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Manohar Devadoss says he owes his Padmashri Award to Madurai

Artist Manohar Devadoss, who won a Padmashri this year, reminisces the good old times in Madurai, the city of his birth and inspirations

MADURAI: There was a pregnant silence in the LAICO auditorium after the screening of a brief audio-visual tribute to Manohar Devadoss, the artist-writer-scientist who has been awarded the Padmashri this year. The tragedies in his life did not evoke sadness. But a silent strength. And once again, Mano, as he is lovingly called, fortified his bond with the city that nurtured his childhood years. After a pause, there was a standing ovation for the octogenarian.

Manohar Devadoss says he owes his Padmashri Award to Madurai

“I never sought any reward in my life but without my knowledge, some friends recommended my name to the Centre this year. The recognition makes me happy but I am overwhelmed by the continuing love and support of so many friends and well wishers,” he said at the felicitation function organised by the Aravind Eye Care Systems and the Madurai Readers’ Club this week.

He was in the city to attend a series of similar functions to honour him; there were two more by his alma mater — Setupati Higher Secondary School and The American College. And of course, several private meetings with a steady stream of friends and visitors who came to congratulate him. His phone rings continuously now. “I have not attended so many calls in the last five decades as I have in the last five weeks,” he says. With his usual humility, he admits that ever since the announcement came in, his days have not been “typically normal”.

Manohar Devadoss says he owes his Padmashri Award to Madurai

And a self-analysis follows : the last ink sketch he drew was in 2003 — that of Yana Malai near Madurai. The last greeting card he handcrafted was in 2007. The last exhibition of his artworks was held in 2010. And five years ago, he lost his eye sight completely. “Yet, people remember me and my work with so much affection,” is something he is trying to grapple with.

In this moment of his recognition, he, however, misses his wife Mahema the most, whom he lost 12 years ago and his elder brother who died on January 19, just a week before he got the Padmashri. “Both of them would have been very happy today,” he says, as we meet him just before the functions. Wherever he goes, a majority of people are already aware of the challenges he has faced in life. Retinitis pigmentosa weakened his eyesight gradually, till it rendered him visually-challenged. A horrifying accident in the outskirts of Madurai in 1972 resulted in Mahema becoming quadriplegic three days before their ninth wedding anniversary. Yet, nothing could snatch their courage to focus on the good and positive things in life.

Manohar Devadoss says he owes his Padmashri Award to Madurai

When your dreams crumble, it requires extraordinary levels of acceptance and grace to push past your pains. Together, Mahema — who was paralysed neck below at the age of 30 — and Manohar, who was diagnosed with the crippling eye disorder with no cure at the age of 40, only believed in their dreams.

An officer from Delhi took an appointment for 30-minutes to verify his work for the Padma award, he says, but stayed on for more than four hours, baffled by his life story and the flawless ink sketches he made over the years. “I told him I could have looked at my life as one filled with punishments,” says Mano, “but I turned them into rewarding opportunities.”

And how? He wanted to become a scientist and completed his PhD in Chemistry. But his father’s demise forced him to take up a chemist’s job with the British company Oldham in 1958. He quit as its technical director four decades later and believes the job gave him ample time and opportunity to be creative. “Had I become a scientist, I would not have met Mahema either,” he quips. It was because of her encouragement that he started writing his first book Green Well Years in 1982. “I also started drawing with a vengeance because I realised time and my eyes were not on my side. Only my photographic memory stayed with me as a sort of talisman.”

Manohar Devadoss says he owes his Padmashri Award to Madurai

It took Mano 15 years of writing and 14 years of art work to weave the affectionate tribute chronicling the adventures of his boyhood days. Against the beguiling charm of old Madurai, he painstakingly sketched landmarks and heritage buildings and monuments, important festivals and events with keen attention to detail. His sharp pen strokes of the chariot procession during the Chithrai festival, the image of the ther and the crowd, the paddy fields and the bridge over the Vaigai, the chapel in his college, are some images difficult to forget.

Only thing Mano regrets is losing many of his original drawings. Had they been there, his books An Artist’s Perspective and Multiple Facets of My Madurai would have contained more illustrations, he says. Published in 2003, the latter has gone for seven reprints.

Mano recalls a life filled with laughter and belief with Mahema. Together, they hand-made 33,000 greeting cards. Combining his art work with her writing skills, they used their talent and skills for charity. Mahema passed away more than a decade ago but continues to be his muse. He has poignantly written about her in his books, A Poem to Courage and Dreams, Seasons and Promises.

Mano lives alone in Chennai now but refuses to rest. At present, he is working on a book with his illustrations that capture the historic, social and cultural heritage of Chennai. Called Madras Inked, it could become and remain, like his books on Madurai, a vital documentary of times gone by. He is also working on another one on his life, which however, will not contain drawings, he says. For the past four years, he has been learning Carnatic music and dreams of holding one more exhibition of his watercolour paintings themed on butterflies.

It is no wonder that the government officer was at a loss to decide the category of Padma Award for Mano. Finally, he chose art, and rightfully so.

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Printable version | Apr 10, 2020 1:58:20 PM |

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