Registered with the Registrar of Newspapers for India under R.N.I 53640/91
Vol. XXXII No. 17, December 16-31, 2022
The Madras Literary Society (MLS) faces a deep loss with the parting of artist Manohar Devadoss, our good friend and ardent supporter. Mano uncle, we will miss you very much!
He was with us on November 28 this year for our AGM, cheerfully chatting with each of us. Indeed, the historic foyer of the 200-year-old Madras Literary Society has played host to the distinguished artist many times; he even joined us online during the Covid lockdown. Manohar Devadoss made sure that he was part of every MLS meeting. He dubbed the Society a ‘gentle giant.’ He once said, “… the friends I made at MLS has made my life more interesting. I look forward to coming to the MLS Saturdays and the fellowship. In 2020, fresh from being awarded the Padma Shri for his immeasurable contribution to art, he spoke to a captivated audience about his journey in a chat aptly titled ‘An Ode to Courage.’
Mano, as he is fondly known by those privileged to have him as a friend, grew up in the temple town of Madurai. In the 1940s, it was the epicentre of civil disobedience against British occupation. But to a young boy, the city offered magical inspiration through its rich history. Young Mano would become a writer and scientist but he made his mark as an artist who brought layman and connoisseurs alike to tears with his magnificent renderings of temple art and landscapes.
His greatest attribute was and is his personal courage. When he spoke of the accident that befell his beloved Mahema, listeners struggled to hold back tears – it took away her physical mobility but could not touch her exuberance for life. Mano often spoke wistfully of their creative collaborations – his art wedded to the magic of her words produced a series of unforgettable books such as the Green Well Years, Dreams, Seasons and Promises and of course, the awe-inspiring Multiple Facets of My Madurai. He gives an impassioned yet unapologetic account of his infinite love for her, which lit his days of caring for her as a paraplegic for 37 years and which continued to glow in her omnipotent presence that forever enveloped him. Shortly after her accident, Mano himself was diagnosed with Retinitis Pigmentosia, a rare disorder that causes blindness. While it gradually robbed him of sight, he did not lack the enthusiasm to live and love. Indeed, his mind often seemed to have a greater sense of clarity than most. When he spoke, one listened to him with rapt attention for he was utterly charming, self-effacing and pragmatic all at once. Mano narrated his tragedies with a sense of humour and his considerable achievements almost always remained humbly unspoken. He was not shy of expressing his admiration and fondness for women but that confession was always tempered with the respectfulness of a gentleman’s vocabulary and always, always began and ended with Mahema. Mano’s early ambition – one that remained for much of his life – was to author an art-based treatise on stereo-chemistry, complete with 3D goggles for readers to go on a multidimensional adventure into the fabulous world of primordial chemical structure.
Mano’s capacity to see beauty in ugliness is matched only by the magnificence of his artworks. In every possible way, each word he uttered, each brushstroke, each touch of a pen was inspired by Mahema.
And that is Padma Shri Manohar Devadoss in a nutshell.
– Prabhu Vishvanathan
MLS Committee Member
* * *
I am a regular reader of MM. I have made one-line drawings of Mr. Manohar Devadoss to pay tribute to a great illustrator and fine fellowman. I have had the pleasure of visiting him at his residence and have bought some of his books. I last saw him at the release of Madras Inked at C.P. Ramaswami Arts Centre. I could not meet him personally on the occasion since the Governor had graced the event. May his soul rest in peace with Mahema.
* * *
When Sriram told me that Mano had gone, I really felt the world lost some shine, sparkle, joy and a positive cheer. Manohar Devadoss is an icon of Madras, no one will argue with that. His Madras Inked has only one human icon, M.S. Mano deserves to be in it. But who will draw him in the exceptional Mano style?
When I first met him and Mahema (Miss), she was already in a wheel chair. It was at the Music Academy. Both of them were regulars at many of the cultural events. I was already a judge, but that did not deter me running up to them and gushing, “Mahema miss!” You see, she was the Arts teacher at my school, Rosary Matriculation. In fact, many of us had a huge crush on her. She was like that. It was no surprise to me that Mano was totally in love with her. “Mahi” – when he said that word, the love was palpable. That encounter was the beginning of a lovely friendship, one of my life’s treasures.
