Hidden Faces, Bare Bodies: The Lives Of Mumbai’s Nude Art Models
Sometime in 1965, renowned modernist artist, Akbar Padamsee, decided to spend two weeks at the historic Chelsea Hotel in Manhattan. Padamsee had received a Rockefeller Foundation scholarship to go to the United States of America, a report in Livemint states. When it was time for him to check out of the hotel, the future Padma Bhushan awardee realised that he did not have enough money to pay the bill. In barter, he presented the owner David Bard with a 10x3ft painted canvas which would later come to be famously called Reclining Nude. In 2011, almost five decades later, the Padamsee canvas would be sold for a then-record price of 1.4 million dollars to the Kiran Nadar Museum of Art.
But this is not where our story begins. It begins with the search for a 24-year-old woman named Tulsi Naidu. Perhaps, I should have begun searching for her sooner but when I turned up at Sir JJ School of Arts on a wet Friday afternoon, I was met with circumspect suspicion from the professors. I didn’t understand it then but I don’t blame them for their caution now.
Why do I want to interview Tulsi Naidu? Why not interview many of the other women who model for the students of the college? Is it because like many journalists, I am sniffing around for controversial news?
My fellow journalists who appear to have come to the college seeking to write articles don’t appear to have either done their job properly or kept up their side of the bargain. After having travelled the entire area between Sir JJ School of Arts and Excelsior Theatre, I finally had a number.
The voice that greeted me on the opposite line was exceedingly youthful. I was surprised because my research had revealed that Tulsi Naidu was a mother and I did not expect her to sound so young. I thought she’d be at least 35 years of age. The voice couldn’t have belonged to a woman above 25.
I met Naidu three days later. She’d washed her hair that day and I could smell the soapy sweet smell every time she flipped it behind her shoulders. She looked nothing like I had expected her to look. For one, she was much too vivacious. I had a romantic notion that she would be aloof and austere, the way literature often portrays artists’ muses. Instead, Naidu was a child-woman. She smiled even when she spoke of the injustices meted out to her. When she spoke of students who painted her in the nude but never acknowledged her presence once they’d graduated, I expected her voice to break. It did not.
When she shared how her family doesn’t even collectively earn 10 thousand rupees a month, I thought she’d tear up. She did not. Her grandmother, though, was another story. And this is where Akbar Padamsee comes in.
Rasai Shankar Naidu left her native village in Tamil Nadu for Bombay, after her husband left her for another woman sometime in the late 70s. Aarey, as she is called now, began moonlighting as a model at Sir JJ School of Arts with the help of her sister and a fortune-teller who used to stand around VT station in Mumbai. The money was better if she posed in the nude — shedding her clothes almost 40 years ago for a room full of artists earned her eight rupees a session. That became 12 rupees which doubled to 24 and then it was 50 rupees a session. Soon, she earned 100 rupees for playing the muse. She talks about how art professors would send emissaries to her jhopdi in search of her and reprimand her if she didn’t turn up to the college.
“Kya Aarey, kyun nahi aayi?” The professors would ask their favourite model — who was also working as a ragpicker. Even when her fee was raised to 400 rupees a session, it wasn’t enough to raise a family. Till date, she sorts out garbage, and the woman, who was once sought after by artists, has to now run around the college asking for work.
She’s understandably furious — she has given 40 years of her life to the institution. “I am old but I’m not dead,” Aarey, Tulsi’s grandmother, tells me and goes on to talk about how most of her family works as models at the college. Aarey is a formidable woman — when I first met her, she was dressed in a flaming yellow saree and was exuding as much heat as the colour implies. She photographs beautifully, there’s something very powerful about her stance. Tulsi’s mother, on the other hand, has a permanent frown and doesn’t talk much. She is as reticent as Tulsi is loquacious.
There’s Tulsi and her mother and two other women and one man who are currently working at JJ School of Arts. There’s no job security though, and they earn a meagre thousand rupees a day for posing without their clothes on. And what about those days when they are not needed? Tulsi shakes her head: no.
There’s no money coming in. Back in the day, Aarey Naidu, who is almost 70 years old now, posed for the likes of Padamsee.
