Lakshmi Amma sits still for hours on a small table in a room, modelling for a group of students who recreate her face on canvas. Along with four other models, Lakshmi Amma keeps up the unique modelling tradition at Thiruvananthapuram Fine Arts College: All of them are aged above 70 and are employed by the college in a mutually beneficial relationship.
Being the only woman among the five models, Lakshmi Amma is the most sought-after and earns between Rs 1500 to Rs 1800 a month.
âWhat makes me happier is the fact that I am able to spend time with these young people, a welcome escape from my loneliness,â she says. She lives alone in the Pappanamcode area of the city.
Seventy-one-year-old Lakshmi Amma used to work as a domestic help at the house of one of the teachers of the college. âAt this age I cannot undertake any kind of strenuous employment. This hence comes as a solace. Earlier it used to be Rs 150 per day, now it has increased,â she smiles.
She has been doing this work for the past 13 years. On her âworkâ days, she has to sit on a chair or a table from 9.30 am to 3.30 pm, as students attempt to recreate her likeness on canvas or in sculpture, as part of their syllabus.
One expects a model to sit still, but Lakshmi Amma keeps up a steady stream of chatter all the while: âThey donât mind and like to hear me talk. For them, I am like a grandmotherâŚ They are loving kids.â
Hiring elderly people as models has become a decades old tradition at the college, because the college cannot afford to hire new (read younger) models.
âWe pay Rs 350 per day to a model who will usually have sittings for only six or seven days in a month. Since the remuneration is low, we are unable to attract new faces. These five people have been our regulars for quite some time,â admits College Principal AS Sajith, while speaking to The News Minute.
Kabeer (70) got the job due to a slight resemblance to Chellappan, opine a few college staff members. 75-year old Chellappan was a mini-celebrity on the campus, having modelled for the students for a quarter of a century till his death in 2010. On entering the campus, sculptures of a simple man wearing a mundu greet you. Some of them are adorned with creepers, a few others lie half-broken. Chellappan had modelled for these sculptures.
A dark-complexioned man with a wrinkled face and sagging chest, Kabeer earns his living by operating a weighing machine that people use to check their body weight.
Kabeer was âdiscoveredâ around four years ago by a student. âI donât remember his name. One day he approached me, while I was standing next to my weighing machine at Palayam. He asked whether I would consider modelling for the college. I agreed,â he recalls.
Kabeer â who is separated from his family â does not have a home of his own, and sleeps on the verandah of a shop in the city: âI have children who do not want to take care of me. I have not seen my grandchildren. When I come here, I am surrounded by these lovable kids. I too enjoy their company. They take time out to listen to all that I have to say, and willingly spend time with me.â
73-year-old Krishna Pillai was part of the Fine Arts College since 1989, from the time he began work as a watchman there. It was in 2010â12 years after his retirement â that he again returned to the campus, this time as a model.
âFinancial constraints at home led me to take up this job. That I am back on the very same campus where I served earlier, gives me added joy. I share a deep emotional connect with this place, and am happy when I am here,â says Pillai.
Pillai is also quick to admit that none of the models were as suited to the role as Chellappan: âHe had good features. He was a perfect model.â
Rathnaiyyan, 75, was a close acquaintance of Chellappan, âWe used to be together. I have now been coming here for the past 20 years. The vacuum left by Chellappanâs absence is still felt in the campus,â he sighs.
He is also worried that the various ailments that he suffers from may not allow him to model, as much as he would like to. The students too expressed their concern about how future batches may not have any models to recreate.
âLive models cannot be avoided in Fine Arts-courses. Their scarcity would definitely be a concern in future,â feels Sajith, the college principal.
Inputs and all photographs by Sreekesh Raveendran Nair, Copyright The News Minute.
All Photos by Sreekesh Raveendran Nair