He drew like a dream. His fingers ‘saw’ and they drew and they ‘spoke’ to us. How else do you explain the drawing of Cottingley, which he felt with his fingers and drew?
Mano really was a blithe spirit. Once he told me that he does his exercises regularly and keeps his arms strong. “How else can I help lift Mahi when she needs to be?” And then that shining smile. How can one be so free of self-pity and other such demons that drag you into a morass? He told me recently that he had so many things to be thankful and happy about. And I am thinking, Mano, please transmit this quality to me. Why just me, to everyone!
He enjoyed being with people. In a gathering, people would gravitate towards him and introduce themselves. He would hug them at once – that was his way of seeing them.
He was very gender-equal. He respected women, and admired them. Once at a book release, the three persons on the dais with him were Nirmala Lakshman, Sujatha Shankar and me. He mentioned it then that it was an all-woman event excepting him! He never forgot that, even recently he recalled it. Once he said that the resilience and inner steel of South Indian women is unmatched. I did not counter him by saying, it applies to all women, I just said “Yes, Mano.” He beamed.
When I decided to publish my collection of Dinamani articles, I wanted only Mano’s drawing on the cover. A page from his Perspectives, because the articles spoke of my perspective of things. I am very proud that the book came out with his drawing. I asked him what the royalty was. He refused to take anything. After much persuasion he asked me to give to the Mahema Devadoss Endowment which both of them created with Aravind Eye Hospital. A spiral staircase drawn by Mano adorns the cover of my Karappanpoochi Nagaikkumo.
He was generous with his praise and he never forgot to express it when the occasion called for it. I can vouch for that. He called it the Yaanaimalai judgment, the order that stopped the rock from being carved. I repeatedly told him it was not a judgment. He brushed me aside, for according to him even if I had done nothing except that during my tenure as a judge, I was fine!
We often use the clichéd phrase “Whence comes such another?” But it applies to Mano fully. Madras events will be poorer without that properly-dressed-in-full-sleeves shirt figure, talking to everyone happily, touching everyone with his magic. God bless you Mano.
Justice Prabha Sridevan (Retired)
* * *
Light denied is blindness. When rendered blind, Milton did not blame God when he asks, “Doth God exact day-labour, light denied?” On the contrary, he accepts the condition and moves on. Nor did Manohar blame God for his blindness.
When dreams of a good life ahead are destroyed, it takes a rare kind of courage to push the past into oblivion and deny space to pain or self-pity. The pair strode along together until the death of Mahema did them part.
I remember how he insisted that I should write a foreword for his marvellous coffee table book. A cheerful person with a fine sense of humour, he was part of the lives of almost everyone he knew. He was an easy person to know quick to friendship. His elephantine memory of voice recognition was remarkable.
I have seen him at work and have spoken to his wonderful wife after my book Aalavai was released, for which he provided four beautiful line sketches of Madurai.
It was with total disbelief that I heard that Manohar Devdoss passed away early on December 7. He had attended the function at which my book was launched. Later, he attended my address at the MLS Library in connection with Madras Day celebrations. I had been in conversation with him until as late as last month, after which due to my own illness and hospitalization I could not stay in touch.
All that I can do is to pray for his soul to rest in peace.
* * *
I’ve known about Mano uncle’s work since the time I was a college student. I was left awestruck by his detailed sketches, which are in fact valuable lessons in perspective; one could learn to see life in Art and appreciate the beauty of Madurai and Madras through his eyes. I met uncle in 2016 and we stayed in touch over email and calls. When we meet in early 2017 at MLS, he invited me home with so much warmth. I visited him for the first time on March 3rd, 2017 and it was only later that I came to know that it had been Mahema aunty’s memorial day.
