As 84-year-old Manohar Devadoss draws you into a conversation, you can't help but notice the sparkle in his eye. Eager to tell you stories from his very eventful life, he has a way with words -- and with his hands. So much so that he has over 200 artworks to his name despite suffering from retinal degeneration, a condition that led him to lose sight first in one eye and then eventually in the other. Honoured recently with the Padma Shri, most of his works have been showcased in his seven books, besides heritage greeting cards and art exhibitions.
Although he was a professional chemist at Oldham for more than four decades, art came to him naturally. “My earliest memory of sketching was when my family visited the zoo. I drew a picture of a giraffe snatching my brother’s pencil when I was two-and-a-half-years old.” It was during his time in the company that his work started reaching a wider audience. “When I was 21, my boss caught me sketching a young woman in a bathing suit. So he asked me if I could draw catamarans on the seashore as a Christmas greeting card for the company and I readily agreed. This was just the start of many greeting cards that I made for the company.”
But life wasn’t very rosy for him. It was in 1972 that things took a fateful turn for him when his wife Mahema met with an accident which left her paralysed below the neck. Armed with the responsibility of fulfilling their financial needs, taking care of his wife and giving a good life for his daughter, he was undeterred. Three years after the accident, he was faced with another crisis, losing sight in one eye due to retinal degeneration and having partial vision in the other. “With the fear of losing sight in both eyes, I made so many sketches and paintings that we even had an art exhibition in 1978 and gave part of the money earned for charity. If it wasn’t for the fear, I wouldn’t have drawn with such intensity,” he explains. “The fear even made me write my first book Green Well Years which was released in 1997. It took me 15 years, but I still made sure it came out with my artwork. You don’t need vision to write a book, right?” he says.
As you pace around the house, you understand that it is indeed true. Black and white images of numerous places from Chennai to his hometown Madurai were framed in his house. For his sketches, he painstakingly uses a black ink pen and works on every piece with utmost care, even if one section takes him months to complete. The level of detail in his artwork makes you immediately wonder how he can draw so meticulously despite his vision problem.
“Initially I used to sketch without any aid, but as my vision went down, I used many aids. I had a custom-made pocket telescope that was hung around my neck all the time. It was of high resolution with +27 and +16 power for near sight and that gave me all the help to pursue my passion. I also took photographs for scale which helped me draw monuments and temples. Sometimes, it was from memory and sometimes I had help with someone describing the scenery,” he said.
Ask Manohar about his favourite artwork and he instantly points to a picture on the wall. “My wife’s picture,” he says gleefully. His vision problem had opened up the innovator in him. Manohar sketched an intricate portrait of his wife in colour even when it became very tough for him to identify different colours. “Despite being quadriplegic, my wife lived an active life for 35 years. She regained movements in her shoulder muscle and biceps and even learnt to paint. She made 10 watercolour paintings, wrote books along with me, taught me how to draw oil paintings and even took care of the accounts in the house.” Despite various challenges across the years, his spirit was not broken. “My wife and I lived a contented life and enjoyed every moment that came our way. We published heritage greeting cards every year. For forty-two years, we continued the project before my wife passed away in 2007. She was supportive of me in every way, all the time. We loved each other so much,” he says.
Art is a struggle, isn’t it? “I enjoyed what I did, so I never felt the struggle. I learnt all kinds of paintings. From oil to watercolour, I took up everything. That was the reason I could complete seven books and now the eighth one too,” he says. When he handed me his books, particularly Multiple Facets of My Madurai, which featured around 78 pictures, it was evident that he knew every stroke, backdrop and even page number by heart. Even as an octogenarian, Manohar still has a flair for learning. “I have started learning Carnatic music every day,” he adds and sings a song or two. But inevitably, his fingers still play around, working their way through a bird or a tree even as his conversation continues without a pause.