Uma Mani must have been 48 or 49, standing in front of her paintings of corals in a Maldives gallery. Someone had just asked her a question. Not the divers who usually visited these exhibitions. They would come for her shows, identify the corals she painted, and Uma would beam from some corner, happy that someone had understood.
But this question was not about corals. It was about her. Had she ever seen them for real, under water? Uma had not. And all of a sudden she wanted to. But she didn’t know to dive, she didn’t even know how to swim. In days, perhaps months, though, she learnt to. She dived, and she dived again, to see what the corals looked like. Coming back to land, she’d paint them and only them.
Today, on World Environment Day, Uma, who now lives in Kodaikanal, is holding her first art exhibition in India at the Aga Khan Hall in New Delhi, after several shows in the Maldives.
“Each one is doing their bit for the environment. Me, I collect rain water and our house in Kodaikanal has solar roofs,” Uma says.
And she paints corals, trying to impart a message through her paintings, on what beautiful creatures these are and what we do to them.
Helping her put up the exhibition is documentary filmmaker Priya Thuvassery, whose next documentary is on Uma, Coral Woman.
“She was this homemaker who had some free time and decided to start painting. At the age of 49, she learns to swim and now at 53, she is a PADI certified scuba diver,” Priya says.
Uma grew up in Chennai before leaving for the Maldives. “Once my son was all grown up and my responsibilities were done, I thought I would start painting. I did a basic course online and the first time I had an exhibition, someone suggested I should have a theme. I thought of roses first, but then I saw a documentary on corals and decided to make that my theme. Everyone said it’d be difficult.” But she stuck to it.
The diving course she took was a wedding anniversary gift from her son. And Uma knew she had to come out of her comfort zone.
“I wouldn’t jump at first. I was standing on top and the water was 10 feet deep. They all said, ‘Uma, jump’. I was all geared up too. So I jumped. I had no idea I would love it so much. It was fear at first and then curiosity took over and turned it into concern.”
After diving, her paintings of corals also had fish, just the way she saw them under water. “They are too beautiful. The coral reefs and the friendly colourful fish. We should keep them that way.”
Here are some more of her paintings: