It’s an illustrated portfolio of black and white ink drawings worthy of Madurai’s reputation as an ancient Tamil centre for the arts and learning. The tradition, during Madurai’s golden era—the third Sangam, as it is known in Tamil Nadu—in the 2nd century, was to place a newly created literary work on the surface of the sacred water tank at the main temple of Madurai Meenakshi. If the palm leaf manuscript floated on water, it was a sign that it had been accepted. If it sank, no one bothered about it again.
You cannot take a step around Madurai without being hit in the eye by a legend. The name itself suggests that it was such a fragrant town that drops of honey rolled down the locks of Shiva and made it the “City of Nectar”. Of course, today, it’s more likely that you will be struck by a two-wheeler or be buried under the stench of diesel fumes as lorries hurtle across its narrow streets.
Multiple Facets of My Madurai: EastWest Books (Madras) Pvt. Ltd, Hardcover, 140 pages, Rs395.
In his beautifully recreated memoir of Madurai, Manohar Devadoss suggests both these aspects of the city in which he was born and to which he still returns. The book, with rigorously reconstructed images in black and white pen-and-ink drawings, is called The Multiple Facets of My Madurai.
In their own way, these images also represent an extraordinary act of will on the part of Devadoss and his wife Mahema. Devadoss has lived most of his adult life in Chennai, and held a regular job till his retirement.
Two events, however, have transformed their lives. Very early in their life together, a car accident left Mahema paralyzed from the shoulders down. And, when he was in his mid-fifties, Devadoss was told that he would go blind, slowly but progressively, with a degenerative disease of the retina. This is when he started painting. While Mahema sat by his side, Devadoss began on the series of drawings that make up this portfolio of sketches of the city of his carefree childhood.
Each one has a story to tell. They fling you full tilt into the Vaigai river that runs through Madurai, with all the zest that Devadoss and his friends had as they leapt into the clear waters of its many artificial tanks and ponds, at a time when these were still there.
Or, as he explains, “From buttermilk dispensing to cowdung collection, these are the humble but living aspects of my city. Along with the changing faces of the street houses and the urbanization of the adjunct countryside, some of these practices are gradually disappearing. Through it all, the portfolio also records my personal, visual and artistic journey… While capturing the statuary inside, my emphasis was on factual precision. So it was with the lofty monuments, too, but I used my own inputs in creating the scenes at the ground level, as they really were. I created the artwork on street houses by drawing upon my knowledge of the structure of such buildings, by poring over disparate visual sources, by sketching existing abodes and by using trigonometry. As for the rural scenes, by and large, I composed them based on my deeply engraved memory or an existing rustic landscape without compromising on authenticity.”
What is significant about Devadoss’ work is that as he has become progressively blind, the drawings have become bolder and full of references from both his memory and his life experiences. The last images are as vivid as the first ones that he started doing in l983. It brings to mind the observations that Orhan Pamuk made about how traditional Persian artists were trained in the miniature tradition in his book, My Name is Red. The great masters produced their best work only in their later life, when the light had gone out of their eyes but their vision had become so clear that they could paint the very same trees and leaves that they had been made to copy in their earlier years with a certain clarity. They could now see them in their mind’s eye.
So it is with Devadoss. He remarks, for instance, that earlier on, the idea of mythological figures with multiple arms and myriad heads seemed unreal to him, but once looking (with a telescope) across the writhing images that had been carved on the temple towers that are the pride of the Madurai temple, he caught sight of just such a figure. Many years later, this multi-headed image “benign and dignified”, became suddenly visible to him in all its vitality.
In some ways, the drawings are an essay on the nature of perception. What is it that one actually sees? There are various rocky outcrops around Madurai, with fanciful names such as “Annamalai-Nagamalai-Pasumalai” or elephant rock, snake rock and the rock in the shape of a cow. Devadoss shows you how shadows of the elephant rock make it come alive in his sketches. These are actually connected to a time when there was a mighty debate between the Jains who had dominated the court at one time and the followers of Shiva. As the Jains created the illusion of a rampaging elephant and a snake that marched across to Madurai, the Shaivite priests were able to destroy the creatures. Finally, the Jains made an image in the form of a cow. No priest would destroy so sacred an animal. But the cow, the story goes, was so filled with love at the sight of Shiva’s Bull, the magnificent Nandi, that she lay down and died of shame.
Today, there are plenty of cows in the streets of Madurai, as one of Devadoss’ drawings shows. But of the Jain places of worship, carved under overhanging rocks and caves upon these hills, and their manuscripts, for they were great keepers of records, there is little that is left. What is worse is that due to indiscriminate quarrying near these caves, even these will soon disappear. “Once there was a great debate in the city of Madurai,” explains a woman herding her goats near one of the caves, where we have taken shelter during a spell of rain. “When these people lost, they came here and carved these statues. I do not know their names.”
By giving a name and a form to the city and countryside of his childhood, Devadoss has made sure the fragrance of jasmine fields that exist around Madurai will linger for some more time.
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