I am grateful to have met him and happy that I could curate and organize talks and discussions with him at multiple platforms such as the Madras Literary Society, Nam Veedu, Nam Oor, Nam Kadhai and many others, thanks to friends and colleagues. These talks, travels and lectures were accommodated amidst uncle’s already packed schedule; each one was accorded weeks of preparations and trial runs to keep a check on the time and presentation. I was lucky to have been part of few of the trials.
He led an illustrious life even with Retinitis Pigmentosa – a degenerative vision problem. It could not deter his literary, art, professional and personal pursuits. From pen and ink, to pencil, colours and line drawings, he had a natural ease in creating a variety of art. His works exist across different mediums and render styles, something that is very rare.
He has travelled worldwide for his scientific research as a chemist and had submitted research papers on module design. He bestowed equal concentration on his art and writing pursuits. Amidst all this, he also launched the Mahema Devadoss Endowment Fund. The balance he struck between profession, art and social causes, all while taking care of Mahema aunty for 35 years, is what makes his life an epitome of perseverance and optimism.
My friends as well as my team from office and Nam Veedu Nam Oor Nam Kadhai were welcomed with the same love and beautiful words. Uncle knew each of their interests and favourite dishes, which would be always be made when they visited. They would look forward to accompanying uncle to events and eagerly await the conversations in the car and then later the tea or Nanari wine at home. My personal favourite was the cauliflower with mayo dip, kottanchoru, and Tulsania. Every time we planned to lunch at home together, the dishes would be a part of the menu.
Mayur Anand suggested that we start an Instagram page for uncle, and he, along with Muhilan and Amita, managed orders under uncle’s guidance and ensured that deliveries were smooth even during the covid lockdown.
Uncle was a part of each of my small milestones, whether it was success at work or family functions. His clap was always the loudest.
In 2018, uncle became a member of the Madras Literary Society and made sure he attended all the events; even the smallest development obtained his ready support. A few of us took his perspective classes while others took English lessons from him. Though truth be told, many gravitated to his home to learn his love for life – every meeting would include a hearty meal, music and a lot of laughter and promise to meet once again. During the covid lockdown, we had a online birthday celebration for uncle and many fans joined from diffrent parts of the world – Archana with cake and Rajasekhar anna with tactile art work, Varsha with postcards, Nividitha akka with songs, and even 92 year old Vimala paati, a self-professed fan of uncle’s, and many others. We all celebrated his 82nd birthday with warm wishes and he ended with a remark that he hoped to meet ‘normally’ soon once the corona monster went away.
If there was an article about me and I lapsed in telling uncle, there would follow a call or an email, without fail:
My dear ATS,
This morning Premila read to me the entire article on Madras log book in the Madurai Times of India….
He would go on to ask for a copy of the paper and more details about the work, in this case, the Madras log book. He was the one who convinced me to accept a photo interview when I had so much insecurities about myself. When we went to order a frame for his spectacle lens before his trip to Delhi, I choose a few similar to the earlier frames and gave it to uncle to feel. ‘You choose the one you think will look good on me,’ he replied. I am grateful for each of these moments with uncle. I shall cherish them for a lifetime.
I received an email which moved me so much that I found myself robbed of words for a reply even though uncle asked me about it. Sorry uncle – here is my reply, now.
My dear ATS
You, Uma and MLS dear ones made my birthday very special with all the goodies, above all the birthday cake. You have been a precious friend to me who has done so much including getting the Padma award for me. I cannot thank God enough for your friendship.
Dearest Mano uncle,
Meeting you was a blessing in my life uncle. We put a part of ourselves in our art and loose a part of ourselves when we love art. For me, every time we met, I was happy to have left a part of me with you and get your love and affection. To have a welcoming home with so much warmth and love like you, is what I aim for uncle.
All I have is my gratitude and love to you uncle.
* * *
In his passing, Manohar Devadoss leaves a void that can never be filled. A renowned artist and writer, he was remarkably compassionate and humane too, rising head and shoulders above all the adversities he faced. It was truly an honour for me to co-author Madras Inked with him. Our collaboration gave me an insight not only into the architectural gems in his immaculate sketches but also his spirit of generosity, cheer and sheer love for life. His own life is one that must be cherished and celebrated.
