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Pandemic Leaves Art College Models in Dire Straits

Pandemic Leaves Art College Models in Dire Straits

sketch of the models

Painting or photography, the human form is critical. But now due to lockdown, these ladies who once lent their feminine form to future art students are left forlorn

Some stories, some tales cannot be told straight; nor can they be revealed directly. There is a Maupassant element of the borrowed necklace to these stories.

These ladies must remain as a crucial part of art praxis, but they have to remain in their borrowed lives!

But the protagonists behind these stories and their tales have always been playing a pivotal role silently in our society.

And they hardly come forward to reveal their untold stories, their pangs and their sufferings.

They are the art college models whose lives and livelihood have gone into a tailspin, thanks to this prolonged pandemic.

Artist sketching a live model.
Artist Sourav Chakrabarty sketching a live model during still live class.

In fact, no student of Calcutta Art College could ever deny how these models have immensely contributed to their grooming as mature artists.

Better known by their nicknames such as Aniladi, Pratimadi, Nolinidi, or Swatidi, these women have forever remained behind their shadows.

Or just remained on the canvas in the imagined feminine forms of their painters.

Remember “Potato Eaters” by Vincent van Gogh? Each one of the figures was models for the master painter. All of them have lived only on the canvas.

Such is the life of ‘models’ in art colleges!

However, the wheel of life of these `living life studies’ (as art students opt to term them) has suddenly turned erratic and been threatened with a permanent disruption.

The nearly seven-month-long shutdown of the schools and colleges to ward off the spread of the corona virus has put these art college models into dire straits.

Like hundreds and thousands of daily wage earners, the closure of institutions has compelled them to spend time at home, robbing them of their lone source of earning and livelihood.

And to make things worse, the syllabus of the art college graduates has meanwhile been changing and the trend in the new syllabi reveals very little thrust on model studies, something that kept their hearth burning all this while.

“I used to earn at least Rs 8,000 per month prior to lockdown by posing as live model in the college.

“But the pandemic has deprived me of my modest earning,” says Anila Biswas(name changed).

The college Aniladi has been referring to is the Government College of Art & Craft near Esplanade in Central Calcutta.

At 60, Aniladi’s tryst with this famous college actually began when she was barely 12.

From posing as a child model to a young lady, and then from a middle-aged woman to an old, traditional Indian grandma, Aniladi has, indeed, gone through various stages of life, spending time in the precincts of the Calcutta Art College.

True, she is among the few senior models who receive a paltry financial grant of Rs 1,500 from the state government per month.

“But do you think that suffices to take care of my own expenses, leave alone the family needs?” asks the bespectacled model over phone from home.

Before lockdown, they used to receive at least 12 to 15 `portrait calls’ per month, which has trickled down to zero since the last six months or so.

Even though the earnings of these models have been restricted to modeling in colleges, the likes of Aniladi had once made some quick bucks during their prime.

“Unless further donations trickle in from the present and ex-students of the art colleges, we can hardly move forward to ensure a secure future for these honourable women who had once contributed to our making as artists,” says Paul, pathos gurgling out of his voice

For just portrait figures, these models are paid around Rs 850 per week or so, depending on the timing they would devote.

Students at the college do not see them as anything else but their partners in learning drawing and painting, or photography.

It was a custom that the students shared their own lunch boxes with the ‘Didis’.

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“Our charges used to be higher when we posed semi-nude or nude,” Aniladi reveals, but declines to divulge how many times she undressed herself for the students.

sketch of the model didi“This is a very secret chapter in our lives and we don’t feel comfortable discussing about it,especially when my family members aren’t aware of it,” Shovadi makes it clear little cautiously, but in a hushed tone.

She has reasons to be careful; her elderly husband worked as a helper in a car maintenance facility while her son used to transport plastic products from a factory which is now closed to due to pandemic.

But none of the family members is aware of the fact that these models had once posed nude for livelihood.

Nor do the students before whom they had to undress for helping them sketch the nuances of the human figure, would admit this.

“All we can say is that we have raised a fund for these very senior models and we’ve so far disbursed Rs 2,500 to each of the 27 models across three art colleges in Calcutta,” said Pradosh Paul, a former art college student.

Paul has already approached the West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee to release some financial assistance for these senior models.

He himself has been working tirelessly to organise some kind of pension for them.

The last tranche (Rs 2,500) was paid in June this year.

“Unless further donations trickle in from the present and ex-students of the art colleges, we can hardly move forward to ensure a secure future for these honourable women who had once contributed to our making as artists,” says Paul, pathos gurgling out of his voice.


Sketches by artist Sourav Chakrabarty

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