Ever wondered who modelled for the Triumph Of Labour statue on the Marina Beach? Akila Kannadasan tracks them down

The four men with rippling muscles stand above all else, in a world of their own. Traffic rumbles on before them; passers-by walk by without as much as a glance. Only rarely does one stop to look at them. As statues frozen in time, the men stand there, their personal moment of intense physical effort, captured for the world to see. Who are they? Did they exist in flesh and blood before they were cast in bronze by the great sculptor Debi Prasad Roy Chowdhury? I set out to find out. My first stop is the Government College of Fine Arts. The sculptor worked there from 1929 and retired as the principal in 1957. “No one knows who the models were,” says P.S. Devanath, the head of the Department of Painting. “A sculptor rarely interacts with his model. You can search the books in our library… but it’s unlikely that you will find what you are looking for.” But there must be somebody. Is there any person at all with whom the sculptor discussed his work? After numerous phone calls and a fitful sleep at night, I walk into a three-roomed flat in Kodambakkam in the morning…

Inside, a framed painting of a man with sharp eyes, long hair and a beard, hangs on a wall opposite the door. It’s the first thing that catches my eye — such is the man’s charisma. I know right away that I am at the right place. “He is my father A.P. Srinivasan, who was Chowdhury’s model for the second and fourth men from left in the Triumph Of Labour statue,” informs his son Subramanian, a technician at the Government College of Fine Arts.

Srinivasan was the son of a farmer. He grew up on a dose of healthy food and hard work in the sun. Almost six feet tall, he had a muscular body. He was in his late teens when he came to Chennai to make a living — he sold vegetables in Periyamedu. The prestigious Madras School of Arts was a stone’s throw from his shop.

One day, a regular customer stopped by to talk to him. “He asked my father if he wanted to work at the Art School!” says Subramanian. The customer was sculptor Debi Prasad Roy Chowdhury. Srinivasan thus stepped into the campus as a labourer for a salary of Re.1. a day. As years rolled by, he was promoted to night watchman and unskilled labour.

During his tenure as a night watchman, Srinivasan was presented an unexpected request by Chowdhury: would he model for his latest work? Srinivasan consented, but breathed not a word about this to anyone at home. It was his first and last modelling assignment. It was much after his death, after an article came out in a Tamil magazine in 1971, did his sons find out that the famous statue had their father in it.

“I was 12 when father passed away,” says Subramanian. “The first thing that comes to my mind when I think of him is medhu pakoda,” he smiles. “He often bought a handful after work for us to eat.” Subramanian is proud that there is a statue of his father in the city, similar to leaders such as Gandhi and Anna.

But it has been almost 25 years since he saw it. Even if he goes to the Beach Road for work, Subramanian ensures that he goes nowhere near the statue. “I don’t like to see it,” he says, his eyes threatening to well-up. “The statue does something to me.”

It took 15 days...

Artist Ramu was a student at the Madras School of Fine Arts in the late 1950s when “one day, when I was talking to friends on the college grounds, the principal (Chowdhury) called me to his studio”. Clad in a kurta pyjama, with spectacles and a quiet demeanour, the towering principal intimidated students. Ramu wondered why he was summoned to his office. “I was asked to model for his work,” he recalls. “I modelled on and off for almost 15 days.” Ramu had no idea of what the sculptor was working on. Srinivasan’s son Subramanian points out that the other two men in the Labour statue are modelled on Ramu. “I didn’t know that,” says Ramu. “All these years, I only knew that the third man from left was me!”