Art of people watching

Many artistes hone and better their skills by observing the people they encounter

People watching is the act of observing people, sometimes done with the purpose of supplementing activities such as sketching. However, for most, it as an interesting pastime. 

WikiHow has a guide to the activity. The nine-step process begins with deciding the parameters and emphasises on the importance of natural observation over intrusive nosiness. Next, they advice the readers to to select a location and a person to observe.

All this might make the activity sound like an intimidating task, but the fact is that most of us do it even without realising. Sociologist Sophia Sharon says that it’s a natural instinct to people watch. “It’s by observing others that we pick up social cues and qualities. It makes us social beings,” she says. 

If you’ve ever found yourself sitting at a cafe waiting for a friend, it’s almost inevitable that you have indulged in this activity. Overhearing an intriguing conversation, making a mental note of someone’s interesting outfit or even figuring out what the other table has ordered would be counted as people watching. Some people rely on the activity to enrich their profession.

Stand up comedians and actors thrive when they can bring nuances of their everyday observations into their sets or characters.

Famously, Karan Johar’s ‘Kabhi Alvida Naa Kehna’ was partly inspired by a conversation between a married couple that he has overheard. Many painters and artists, too, hone their skills by observing and drawing strangers. 

Comedian and actor Danish Sait says that observing people is part of his DNA, “Ever since I was in school I’d observe people around me and their unique mannerisms. Observing people is the best way to learn about people and that’s something you can never stop doing in a profession like mine.”

Aditi Bhaskar, an amateur artist, says observing and drawing strangers gives her a sort of adrenaline rush, “It becomes a challenge to draw them before they move.” She says that there is no
particular place or time that she dedicates to people watching. This, she adds, is also part of its appeal. “I’ve drawn people travelling in the metro and once, an actor at a play. It depends on when and where I come across someone who looks interesting,” she says. 

Gowri Omanakuttan, the founder of Bangalore Recording Company, a news platform, says she is “guilty”of indulging in the activity.

“When you walk into any public place you tend to do it. It helps one understand the atmosphere of the room,” she says. 

When asked whether people watching is an intrusive activity Danish says that he has never felt so. “Unless you’re going up to people and asking them to do certain things, it causes no harm. You’re just a mute spectator,” he says. He also adds that it’s a good timepass that that all people do subconsciously.

Aditi, on the other hand, says that she sometimes feels guilty for drawing people she doesn’t know. To combat her guilt she tries to always show the person their sketch, “No one has been offended so far, but there have been a few awkward encounters when people have realised I’ve been staring at them,” she shares.

“There’s a very thin line between people watching and staring,” says Gowri. “I’m sure it wouldn’t be very comfortable to be singled out and watched.” 

So next time you’re in a public place and feel your eyes wandering, spare a thought to the person on the receiving end as well.

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