She was sitting still on the pavement. In fact she was kneeling in silent prayer. Long lashes curled over her closed eyes, her lips curved in a soft smile and the drapery flowing around her. Her face was painted white and she resembled a marble sculpture. There was a bowl at her knee. It was full of coins. She was one of the many roadside “Living Statues” of Paris.
There are many ways to earn a living in Paris. Besides the usual jobs, artistes like this young woman make a living by playing statue on tourist spots. Nearer the Louvre museum, there are those who dress like an Egyptian pharoah, a Greek god or imitate one of the many sculptures from the museum. This is good business, if the artiste has the courage to face the changing climate and pose without moving for innumerable hours.
The queue was long at the Musee d’Orsay on the River Seine, which houses one of the best collections of Impressionism. Here, the queues are not boring, as all around entertainment is for free. If you like what you see, you could leave a few cents for the street-artists.
On this particular day, we saw the kneeling Madonna on the pavement. She was definitely a hit, because her bowl was full. For background music, a musician was playing a one man brass band. He was sitting on a folding cycle seat and playing a drum; an accordion, a flute, all connected to system, which relayed taped music. His hat was placed at the base of the drum, but in contrast to the kneeling Madonna, his hat was empty.
The scenario was like a theatre-of-the-absurd, as we also saw some Indians. They were selling post cards of the Eiffel Tower or roasting chestnuts. They were brilliant salesmen, because as soon as, it started raining, the cards disappeared and they started selling umbrellas. They were dressed in old track-suits and torn shoes. Sadly, they live in small apartments, situated in the faraway suburbs of Paris; about ten to a room, surviving hand to mouth, yet sending home; a part of their earnings. It is a mystery, how they manage on a shoe-string budget. They are hard working, as they sell flowers at night; around restaurants. The team of four works in unison as they speak to each other in Hindi or one of them teaches them a few words of French, to induce better salesmanship. Every morning, they travel long distances to buy cheap flowers, toys and umbrellas. But, the tinkle of Euros in their pockets is more important than anything else.
Going back to our story, the vendor of chestnuts had attracted people who wanted to eat something warm. And, as the rain slowed down, one of them; brought out colourful plastic spider-men and stuck them to the walls of the museum. Children started pestering their parents to buy these toys.
But, all eyes were on the kneeling Madonna. There were long discussions whether she was breathing? Some said, they had seen her breathe, some had seen her face muscles twitch and others said, her eyelashes fluttered or that she had raised her eyebrows. Some had seen her body move under the drapery. We wondered what made her do what she was doing. Did she need the money? or was she a young art student working for her fees? We were worried that she would be cold and drenched, because it was washing away her white make up and exposing her pale pink cheeks. She was a beautiful young woman and resembled a marble nymph.
One young man, decided to tell her to move elsewhere, but nobody spoke to her. The queue moved on and we looked backwards to see what happened to our Madonna.
The end of the story is something like this, a big rough man appeared from the bar behind her, emptied the money in a pouch, pulled off, our Madonna’s – plaster-cast-head-mask with a jerk, exposed her real, simple, human face, held the mask under his arms, picked up the chair, hidden under her flowing drapery and placed it under the balcony. Then, like an expert make-up artist, he touched the make-up of the mask and put it away on a rack in the bar, along with the drapery, which our Madonna had neatly folded for him. Then, she went into the bar and after a few minutes, she emerged, having transformed into a young woman dressed in jeans and a sweater, who walked away, without a backward glance.
We did not know whether to laugh or cry, as we had come to believe that she was real.