“Tretchikoff was quite a charmer,” says Boris Gorelik, whose biography The Incredible Tretchikoff was published in South Africa last week. “He usually had no problem finding women to model for him because his pictures were so appealing. He always glamourised women.”
When Gorelik set about writing his biography of Tretchikoff in 2010, he tried to track down some of the women who the artist immortalised on canvas. When it came to the Russian-born artist’s most famous work, Chinese Girl, he knew from Tretchikoff’s own account where he had found his model.
“He met the ‘Chinese Girl’ through a Russian ballet teacher,” Gorelik says. “Tretchikoff was renting a flat in Sea Point at the time and the ballet studio was close by.” Tretchikoff developed the habit of popping in at the studio in order to sketch. “One day she told him: ‘There’s a very beautiful Chinese girl who works at the launderette on Main Road, you should paint her’,” explains Gorelik. Tretchikoff duly found the launderette, was as impressed with its employee’s appearance as he had been led to believe he would be, and asked her to model for him.
This story didn’t answer the question of who exactly the woman in question was, however. Gorelik describes his success in identifying her as something that happened “quite by chance”. He carried out a Google search with the details of the story that he knew, and came across a memoir that her daughter had written for family and friends. It mentioned that her mother had sat for Tretchikoff. Gorelik tracked her down, confirmed the story, and eventually met the real-life “Chinese Girl”.
Now 80, Monika Pon-su-san lives in Johannesburg today. Her face adorns the walls of countless suburban living-rooms, as one of the most popular prints ever produced. The painting she modelled for sold at auction in London in March this year for £982,050. By the time Tretchikoff died in 2006, he had become the wealthiest artist in the world after Picasso. Pon-su-san received just six pounds and five shillings for her modelling stint as a 17-year-old in 1950. She never posed for another painting again – but she told the BBC in May this year: “If Tretchikoff were alive, I would let him paint me again.”
Gorelik successfully tracked down another Tretchikoff model, a now-deceased woman who posed for the paintings Lady from Orient and Miss Wong. But the subject of The Hindu Dancer proved more tricky. When he was told that the painting was coming up for auction this month at Stephan Welz & Co in Cape Town, Gorelik used the opportunity of the increased publicity around the painting to put out another public call for anyone who might be able to help solve the mystery. All the information Gorelik had was a newspaper clipping from the Sunday Times from 1959, which stated that the real-life Hindu dancer was a 26-year-old woman called Champa Chameli. Gorelik tried to get in touch with Indian dance schools and associations in South Africa to track her down, but none of them were able to give him any concrete assistance.
Just a day before The Hindu Dancer was due to go under the hammer, however, a woman called Chameli Jain contacted the auction house. Jain had seen an article about Gorelik’s search for the “Hindu dancer”, and she’d known the answer to the mystery since childhood. The Hindu dancer was her mother.
Photo: Tretchikoff’s The Hindu Dancer
Growing up in Merebank, south of Durban, Jain got to know The Hindu Dancer painting pretty well. “Tretchikoff signed that print and it hung in our living room!” Jain told the Daily Maverick. “My mum was a housewife by then, but I knew about that past and we always heard about Tretchikoff. The last time I met him was when I was about 17, in the late 70s.”
Jain’s mother is now known as Champa Manooa, and will turn 80 this year in her home in Florida, in the United States. At the time that Tretchikoff painted her she was Champa Chameli, the daughter of a well-known tabla player called George Chameli. Her family claims that Champa was the first South African Indian girl to perform Hindu dancing in the Transvaal.
Why would Tretchikoff have been drawn to 18-year-old Champa as a model? “You’re asking the wrong person – I am very biased,” laughs Jain. “My mother is just an amazing person. She just shines. She has always been strikingly beautiful, and always received a lot of attention. She was a very talented dancer, and also sings and paints.”
The Hindu Dancer has the characteristic Tretchikoff blue-green hue, and transforms the model into an exotic goddess with multiple arms.
“It’s quite an interesting work,” says Gorelik. “It was one of his first exotic portraits, with that slightly politically incorrect feel. But back in the day it was quite acceptable, and people were mesmerised.”
Paintings like The Hindu Dancer and Chinese Girl brought a touch of escapist fantasy to the walls of many a humdrum flat in the latter half of the last century. Gorelik quotes a 1984 song by British band Big Audio Dynamite, called The Green Lady: “Lady from the Orient in a council flat/ She never looks me in the eye, she never answers back/ If I could buy a ticket, I’d gladly run away/ Ride in on the trade wind and marry you someday.”
Jain thinks The Hindu Dancer looks a lot like her mother, having seen the painting in the “flesh” for the first time two years ago in Cape Town, when the Iziko gallery staged a Tretchikoff exhibition. Her mother, however, has never seen the original – or the other two paintings she said she modelled for.
“Tretchikoff took pictures of the jewellery she was wearing, tons of jewellery, and he said he was going to add it on,” Jain said. “My mum always assumed the final product had the jewellery, but it doesn’t.”
For a while, it was well known that Champa Manoo was Tretchikoff’s model. A 1974 Daily News supplement, preserved by Jain, records: “Nearly 25 years ago, the beauty of Champa Manoo inspired Tretchikoff to paint three portraits of her. Two were sold overseas and she never saw them. The third, in print form, hangs in her home at Merewent. It shows an almond-eyed girl with many hands rotating in the delicate movement of classical Indian dance. Until her marriage to Detective Sergeant Surendra Manoo, Champa was a professional dancer. Her beauty today is eye-catching.”
Jain’s father passed away in 1978. With three young daughters to raise, and family already living in the US, Champa decided her best option was to move to the States. She has been living in Florida since 1980. “She loves it there,” says Jain. “She lives for her garden.”
Gorelik says he is hoping to meet up with Jain soon, so that he can finally put The Hindu Dancer mystery to bed. For her part, Jain was planning to attend the auction of the painting by Stephan Welz & Co on Tuesday evening.
“It would have been so great for my mother to be here,” Jain says. “She is absolutely thrilled by this all. She couldn’t believe there was so much attention on the painting.”
Gorelik says he’s not tempted to snap up a Tretchikoff original for his wall. “I’m not a big fan,” the artist’s biographer admits. “Maybe as an investment. But I’m more fascinated by the phenomenon of Tretchikoff and his personality – his ability to withstand so much pressure and hatred.”
The painting was predicted to sell for between R800 000 and R1 million, though the recent publicity may serve to bump the price up a bit. Jain says she wishes she could put in a bid. “It would be amazing to own it,” she said. DM
Boris Gorelik’s book Incredible Tretchikoff, the first complete biography of the artist, is published by Tafelberg.
Photo: Champa Chameli, the model for Tretchikoff’s “The Hindu Dancer”, in 1958
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