Police ‘portrait parlé’ artist Shankar Basu Pandey on how his sketches have helped nab some of Kolkata’s robbers, murderers, traffickers and kidnappers.

What exactly do you do as a portrait parle artist?

I am employed with Kolkata Police and my job involves drawing sketches of murderers, traffickers, chain snatchers, dacoits, fraudsters and kidnappers. After a crime has been committed, the witnesses to a crime describes the criminal to me. I draw a sketch from their description and that sketch is used by the police to look for the culprit and nab him.

How did you venture into this field?

In 2010, I joined Kolkata Police as a constable after I did my BA in Fine Arts. I am also an animator. I used to sketch portraits while sitting in my office and picked up the skills from senior portrait parle artists. One of my seniors noticed my talent and asked me to take an exam to become a portrait parle artist. Later I was sent for training to the National Crime Records Bureau in Delhi.

What was your first assignment?

It was a cheating case and I was asked to draw a portrait of the man according to the description given by the person who had been cheated. I could sketch the upper part of the face but I couldn’t perfect the lower part. It took me a long time to do it right but when I finished the person who was describing was satisfied with the picture.

How long does it take you to do a sketch?

Usually it takes about half an hour, but if the person has not seen the suspect too well and isn’t that sure, it takes up to an hour.

Sketching a snatcher is most difficult. The victim barely gets a glimpse of him because he is gone in a blink. But I have been successful in helping the police nab a number of snatchers based on my sketches.

Do you use a software or do you rely entirely on sketching with a pencil?

There are softwares available, but I feel it consumes more time. It is better and more specific if I erase on paper and then keep creating and re-creating. I am far more comfortable doing this with my pencil. There have been occasions when I have used photoshop – I scan my sketch, open it in photoshop and fill it with colour.

What sets a portrait parle artist apart from other artists?

When I went to art college I was always better at doing portraits than any other kind of drawing. I think better observation and imagination sets a portrait parle artist apart from other artists.

Do you work keeping some particular attributes or dimensions in mind?

There are definite techniques and we have around say 1,000 sets of eyes and noses as references. We sometimes show these references to the eyewitness but I’ve noticed that often these reference shots can confuse the witness. I always prefer to start on a clean slate and bank on his or her memory and description to draw the correct picture.

What is the most exciting part of your job?

It often happens that I have not even done half the sketch and some police officer immediately recognises the person as a repeat offender and he jumps up and says, “Oh! This is so and so.” I feel a thrill going down my spine.

After I finish a drawing, sometimes the person who is describing the offender to me says, “How could you make it so perfect? Yes, this is the person.” It’s very satisfying to hear this.

What has been your success rate?

It is very hard to tell you statistically because in most cases once the sketch is done I am not supposed to be informed about the proceedings of the case. But in many cases after my sketch has been used to nab the suspect and he or she is convicted, I am given the original picture of the convict. That is when I have seen my sketch has been 80 to 90 per cent accurate.

Do you have to be on the job 24X7?

Whenever a crime is committed, if I am needed I have to be there, irrespective of the time.

Some time ago, a a gang of five committed a robbery and there were eight people who had seen them. For that case, three portrait parle artists had to be sent to the crime scene to make the sketches of the different gang members.

What was your most challenging assignment?

This incident happened in Ultadanga in Kolkata. A gentleman had a guest at his place and after breakfast they left home together. When he didn’t return at night, the gentleman’s family contacted the police. A search was launched and the man’s body was near a bridge. The daughter had seen the guest and was asked to describe him to me so that I could draw the sketch.

She was in such emotional turmoil over losing her father that she kept breaking down when trying to describe the suspect. Working with someone in so much mental distress is very difficult. I had to keep on asking her about the details of the man’s features. In a situation like this my job becomes very complex because I can’t be totally professional, I have to understand the situation of the person and deal with her accordingly. At the same time I was under pressure to come up with the sketch quickly so that the police could start the hunt.

I gave her time to recover between her emotional outpourings then resumed sketching. Using my sketch the police traced this man in UP. He is in jail now.

Do you ever feel irritated or exasperated when people come up with contradictory descriptions?

If I cannot keep a cool head, I will not be able to perform in this field. I am constantly dealing with people who are under emotional stress. In cases of kidnapping for instance, the emotional distress of the victim’s family is so great that contradictions and wrong descriptions are bound to happen. That is when I have to play a role in guiding the person who is describing, in the right direction. It has happened that a mother – a street dweller - has come to report the kidnapping of her child and she got really angry with me because she felt I was asking too many questions. She would keep retorting. “Don’t you know how a nose looks? Don’t you know how eyes are? Why are you asking so much?”

I cannot let this kind of things anger or irritate me I have to do my job well. So keeping my cool is a basic prerogative.

Do you worry that a convict might get back to you once he serves his term?

Usually they do not know who drew their sketch unless I have to make a court appearance. I have actually never thought about it from this perspective. As a member of the police force, dealing with criminals is my job.

Do you feel emotionally stressed since you are constantly interacting with victims of crime?

A few days back a lady came to complain about a person who snatched her gold chain. She came to me to describe the suspect. She hadn’t told her husband about the snatching because she was scared he would be angry with her. For us, it might be just a gold chain, but when you interact with a victim you realise how important it is to her and what she is going through. It sensitises you to people’s plight. There have been cases where people have lost all their valuables to a cheat, or kidnapping cases where your heart would break if you see the parents’ emotional turmoil.

It can be emotionally stressful at times because what you have witnessed stays in your mind. But I usually go back home and start painting and that is very de-stressing for me.

I have done group exhibitions with my paintings. When Shah Rukh Khan came to a Kolkata Police function a few years back he was presented his sketch done by me. These are wonderful moments on the job.

Have you received any awards?

I have received rewards in the form of certificates and cheques several times from Kolkata Police for my work in solving cases.