In the foreground of the picture is the statue of a man — bare-chested, arms locked behind his back, mundu drawn up and tucked around his waist. There’s something very arresting about the sculpture. Perhaps it’s the expression on the statue’s face — faintly proprietorial and confident, yet simultaneously melancholic and stoic.The sculpture is of Chellappan. One of the many works — sculptures, paintings and clay models — he’s featured in. For Chellappan is, or rather was, a model for students of The College of Fine Arts.
But Chellappan will model no more for he committed suicide on Sunday, as this piece in The New Indian Express says.
Chellappan was, as the Express piece puts it: “…the most sought-after model by the students of the Fine Arts College… There was literally no one who had not made a sculpture, a portrait or a clay model on him.”
A few years ago Francois Daireaux, a French artist who was holidaying in Kerala, stumbled across one of the many statues of Chellappan sprinkled around The College of Fine Arts. And as this piece in The Hindu Metro Plus points out: “He (Daireaux) stopped to take a picture and behold! – into the frame walked the living sculpture himself, the man, the model.” One thing led to another and several months later Daireaux did a Chellappan-focused exhibition at the Centre d’art Abbaye de Maubuisson in France.What it was that drew art students — and Daireaux — to feature Chellappan in their work is not very clear. Perhaps, it was his craggy face and the droop of his belly. Or perhaps it was because he was easy to work with.
I’ve seen Chellappan in the flesh a couple of times and what always struck me was that he was a caricature waiting to be captured. So much so that if I could draw or sculpt even a bit, I’d have grabbed the opportunity to capture him; that was how striking he was. And perhaps it was this hard-to-pin-down presence that Chellappan exuded that made him a popular model.
Not everyone, however, is impressed by Chellappan. As a senior lecturer at The College of Fine Arts told me this morning, a wry smile on his face, “There are lots of models here, but he (Chellappan) has become a metaphor.” The lecturer believes that Chellappan is more a creation of the media. And with another smile plastered on his face, but in words that oozed a sense of pique, he added: “Lots of big and important exhibitions are held here, but the media hardly mentions them. But him…”
I wonder what Chellappan would have had to say to that. More important, did all the attention, from the media and others, make a qualitative difference to Chellappan’s life. I suppose we’ll never know now.