Models living in the Shadow
Figure study is a fundamental course in the Faculty of Fine Arts, and the people who work as live models for this course are often deprived of the dignity attached to this profession
Fatema Khala is no Mona Lisa, especially not in her smile strewn with beetle-leaf juice. Yet she sits for hours in the classrooms of the Faculty of Fine Arts, University of Dhaka, more commonly known as Charukala, while young aspiring artists tussle away with their pencil, pen, chisel and knife trying to create her image on canvas, wood and mud.
Middle-aged Fatema Begum had come to this campus in search of her husband, who worked as renowned artist Hashem Khan's chauffeur. Unable to keep her bohemian husband at home she started working for the students as model, earning money on a per day basis and raising her son.
"The teachers had told me that they would arrange a job for me here but that did not happen. Those who came here before me were given priority. I even gave an interview but did not get a permanent job. I get paid on master-roll making Tk100 per day," says Fatema, who used to make Tk 60 when she first joined as model twenty years ago.
Borsha doing her first-part Masters at the Oriental Art department informs that all of the first batch drawing classes require models to learn the basics of figure drawing. "Since there is a shortage of models, classes in all the seven departments are scheduled based on the availability of the models," says she.
Fatema Begum has been working as a model at Charukala for the last twenty years.
Photos: Zahedul I Khan
At present, there are two official models Dolly Begum and Abul Kalam recruited as class four employees and receive payment as per the scale. However, Dolly Begum works in the library and Abul Kalam at the faculty office, and none of the current students have ever seen them posing at their class.
"There are five people, two men and three women working in the campus regularly as models," informs Borsha, "Interestingly, name of all the three female models is Fatema; to distinguish them we call them Mota (Fat) Fatema, Chikna (skinny) Fatema and Young Fatema."
Sitting on one of the cement benches of Charukala, Mota Fatema relates the story of her life. "I live in the Konapara slum with my son and daughter-in-law. They don't know that I work here as a model, they know I work here as a peon. My daughter-in-law is educated, she might not accept this. She is from a respectable, conservative family she may not like the idea of her mother-in-law working as a model," she says. "Amar beyai-beyainra chi chi korbo (my daughter-in-law's parents would taunt her)," she adds, as a tint of melancholy lowers her usual high-pitched tone.
Forty-year old Shahadat, however, is proud to work as Charukala's model. In fact, he willingly opted for this part-time profession of his. Dressed in a tawny suit and a matching worker cap, the young man sits himself at the Charukala building veranda, just after finishing one of his sessions. "I have been working here for the last one year. When once I used to loiter around this campus, I always secretly wished that someone would draw my portrait," says Shahadat with a cheerful smile. "One day a person named Titu told me that he wanted to draw my picture and I agreed and that's how it began."
After failing at intermediate level, Shahadat tried his luck in different places, but nothing appealed to him. Around 1994, he began to visit Charukala regularly and interact with the students and other crowds here that soon inspired him to start a small business in the campus. "I started to make bags and collect caps from different places and sell those here and I continued because of my love for this place," he says.
The modelling job has never been a hobby but rather a means of living for Chikna Fatema and her four children. In a refined dialect, the tall middle-aged woman tells how her brother who used to work here got her the job of modelling after her husband's death. Yet after 26 years, this motherly lady misses the campus and the students if she remains absent even for a day. "When I first started working I used to feel bad because I had to sit or stand in the same pose for hours. Then the students told me that I could take rest at intervals of five minutes," says Chikna Fatema, who, like her female colleague, has hidden her profession from family members. "Both the teachers and students treat us with respect and we never have to expose our body above the knee level," she says. "How would they work if they cannot even see our limbs?" she asks in an accepting tone.
Renowned artist Shishir Bhattacharya explains: " Live study of human figure is included in the curriculum of Charukala. It is a course at institute level since it is needed for academic skill development at the fundamental level. For an artist however studying a model is not inevitable." He says that although nude study is carried out abroad, in our country's context it is not done.
Though Shishir agrees that the number of models working at Charukala now is not enough, he informs that even in foreign countries, where modelling is a prestigious job, models are hired on a temporary basis. "The problem with having permanent models is that they will get old and their physical condition will not be the same always," he opines.
However, Emdadul Haque Md Motlub Ali, Dean, Faculty of Fine Arts, thinks that the faculty is heavily under-staffed, both in terms of models and other office personnel. "We have already sent a proposal to the University Grants Commission informing them of our requirements but have not received a response yet," he says.
Mohammad Abdul Hai, another model on master-roll, is found sitting on a tool posing for the sculpture department students who toil away at a lifeless log with their chisel to give it Hai's image. The 60-year-old man has been working as a model for the last 10 years. Sitting in the same pose for two to six hours from 9am to 2pm, often becomes difficult at his age. "The students are nice, they would often tell us to take rest," informs Hai, "Yet it is difficult to pose in winter without clothes. I told the students I would only pose if they allow me to sit in the sun."
Modelling is no easy job, but Shahdat says "If you can distract yourself and get lost in thoughts, the unease of sitting in the same position for too long no longer feels painful. You need to focus at a certain point on a plane and soon an image will build up around it and that helps create a distraction." Although Shahadat likes his job but he would not take it up as a full-time profession because the payment is not enough to support his wife and child, who live in the Kachukhet slum.
The artist-model relationship at the shadowy green campus of Charukala is one of love, respect and mutual support. "Each student of a class usually contributes 2-4 taka towards payment of the models along with the official Tk100 that we make. They often treat us to tea and snack at breaks," says Hai, who complains that the official TK 100, not enough as it is, is not paid regularly by the office. Yet the poetic warmth and love for this place lures Hai and his colleagues to the campus from their modest homes, the walls and corners of which remain bare from any of their portraits or sculptures.
(R) thedailystar.net 2010