Pen-and-ink was what Manohar had a flair for, although he did artworks in other media, too – watercolours, oils, pencil and charcoal. He enjoyed addressing the challenges that black and white posed. He would wonder – ‘How to distill the mood and magic of early morning in a still and fragrant jasmine garden in black ink without the use of colour?’ In later years, drawing in black-and-white became an asset when his vision diminished, colour perception reduced and his acuity weakened.
His amazing hand-brain coordination compensated for his fading vision with Retinitis pigmentosa, which in his evening years finally rendered him totally blind. His works of art created over six decades with varying levels of vision reveal his complete immersion in the subject and ability to capture the tiniest details despite his visual challenge. Many times, this was by actual observation of a building or landscape, but on other occasions, it was by drawing from the descriptions of the subject explained to him by his quadriplegic and wheelchair-bound wife Mahema or by a friend or a well-wisher. It is incredible to feast one’s eyes on the magical outcomes in perfectly composed drawings.
While drawing Cottingley, the residence of the British Deputy High Commissioner’s residence, the architectural features of the building and its structural elements were orally narrated on the spot to him by his daughter’s friend since he could not see. After this, he walked around the building and its periphery, touching the building, and feeling the outlines of the arches and other elements to gauge their shapes and proportions. The lyrical representation is so magical that it makes me believe he can see in his mind’s eye.
Manohar’s capacity to convert a disadvantage into an advantage is astounding. Fading vision made him work harder than ever, spending hours at the easel, producing a prolific output of perfect creations, while his disabled wife sat by his side reading out book after book to him. He started to write and brought out profusely illustrated books – Green Well Years, Mahema and the Butterfly, Dreams, Seasons and Promises, A Poem to Courage and Mahe and Mano: Challenges, Resilience and Triumphs. Many of them contain candid accounts of his own extraordinary life. His engagement with perspective in drawings is elaborated in From an Artist’s Perspective. Multiple Facets of My Madurai captures the spirit of Madurai. And, Madras Inked – Impressions of an artist and an architect is a work in line and word on the architectural heritage of Madras, which Mano and I brought out as an offering to our city, Madras.
For me, writing this book was a joyous journey. Mano’s artwork in the book spans many centuries of our city’s heritage, from the monuments of Mahabalipuram and the shrine of St. Thomas to the Indo-Saracenic structures that symbolise Madras city and the later buildings, each a jewel in its own right. Our aim was to bring the spotlight on Madras, its local history and magnificent heritage, that in our fast-paced era are being eroded at an alarming rate.
Mano was childlike when it came to the expression of delight. He eagerly looked forward to attending the theatre, music concerts, talks and cultural programs, where he showed his appreciation with thunderous applause. Mano had open doors and warmly welcomed visitors. A personalised welcome kolam in his front verandah was his way of conveying how he treasured someone’s visit. Mano was very fond of carnatic and western music and was himself a student till the end. The paattu vaadyar taught him keerthanais and in turn, Mano taught him English. Mano had mastered the mouth organ and would entertain friends by playing MLV’s Ayya sami Aaoji sami with gusto. Time and punctuality were very important to him and his talking watch would mark time. Not one to waste a minute, he would practice Abhogi varnam with talam even if it was a short wait somewhere.
Manohar Devadoss was a one-of-a-kind artist and above all, a one-of-a-kind human being and an inspiration to humanity. A true gem of the nation, there can never be another Mano.
Architect, Convenor of INTACH, Chennai Chapter
Postscript: After the launch of Madras Inked, there came a call from a friend to say that there were two sketches of buildings of Madras in their home, ones that were featured in the book. In his own words, Mano was ‘jubilant’. Just a week before he passed away, we managed to trace one of the drawings to a home in Royapettah and it was a matter of great delight to him. The other house, featured here, was, according to Mano, very close to the Ega Theatre junction to its east on Poonamalle High Road. This was his recollection of the location from the detailed description of the building in the drawing as explained to him. If anyone can locate or identify this building, please inform us at firstname.lastname@example.org