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Chellappan
Chellappan

Opening : January 14, 6pm - 9pm
Solo show from January 15 to April 2, 2022
Open : Tuesday–Friday-Saturday 2:30pm - 6:30pm
Galerie Chantiers Boîte Noire 1 rue Carbonnerie Montpellier www.leschantiersboitenoire.com | 06 86 58 25 62

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Chellappan’story

Roaming the streets of Trivandrum in Kerala State, India in February 2007, I came across a grand, red manor from the colonial period surrounded by a garden. There, a life-size plaster sculpture of a bare-chested man wearing only a traditional dhoti caught my eye. I was taking photos of it when a man walked into the frame. I was struck by his resemblance to the sculpture.

I approached him and he took me gently by the hand to take a tour of the garden. He showed me plaster busts laying here and there on the ground, disintegrated by the weather and destined to be dissolved by the torrential rain of the monsoons. This tour took place without a word, only through gesticulations. The man pointed out each of the 28 busts and then to his own face with his index finger, as to certify that they were indeed of him. Still hand in hand, I entered the manor with him and discovered that it was the College of Fine Arts of Trivandrum, one of the many art schools built in 1881 under the British Empire by Moolam Thirunal Sir Rama Varma, the Maharaja of the Kingdom of Travancore.

Deeply struck by this encounter, I decided to go back the next day. I went straight to the sculpture department and found the same man, still bare-chested, posing for a group of students. I noticed how seriously he applied himself to keep the pose. It was unbearably hot and as the hours passed this aging man, with heavily line skin, struggled to maintain the perfect pose. I learned that his name was Chellappan. Days later I realized that he was the most sought after live model at the school. He was very close with the students, besides being their model, he was also a friend and a father figure. They shared their meals together but nobody really seemed to know much about Chellappan’s private life. He had become an icon, a public figure, a local star but the look in his eyes was one of deep inner solitude.

For several decades he came and went in the school, waiting to be hired and paid for a posing session. It was his only means of subsistence. For generations of students, he was the ideal living model, there was just no one else like him. He spoke only Malayalam so we could only communicate with our hands or in English with students translating. For many years his face was the focal point of countless studies in clay, that were then molded into plaster. As time went on the molds were scrapped and tossed out into the garden left to decompose.

In March 2007, back in France, the many faces of Chellappan haunted me. I had seen the fervor of the students working to acquire a mode of representation handed down from the colonial era. In their eyes Chellappan was the archetype of the Indian from times past. I was called by some force to see him again and create a piece bearing witness to his life and work. That’s how I decided to return to Trivandrum in December 2007.

With a group of students and the cooperation of Chellappan, we created an exact mold for every one of the busts lying in a state of ruin. Chellappan was proud and happy with the idea that he would be exhibited in Europe. In the end I paid him to pose for 25 minutes in front of my camera. It was his first and last film. In April 2010 I found out that he had committed suicide after a final posing session. Profoundly affected by the news, I recalled a strange premonition I had while working on the installation project with him, the premonition that he himself would disappear afterwards.

In February 2020, I went back to the school again. The plaster busts had disappeared with the passing of time. I felt like the caretaker of the part of Chellappan’s history that I had preserved in molds and on film. I met with two of the last live models who had known him: a man, Krishnapillai and a woman, Laila. I decided to create a portrait on film of each one of them bearing witness to the life and last days of Chellappan. How the two stories intersect and diverge from one another heightens the mystery surrounding him that continues to haunt the school.

Having learned that it was impossible for students to paint a nude model, because of certain codes of social conduct, I offered to pose nude for a day. It was my way of paying a final tribute to Chellappan. It took place in a warehouse on the outskirts of Trivandrum. On the 6th of February 2020, 19 paintings were made by students who confided how difficult it was to recreate the likeness of a “white model”.

Text: François Daireaux
Translation: Dr. Lisa Friedli