R. Shankar follows his feet across Tamil Nadu and hunkers down on dusty streets to create artworks with chalk and charcoal

Wearing a faded lungi and a wrinkled orange shirt, R.Shankar left home that morning wondering if he’d be lucky that day. Work has been dull for the past five days, he says. He has barely made any money. Holding a plastic bag with some pieces of chalk and charcoal, he followed his feet and reached Ramanathapuram around dusk and got down to work.

He dusted a patch of the road by a lamppost, pulled out a chalk and started to draw. With deft strokes, he brought Jawaharlal Nehru alive in less than five minutes. Then came Gandhiji and Subash Chandra Bose.

As passers-by and little boys from the neighbourhood watched in awe, Shankar sketched V.O.C, Bharathiyar, Ambedkar, Tirupur Kumaran, Periyar, Kalaignar, MGR and Sivaji Ganesan. There was attention to detail — Bharathi’s fiery eyes, Periyar’s tufts of white hair, Sivaji’s regal moustache.... The crowd grew bigger — some admirers offered Shankar money. There was a sudden murmur as he labelled the characters he drew — for he wrote the Tamil letters upside down.

“I’m fortunate today,” says Shankar, as more people come forward to offer him money. “The audience is very kind. But this doesn’t happen always. There are times when my art-work sends me home empty-handed.”

Art-felt

Shankar was 10 years old when he left his hometown Sankagiri to make a living. Despite a limp, he wandered around Tamil Nadu aimlessly. When in Salem, he spotted a boy sketching on a street. “I wanted to try the same. I was good in art; I would keep drawing on my slate in school.”

Shankar drew his first picture in a village in Andhra Pradesh. “It was a life-sized Hanuman. I earned Rs.18 for it,” he recalls. Shankar travelled across the country to draw. The dusty roads were his canvas. “Once, I drew a huge picture of Lord Shiva in Gandhipuram, Coimbatore. It came out beautifully. But, a heavy rain washed it all away.” The rains often played spoilsport, says Shankar.

He gradually taught himself to paint and write advertisements on walls. “I switched to that after marriage. The job paid well too. Now I’m back to where I started since everything has gone digital these days.” Ask him where he’s headed next and he shrugs. “The Sulur sandhai, perhaps. I don’t plan anything when I leave home in the morning.”

It’s almost 10 p.m. and Unni Krishnan, a tailor in the locality doesn’t have the heart to leave. “I’ve been standing here since 6.30 p.m. This man transformed the road in front of my eyes,” he says. As we look on, Shankar takes out a piece of cloth and starts wiping away the sketches. “I never leave my drawings on the road,” he says. “People might walk over them.”