Sharmila Ganesan, TOI


A 24-year-old drops her sari for a `jigar wala kaam’. A male professor volunteers to strip so that art students can learn. Meet Mumbai‘s bare-dare models…

Pathos, sometimes, looks like a naked woman thinking about loans, fixed deposits, and the escalating price of the train journey from Chembur to CST.Sure, art connoisseurs may spit out their expensive wine at this description but then, money is really all that 24-year-old model, Sangita, can think about when she sheds her sari in a classroom full of penciltoting boys, and stays put for hours. “I have yet to repay a 10,000-rupee loan I had taken for my mother-in-law’s hip replacement surgery ,“ says the dusky Sangita, one of three impoverished women in Mumbai, including her mother-in-law, Arai Naidu, and distant relative Laxmi, who till now were paid a measly Rs 400 every time they posed nude for academic purposes.

While government-run art schools are excited about Maharashtra’s fee hike for models as it may invite a larger palette of colours and contours into their corridors, the likes of Sangita aren’t too impressed.“Increasing the daily salary to Rs 1,000 will help only on days I work,“ says the daily wage earner. Her job, which involves holding body contortions for five hours, keeps her occupied only for six months a year.“What about the rest? What guarantee do I have for my future?“ asks Sangita.

It was roughly six years ago, days after her husband abandoned her, that Sangita walked in on her mother-in-law posing in the buff for a sculpture class. “I was shocked but I realized later that art students need live models just like doctors need cadavers,“ says Sangita, who soon took up the “jigar wala kaam“ and is now comfortable enough to tease students on not getting her contours right.

Her job is a secret from everyone but her mother-in-law. To her kids and neighbours, Sangita is a “helper“ and even though a ready offer of Rs 15,000 per month as a ward girl waits for her, she hesitates. “If I leave, how will the students study?“ In any art class, live models beat photographs because they are capable of both muscular tension and emotion. In countries like the US, ballet dancers and gym instructors work as nude models, making over Rs 5,000 an hour. But in India, meagre pay for models has meant that art students receive a predictable palette -above 50, needy , usually tired. In fact, as a student of JJ School of Art, artist Kisalay Vora remembers being introduced to an elderly model and later, spotting her at a flyover, begging. Exhausted, some models, he recalls, would even fall asleep while posing. “Sitting for five hours and doing nothing is quite a job,“ says Vora, decrying the attitude of paying the models little because sitting still is not perceived as physical labour. Gajraj Chavan, principal of Pune’s Abhinav Kala Mahavidyalaya, revealed that the actual pay prescribed by government rules was just Rs 40 per day . “We usually chip in to pay models Rs 150 for conveyance,“ he says.

Back pain, cramps, and pins and needles are part of the job for models like Sangita, who hates sitting on folded legs. “Sometimes, it takes me half an hour to prepare the right posture,“ says M K Wanjari, head of sculpture department at JJ School, who considers light, shadow and students’ opinions in the process. “ An easy rapport with the model is necessary ,“ says Wanjari.

“It isn’t just about posture and costume,“ says khadi-clad Vishwanath Sabale, dean of JJ School of Art, where first-year students are now copying a smiling skeleton on their canvas. “Students have to delve deeper into the skin for emotions,“ says Sabale.

Often, students bond with the models over chai. Laxmi and Arai are called Amma or aunty on campus. Once, in college, when someone addressed Sangita as “model“, she shot back: “My name is Sangita.“ In between sessions, the models are free to tie a sari petticoat above their breast and move about the room, inspecting each canvas and sharing stories about their day . When they are tired, they are given “relaxing poses“. When Laxmi’s son met with an accident, students pooled in their resources to help. At the Art Society of India, the boundaries are clear: No photographs. No whispering. No jokes. Shridhar Badekar, principal of Bandra‘s Raheja College, ensures that no outsider is allowed inside the studio during nude painting sessions.

Even though Maharashtra boasts a tradition of live portraits since the days of the Raj, “people may soon have to paint only from photographs,“ says Gayatri Mehta, former secretary of the Art Society of India. “Dogmas still exist,“ says Mehta, citing colleges such as Mumbai’s SNDT Women’s University , which does not encourage nudes. Mehta knows of art colleges that have turned down male models saying they might “corrupt“ female students. “I’ve never felt anything chemical happening in my mind while looking at models,“ laughs Mehta, who has been sitting in on sessions since 1987 and even held an exhibition of her nude paintings in 2010.

For reasons unclear, colleges find male models tougher to come by . They have to depend on student volunteers who agree to model semi-nude after class for the sake of art. “A nude is very pure, like water,“ says Nayan Nagarkar, a Nashik-based pro fessor who volunteers for nude sessions at Raheja School and Art Society of India. Clinging to a rope in a standing pose or sitting with a hand behind his head, Nagarkar watches imagination erupt as students render his nude form in charcoal sketch es, oil paintings and even abstract ways. “Male grace is important while posing,“ says Nagarkar, who practises meditation to achieve posture.

“It takes a lot of stamina and your back usu ally goes for a toss,“ says Chandrashekhar Jadhav , a third-year student in Raheja college, who occa sionally volunteers as a semi-nude model and whose beefy figure has earned him the nickname `David’. Though Jadhav doesn’t model for the money , he welcomes the spike in pay as it will en sure variety . “Babu bhai may finally get a break,“ says Jadhav, referring to the college’s go-to man for clothed portraits. “We can now paint him with our eyes closed.“