“Aarey would come with Shanti, her sister or her sister’s daughter, I forget which, because these relations are fluid in her community. If the sister dies, then her kids would automatically become Aarey’s responsibility and so on. The JJ School of Art allowed me to use Aarey and Shanti so long as I did not pay them more than what they were being paid, or else the school would lose its nude models to competition. So, I made up for this in kind. Sometimes they would come and announce they haven’t eaten. So, they’d eat first and then pose. Sometimes, I would buy them a sari. Once, when they moved into their Mahim kholi, in the slums abutting the tracks, I gave them my bed and a big steel trunk, something poor people use so their things are not stolen,” Padamsee had told Vishwas Kulkarni of the Mumbai Mirror in an interview in 2011.
Aarey shows me the news clipping – a laminated piece of paper that she carries around in a plastic bag. She asks me to read the paragraph that states that Padamsee’s Reclining Nude was sold for a record Rs 6.3 crore at a Sotheby’s New York auction. She doesn’t know the story of Padamsee and David Bard of the Chelsea Hotel. She’s just extremely sad that she could never contact Padamsee again or talk to the man who painted her. She probably thinks Padamsee himself made Rs 6.3 crores and that the painting that was sold was hers. In his article, Kulkarni writes how he’d shared Shanti’s number with Padamsee. Whether Padamsee reached out to Shanti is unknown but Aarey has definitely not heard from him. She was given a phone number by a professor of the college but she believes it was a false one because it would keep ringing and nobody would answer the call. Aarey also speaks about a professor whom she’d approached and requested to increase her salary. She claims that he rudely told her that the students didn’t need the models, they could work by looking at the sculptures
“But we sat for those sculptures. Those statues are recreations of us,” Aarey says, blinking back tears furiously
While the Naidu women, for generations, have posed nude for the artists of Mumbai, the men in their family had and have no clue as to the work they do. Tulsi Naidu’s father thought the women worked as sweepers at the college. Once, when he came across a train ticket for VT, Tulsi and her mother had to improvise and say that they had gone to work near the station. He died none the wiser. Tulsi’s husband who doesn’t live with her has no clue either. That is why the Naidu women do not give interviews to regional newspapers.
Their anonymity was completely destroyed when Nude: Chitraa released in 2018. Everybody suddenly came to know where the Naidu women would secretly vanish off to. The sculptures shown in the film bore a stunning likeness to Tulsi and her kin – it wasn’t long before her neighbours put two and two together. The abuse that followed was shocking.
Tulsi Naidu talks about how the people in her locality look them up and down when they get out of their house. The abuses flung at the women were so filthy that it appeared as if blood would pour out of Tulsi’s ears when I prod her about them. The Naidus aren’t ashamed, however, but I do sense a tinge of anger in Tulsi’s voice when she talks about how she was brought in to model for the students at the tender age of 10. She didn’t start modelling in the nude till last year and she hung on to her clothes for as long as she could. The first time she posed in the nude, she kept weeping inconsolably and staring at the men painting her. She calmed down once she realised that none of them looked at her with malicious intention.
“It was all about art,” she says. Art and money.
Posing in the nude paid Tulsi 600 rupees more than what she would have been paid if she held on to her sociallyaccepted modesty. She fondly talks about the first artist she posed for. He helped make her a school uniform and his work, based on her, helped him win big in Maharashtra. He still calls her all the way from New York at times. He was adamant that Tulsi complete her studies and was worried to death about her future.
Over the phone, I would tell him that I’ll study, but in person, I sat him down and explained to him that I am married now and cannot continue my education,” she says.
“You can’t do much, beta,” Aarey tells me when I get up to leave. It’s a government college, after all, and like most Indians, the senior Naidu doesn’t trust the institutions to look out for her. She may pass the veil separating the dead and the living in a few years but hopes that her grandchildren and Tulsi don’t have to face the same fate as her.
“Get me his number if you can. Can you?” Aarey asks, showing me Padamsee’s picture.
The former muse and the artist.
The first thing I do when I leave the college is contact everybody I know for the artist’s contact number. I receive a 10-digit from a former colleague. I call the number, not entirely sure what I am going to say to this Padma Bhushan awardee whose name is whispered along the lines of MF Hussain.
Padamsee’s wife picks up the phone and yes, she remembers Aarey. She promises to share Aarey’s best regards with the 91-year-old painter. I also share Tulsi Naidu’s contact number with Mrs. Padamsee in case the painter wants to get in touch with Aarey, his former muse. With a heavy heart, I begin to write.