Saturday, 23 March 2019

Manohar Devadoss - A Little Adventure with Books

Manohar Devadoss' book Green Well Years, may perhaps be my only impulse purchase of a book, by an author who was at that point unknown to me. I barely read two pages, flipped through a few more and bought it with no further hesitation. And totally loved it. I have scanned and flipped books by other authors, like Arthur Conan Doyle, Jules Verne, Rabindranath Tagore, Adam Smith, Alfred Russel Wallace, Jared Diamond, JK Rowling, Oscar Wilde, and many more, and put them back, sometimes to buy them later. Sometimes not.

He spoke today (February 10, 2018) at MLS, with afffection, grace, humor and passion about his love affair with books and more. What a magical hour it was. He was introduced by KRA Narasiah and thanked by S Muthiah. What could be more fitting than two doyens of Madras history, whose books proudly feature Manohar Devadoss' art. These are my notes from his lecture.

S Muthiah (right) thanks Manohar Devadoss(left), after the talk

---Manohar Devadoss speech------

I learnt of kangaroos in the first book I read. That a mother kangaroo had a pouch, and its baby would jump in and out as it pleased. Another described Humphrey Davy's invention, the mining lamp. Hodgson used it and  bravely went into a mine. If the Davy design were wrong, the mine would have blown up. But it didn't. It's safety spread like wildfire (what an ironic metaphor). 

Another book was about the Flying Scotchman, the fastest train at that time.

I tried to see more with my mind.  My Father's medical books had lovely color pictures. Some pictures of babies being born. I read it at an age, when I didn't know how babies were made.

In eighth standard,  I saw a painting of an  artist inspired by a muse. My mother explained who a Muse was.

When I was in the tenth standard, I saw a Painting of Venus clothed scantily, a nineteenth century painting featuring a famous actress. I made a pencil sketch. My father said I got the anatomy right.
Next was a painting of the sculpture of Michaelangelo's David, just before battle with Goliath.

I finished BSc at American College in Madurai 1956. I avoided moral classes at college and spent it usefully in the library. I drew the magnificent College chapel of American College. This was the beginning of my career as a heritage building artist.

I wanted to just finish PhD and become a professor. But I went to  work in a company as chemist making electric lamps for miners, which were replacing Davy lamps.

I paid fifty rupees for lifetime membership in college library, fully reimbursed by the company. The Company sent me to England and also on holiday to London, Paris and Rome, which was unheard of in those days. And my value in marriage market went up because I was foreign returned.

I met Mahima in 1963. She was brilliant student at Stella Maris College in Madras. I had just read Exodus by Leon Uris.

I sang to Mahima, Take my Hand, and she did after a little hesitation. Thank you, Leon Uris.

We exchanged a lot of books. We saw the film ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’. It has a scene where a child clutches a teddy bear. I asked her if she ever had a teddy bear as child and went to sleep clutching it, she replied, “No, but in a few days Ill do so with a big teddy bear”. Which inspired me to sketch a large teddy bear and a doll. You can see the eagerness in the teddy bear's eyes.

I drew sketch cards of the Buckingham canal. I sold them at a low price. This was a change, my art was selling.

One day I saw a skeleton in a book and I told Mahima, the skeleton looks familiar. “Don't be ridiculous,” retorted Mahima. Looks like skeleton of Michaelangelo's David, I remarked.

We went to Oberlin College, in Ohio, USA, which opened in 1833 with no discrimination against women or blacks. They were quite interested in and studied Asia also. We spent happy times there.

We had lovely plans and dreams for our life together in Madurai, but fate intervened. We had a car accident. Mahima was thrown out of our car, lost all her limbs, and became a quadriplegic. I  borrowed books and studied all anatomy books. I learnt a lot about how quadriplegics live, what they go through. They invariably suffered bedsores, but the pictures in anatomy books couldn't convey the smell. I made sure that she never got a bedsore during her thirty five years she lived as such.

Mahima kept up a good spirit. She wouldn't let her handicap defeat her spirits. She decided to dictate and thus write a book. She compiled simple stories into a book that was published as a supplementary reader for schools.

But Destiny tested us again, I got retinitis pigmentosa. This is a disease with a beautiful sounding name, but it caused a terrible degeneration of the eye.  Around this time, I had an art exhibition sponsored by Goethe Institute.

I started going blind in my left eye. Perhaps I couldn't continue art. So I started dictating an autobiographical story, Green Well Years. I decided to add sketches to the book, when I found the cataract wouldn't totally make me blind. I was also spending long hours at the factory, taking care of Mahima, and raising our daughter Sujata. Mahima read book after book for hours together, while I did ink drawing. My ink drawing of Spencer's store in Madurai was used by Muthiah, in his book on Spencer's.

Setbacks made us do more and better. I told my monster retinitis, you made me an author, when I was only an artist. I gave the entire royalty to my school. Several lifelong friendships formed including Aravind Eye Hospital. I wrote two more books.... A Poem to Courage, a sequel to Green Well Years
A subsequent book Multiple Facets of Madurai, is now in its seventh edition.

A group of girls from Church Park Convent, a school in Madras, came to visit me because my chapter was in their school lesson. The Tamil translation of Green Well Years published as En Madurai NinaivugaL என் மதுரை நினைவுகள்.

Mahima passed away a few years back. But I kept busy with a book on a caterpillars. I also continued to sketch heritage buildings. Sujatha Shankar, an eminent Madras architect, considers my perspective drawings the best. She asked that I come up with a book on Madras monuments, she is writing the text.

I also did a lot of watercolors including butterflies. I drew a large teddy bear with a butterfly sitting on its shoulder, in memory of Mahima. Angels would be taking lessons from Mahima, said Rev. Gallop in condolence letter.

---End of Manohar Devadoss speech------

Essays on Art
Notes of Lectures attended


  1. Touched, I am reading this piece sitting in my terrace listening to the morning calls of cuckoo, roosters, crows and other birds whose names I know not, an area in which I was not initiated by Swami sir yet. The SUN which comes at 1 down has not come yet, the day is still in the hands of the unseen openers, it is breezy here.
    I know what whether awaits me for the rest of the day so I am soaking myself in this whether and mood like a rasagulla in the jira. I long to leave not the infancy of the day, I put my best to absorb all that I could with all my senses but alas it is this effort to articulate that comes between me and my experience. But here I see a man who is sharing the world his experiences much enhanced from what he had received, is just unimaginable, I am feeling blank to think of his positivity towards life, which in my opinion could have been kinder with him, but I understand that, that is not the point here, what counts is how he made the most out of that life. Salutes sir. Thanks Annae for sharing this with us.