As the world celebrates International Women’s Day, I asked her how she feels as a woman in Delhi, Saroj still feels unsafe. “I cannot go anywhere alone. Sometimes I really feel like carrying a knife in my bag before leaving the house. It is still a man’s world.”
As she finished my portrait, I looked at it and thanked her. While I was leaving, I asked her who inspires her to keep going and she credited her children. “Me and my husband work for the better future of our children. We want them to get the best education.”