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Padma Shri awardee Manohar Devadoss on what inspires his art

Artist. Writer. Musician. Scientist. Raconteur — there are multiple facets to Manohar Devadoss. “In fact, the official who called to tell me that I have been awarded the Padma Shri said the awards committee was in a dilemma about which category to put me in, before they settled for ‘Art’!” he chuckles.

At 83 years, with several books and awards behind him, I ask the self-taught artist who gradually lost his vision to Retinitis pigmentosa and a cataract, what the Padma Shri — the fourth highest civilian award in India — means to him. “The affection and love that I enjoy from so many people (my friends from Aravind Eye Hospital, Shankara Nethralaya and institutions like my alma mater — the American College, Madurai and of course, my church in San Thome) are rewards in themselves, now this is an additional one. However, I do miss my dear wife Mahema at this time…” He says he particularly cherishes a letter of commendation from the Prime Minister which reads, “The collective contributions of your late wife and you are indeed a matter of pride…” And what a team they were.

“Just three days after our ninth wedding anniversary in 1972, Mahema became a quadriplegic, in a car accident” recalls Manohar. “Around two years after that, my vision began to fade. But we never gave up. In fact, we grew closer in our trials.”

Overcoming adversity

“During that difficult time, it was the love showered on us by countless people that kept us going” says Manohar. “Starting with the doctor couple who rescued us from the accident site, the team at JIPMER Pondicherry, the young medicos at CMC Vellore who literally partied in our room, cheering us up through rehabilitation, the steady stream of visitors from Oberlin College, US, where we with our daughter Suja had spent two extremely happy years, the countless well-wishers who rallied around us, to the members of the youth fellowship at CSI St Thomas English Church who visited frequently and even drove us to picnics and movies — it is because of every act of kindness that we triumphed. My mother cared for Mahema as her own daughter, and that inspired me to do the same.”

Oil painting of the raft on Buckingham Canal

Age of innocence

I ask him the secret to his ever-cheerful disposition, and he looks back to his happy boyhood in Madurai — captured so well in his book Green Well Years that he started writing when he had almost completely lost his vision in 1983.

“If you hadn’t had cataract, you would not have a book. You would have spent all your time drawing…” Mahema would often say, and this helped him see the brighter side of things. “When my vision was partially restored after surgery, I went on an overdrive, producing so many artworks, that I even had an art exhibition.”

Manohar started sketching trees and everyday objects at the age of five. He transitioned to copying great works of art like Michelangelo’s David and Bertel Thorvaldsen’s Christus from books, experimenting with watercolours.

The first milestone in his artistic journey was the intricate pen-and-ink sketch of the Jubilee Chapel in The American College, during his final year in 1956, as a 19-year-old. “This drawing evoked far greater enthusiasm from the students than even the ones I did of the college beauty, Bhavani,” recalls Manohar in his book Multiple Facets of My Madurai. It was printed on the cover of the college magazine and came to be his signature style.

Manohar and Mahema Devadoss

But it is love that brought out the artist in him. When he met Mahema through a mutual cousin, Manohar put his talent to good use by illustrating almost every letter he wrote to her.

Mahema, a gold medallist in Fine Arts was the perfect impetus to his artistic genius. “In 1966, we did a greeting card with my oil painting of a 120-ft long country raft on the Buckingham Canal near Pulicat Lake. Many friends wanted it, and so we decided to do more such heritage cards and give the proceeds to charity. I drew, she wrote the text, and it continued even after the accident, for 42 years until 2007, when we sold a record 33,000 cards.”

Speaking about his love for Mahe as he affectionately refers to her, Manohar affirms that theirs was a marriage filled with generous doses of laughter, “we used to tease each other, had nicknames, and could laugh even during the laborious task of having to turn Mahema in bed every three hours (to prevent bed sores).

It was also a relationship of mutual respect — Mahema read to me, even as I sketched with limited vision.”

He on his part, had devised an indigenous contraption above her bed, so that she could see his drawings. “Even on the night she entered eternal sleep in 2008, Mahema asked to see the drawing I was making of the Clock Tower at the Madras University and was pleased with it.”

Manohar looks forward to two new publications this year — Madras Inked — a profusely illustrated book on landmarks in Chennai, co-authored with Sujatha Shankar and Challenges, Resilience & Triumph, on his life with Mahema. “Though my last artwork was in 2009, I could draw simple, semi-abstract sketches with help, even until six months ago. I’m also writing four love stories” says Manohar, who dictates his thoughts to his secretary Sheela. He plays the harmonica every day and has been learning Carnatic music well enough that he even performed at an engagement.

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