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MEMORIES OF MADRAS

Giving shape to the past

Sculptor Mani Nagappa on following in his father’s footsteps, and the city’s significant monuments

PHOTO: S.R. RAGHUNATHAN

Roy choudhury’s masterpiece The Triumph of Labour Statue on the Marina

In the early 1900s, an epidemic broke out in the country. It spread in the Madras Presidency. Symptoms of the disease included swelling. People were panic-stricken. As a sizeable British population lived here, Britain was worried. To study the disease, the British Government asked Hadaway, then principal of the Madras School of Arts (now the Government College of Fine Arts), to commission the painting of a victim. As Hadaway’s assistant, my father Rao Bahadur M.S. Nagappa got to do it. Based on a mould, which was taken from someone who had died of the infection, a painting was done. Apparently, the painting proved useful to the medical team in London. My father came in for much praise and also received prize money.

My father started out as a stapathi, but, in course of time, took to the ‘monumental style’. While stapathis used standard measurements and mudras for the images and characters, monumental sculptors presented things the way they were. Sculptors who had studied at the School of Arts invariably followed the monumental style. Thanks to this orientation, they were good at making statues of celebrated people. There was a big market for statue makers.

Emboldened by this fact, my father set up a big studio in Narasinghapuram, which is today a part of the electronics hub we call Ritchie Street. In the 1930s, the street was much quieter. When I close my eyes and try to picture it, only our studio, one Rajagopal Motor Works, a sherbet shop and a furniture shop come to mind. My memories of this studio include visits by bigwigs.

One of the richest and most influential men in Madras, Lord Govindoss, had a taste for the arts. Apart from its beautiful design, his house, opposite the Pachiyappa College, held a ‘jumbo’ attraction — an elephant was kept as a pet!

He approached my father to make a bronze statue of King George V. The mould came from England and the casting was done here. Lord Govindoss presented the statue to King George in 1935, the silver jubilee year of his ascension to the throne.


Pleased with his bronze image, King George wrote a letter of appreciation that also narrated how unsuccessful a local artist was in getting the king’s likeness despite many personal sittings. The title of Rao Bahadur was bestowed on my father. My father was invited to London, but the fear that crossing the seas would bring ill-luck would not let him go.

Thanks to my dad, I earned the friendship of many eminent sculptors. Even after my father’s death in 1942, I was in touch with Devi Prasad Roy Choudhury of the School of Arts. His works still adorn the city. The most notable ones are the Gandhi and Triumph of Labour statues at the Marina.

The Triumph of Labour statue was installed in 1950, when India became a Republic. The piece of art was to represent in stone the Republic’s commitment to honour and reward honest labour. Choudhury was a man who welcomed criticism, even when it came from someone many years younger. So, I asked him how was it that the workmen are big and rippling with muscles. “In a group of workers, won’t you find one who is fat and another very thin?” He laughed and patting me on my head, said, “Arre, bacche! You are right!” When I look at all these statues, I marvel at their ability to defy time. Statues are strong storehouses of history. When we preserve them, we preserve a people’s collective memory.

There was a plan to remove Munro’s statue and install Jawarharlal Nehru’s in its place. One man opposed the idea and shot it down successfully. It was none other than Nehru himself.

MANI NAGAPPA Born in 1925 in Chennai, he took to his family profession — sculpting. He adopted the style of his father, M. S. Nagappa, and practised the ‘representational’ form. Mani Nagappa’s statues of political leaders and eminent citizens decorate the city. He is also an avid vintage car enthusiast — he owns a dozen of them and heads a car club.

***

I remember

It was mid-term at the Madras School of Arts when my father M.S. Nagappa wanted to join the institution as a student. The watchman would not let him in. My father hung around and drew a picture of the watchman, when he was sound asleep. When the principal Hadaway was leaving in his car, my father threw the sheet in. The Britisher was impressed with the sketch and appointed my father as his assistant.

As told to PRINCE FREDERICK

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