Most of technocrat-writer-artist Manohar Devadoss's works that exult in colour are from the time he stopped being able to differentiate them. The “paradoxical blind artist”, as his daughter Sujatha called him, is standing in the middle of his exhibition, ‘Mahema and the Butterfly', by the Prakriti Foundation. “I wouldn't want to be a butterfly. All that flitting and fluttering,” he smiles. “Mahema wasn't one either. She was calmness, serenity.”
But butterflies have alighted gently upon their lives many-a-time, as though to mark a change of seasons, sometimes to bring news, good or bad. They were to celebrate on the day doctors declared Mahema didn't need to undergo a risky surgery, hundreds of them gathering around the tightly knotted divi-divi tree in their backyard. They would dive through the verses she wrote, and were born at the tip of her brush. The first time they kissed, she had surprised him in a kimono, inspired by Puccini's Madame Butterfly. They are also there at the Quibble Island Cemetery, where Mahema rests.
They had been married nine years when the accident involving their Herald car and a lorry left 32-year-old Mahema paralysed neck-down. He worked to strengthen his arms, so that he could lift her around the house. This was also the time Manohar was diagnosed with retinitis pigmentosa, his vision failing rapidly to near blindness. Yet, the couple worked on, writing and painting, the proceeds from most of their exhibitions going to hospitals and charities.
‘Vaigai Sunset' is the dying day, its glorious pinks, purples, and oranges, and clouds singed at the edges by the setting sun. A yellow river flows through, and three figures stand waist-deep in it. ‘Lane House' is a warm watercolour of the inner city of Madurai; while indelible pen and ink in strokes as elusive as spider webs combine into the resilient strength of the ‘Garo Tribal Girl'. The sparse grey-green of the watercolours in ‘Kodaikanal's Sentinels' sets you aquiver, shivering in the mist that seeps through the eucalyptus trees. For ‘A Rickety Boat Jetty', Manohar turned to a memory from thirty years ago, a dark wooden boat soaking in the sun on the banks of a river in Cannanore. There is a watercolour of a stag suspended in the violet air of dreams, an image from a dream Mahema saw a few days before she passed away, in 2008.
During their courtship, Manohar would write endless letters to her, filled with his sketches of the world. Many of the artworks here are elaborations of those sketches. “I worked harder to impress her. So as soon as she walked by my side, the quality of my work improved,” he said.
“There are many questions we can ask of this man who paints relentlessly, and writes with nuclear force,” said Sujatha. “How does he draw? And more importantly, why? Perhaps because his is only a loss of sight, not of vision.”
The ‘how' is perhaps easier to answer. Using trigonometry, and hundreds of photographs of his subjects. With special eye drops to dilate his pupils; with +30 glasses, the strongest in the world; with super-strong lights and magnifiers; with gloves, because the lights make his hands sweat, and he could smudge his works. With this, he can see a hazy smear, about the size of a one rupee coin.
The question of why he draws, against insurmountable odds, though he has probably never seen one of his works in full, is probably answered best by the mute astonishment amongst the people at the exhibition. When we leave, of the thirty-three paintings here, only three are left to be sold.
The exhibition will be on at the Lakshana Art Gallery till October 25. The proceeds go to the Sankara Nethralaya and the Aravind Eye Hospital.