The entrance to artist Manohar Devadoss’s house on Papanasam Sivan Salai off Santhome High Road in Chennai, is a picture worthy of a greeting card. And aptly so. After all, the artist is known for the annual greeting cards that he and his beloved late wife Mahima enjoyed making for close to 42 years. Manohar’s yearly greeting card ritual with his wife is a fascinating story, but that will have to wait.
The 83-year-old artist was recently announced as a Padma Shri awardee, and is an inspiration for many. A tragic accident just a few years into his marriage with Mahima rendered her a quadriplegic; his vision failed him due to a rare genetic condition called retinitis pigmentosa during his prime; he lost his beloved wife in 2008. But despite these adversities, Manohar has persevered, his genial spirit intact.
A bougainvillea archway leads us to the entrance of the ivory-coloured bungalow where he lives. The two pillars that bear the creeper have two names etched on them - Manohar and Mahima. The former in a standard all-caps font and the latter in a cursive, hand-written font.
We’re at his tastefully arranged living room, displaying some of his framed sketches, including the one he did of his wife. Seated opposite an intricately carved, Andhra style Gajalakshmi wooden door that stands between bookshelves, we begin discussing his art, his love for his wife and his thoughts on living.
It was architect Thirupurasundari Sevvel who helped him with all the paperwork for the Padma Shri award, he says.
On the day of the interview, Manohar is busy with phone calls. An article about him has been published in a newspaper and several are calling to congratulate him. “I must have answered at least 30 calls since morning,” he says. “This is not my typical day. This is unusual.”
The chemist, artist and author
“I’ve drawn pictures ever since I can remember. From 6th standard, on my own, I learnt about perspectives. The chapel in my college was my first original, serious artwork, when I was 19. It was a landmark because that was when I realised I had a flair for heritage buildings,” he begins.
Manohar, who explains that he did art only for his enjoyment, has a PhD in Chemistry and worked in Oldham Company as a chemist for over four decades. And during all these years as a chemist, Manohar continued sketching. “My job gave me great joy and I was sent on trips to England. But the best thing was yet to happen,” he pauses, waiting to be prodded.
“I was all ready to get married and in those days, going abroad was such a rare thing that my value in the matrimonial market went up,” he guffaws. As destiny would have it, Manohar was introduced to Mahima through a common cousin, and after a brief but eventful courtship, the two got married.
Manohar and Mahima. Picture Courtesy: Thirupurasundari Sevvel
This period is also the one which Manohar considers as his best as an artist. “I became a better artist as soon as she came into my life. I used to illustrate the letters that I sent to everyone and naturally my letters to my fiancée had to be better! Sometimes, I even had this uncomfortable feeling that she was eagerly looking forward to my letters more than me,” he chuckles.
Three of his books - Green Well Years, Multiple Faucets of My Madurai and An Artist’s Perspective - have excellent sketches done by Manohar over the years.
“I started on Green Well Years with encouragement from my wife. I had started losing my vision at that point and she suggested that I chronicle my childhood adventures during my time in Madurai, which according to her were more interesting than Tom Sawyer’s. I began illustrating it with great difficulty, and it took 15 years of writing and 14 years of artwork,” he says.
Sketches from Multiple Faucets of My Madurai
This book, with Manohar’s sketches from his childhood memories and escapades, also have his writings on his boyhood days. It was first published in 1997. Manohar has also published two books on his wife - Dreams, Seasons and Promises, and A Poem to Courage, the last a biographical novel.
He is presently working on a book on Madras with architect Sujatha Shankar, also a Convenor at the Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (INTACH), and another on his life.
“The books I’ve written so far stop with 1995, but all-important events happen after that. I’m writing a book on my life with Mahima, our life after the accident and how we led a happy life. This will be a true biography. I decided to not have drawings in this and I will leave it to the readers to imagine,” he says.
‘A poem to courage’
Manohar says his wife had a great sense of humour. “On our wedding night, I gave her Jack London’s The Call of the Wild and this was the first gift that I gave her. When she opened it, she at once smiled very impishly and said, ‘Mano, it is not at all inappropriate for a man to give his bride this book on the first night of the wedding.’ That was the kind of person she was. We gave each other inexpensive but very creative gifts,” he says.
Theirs was a marriage of handmade gifts, inside jokes and immense love that helped the two brave through most difficult times.
“After the accident, when she became bedridden, I made her a promise. As long as I live, my wife will never get bedsores. This, I kept until the very last. Mahima lived for 35 years but she didn't have a suggestion of bedsore,” Manohar says with great affection.
And according to Manohar all that was required was simple, strategic love.
“We never told each other ‘I’ll be loving you eternally darling’, nothing of that sort. She’d say, ‘Poor Mano, your sleep is deprived because you have to turn me over in the middle of the night.’ I used to say, ‘I did it for selfish reasons, I have to spend money if you get bedsores.’ I used to call her my sack of potatoes during the times I had to carry her and she used to call me a savage and a caveman,” he says with a laugh.
“When my vision started failing, she decided to read to me and as I drew, she would read to me for hours. In 1979, almost seven years after the accident and four years after I lost vision in my left eye, I told our two monsters - retinitis pigmentosa and quadriplegia – ‘These are the years that I have done the maximum artwork I've ever done’. It was also the time when the number of books we read was higher. We were sharing books and our bond of affection also deepened.”
He tells us how their greeting card project came to be. “During our honeymoon to Belur in January 1964, Mahima handed me a pen and a notepad and asked me to sketch the temple architecture. I remember the sketching of Darpana Sundari, of a woman looking at herself in the mirror with admiration, and that Christmas, we made a card using the sketch and gave it to our friends. In 1966, the ink drawing of a 120-ft long country raft gliding smoothly along Buckingham canal with a beautiful billowing sail, created a mini sensation. Mahima had written a crisp text upon research on the history of the canal, the viability of the boats and on the hard lives of the boatmen. People wanted to buy it,” he says.
Thus began their four decade long tradition, which was not paused even in the years when the accident took place or when Mahima passed away. “Even during 2008 New Year, the time when Mahima was extremely unwell, we sold more than 33,000 cards,” he recalls.
“In 2008 March my wife died, but even in 2007, we did the greeting card project. People keep coming home to buy it around the end of October, early November and it is always in great demand. We gift the entire sale proceeds to charity. Although we were in a debilitating, tragic situation, we were able to give to people who were less fortunate than us. We had a lot of love and support that a lot of them didn’t,” he explains.
Mahima and Manohar also contributed to the non-profit Sankara Nethralaya Eye Hospital in 1991. “Mahima was able to paint a few watercolours and I put up a few of my own sketches. Our daughter too displayed her artistic photographs and the proceeds from the sales went to Sankara Nethralaya,” he beams.
Manohar has a rare resilience about him.
Picture courtesy: Naveen
“Life is full of joyful surprises,” he says, when referring to his very first Carnatic performance that he gave just two years ago. “I have always been passionate about music and I know to play the harmonium. If not for my father’s passing when I was young, I might have become a pianist. But now, I’ve been learning Carnatic music.”
As someone who is hard to label, we ask how he would like to be identified.
“I try to be a compassionate, forgiving person and a person with a good sense of humour. Also whatever talent God gave, I have tried to excel at it. In whatever I did and whatever I do,” he finishes.
Watch Manohar talk about Madras and Madurai: