Taking the plunge as one grows older can be daunting, but for Uma Mani, turning 45 unraveled another stage in her life: becoming an artist. Fast forward to another four years, and this Chennai-based painter decided to become a PADI-certified diver in an attempt to fuel her creative side further. Since then, Uma Mani has fused her two passions to bring coral reefs to canvases and create conversations about conservation. The talented artist tells us more. By Bayar Jain
1. Tell us about your journey as an artist.
I’ve always wanted to draw since I was a child, but it was only when I turned 45 that I found the time and opportunity to learn how to paint from a teacher.
2. Why did you choose coral reefs as your muse for your paintings?
My husband and I lived in the Maldives for 12 years where he worked at the Ministry of Health. While there, the coral islands and watching a documentary by Dr Pascale Chabert from France made me think more about coral reefs.
3. Why did you choose the Maldives for your first diving experience? How was your first dive?
I was living in the Maldives at the time so it was a natural choice.
My first dive was awful! I almost quit at the time, but since my son had already paid the entire fees for my PADI certification, I was too ashamed to quit.
4. How did you become a PADI-certified scuba diver?
It was our 25th wedding anniversary and our son was to gift us a holiday; I opted for a PADI certification course. Besides, someone had once mocked me by saying, “you paint on the theme without ever having seen coral reefs for real.” This compelled me to choose and learn diving at the age of 49, and see the reefs up close.
5. Your coral reef paintings have helped start talks on environment conservation. Was this a conscious move?
To an extent, yes. My first painting exhibition at the Maldives was for World Earth Day 2012 at the Marine Centre at Shangri-La’s Villingili [Resort & Spa]. A few people visited, of which the divers from the hotel’s dive centre were happy to see my work. They could identify the corals in my paintings. This encouraged me to make more.
I soon began exhibiting my paintings at other resorts in the Maldives—on World Earth Day, World Environment Day, and World Oceans Day. During my exhibitions, I would type out information pertaining to the particular coral in the painting and paste it alongside. This garnered interest and also helped me learn more about coral reefs from fellow divers and senior researchers. Since then, the idea of conservation followed. However, I still haven’t started conservation in the real sense.
6. The documentary Coral Woman traces your life. How did that movie come into being?
When I saw the beautiful underwater gardens, I wanted to make a documentary video of my own. While I made an amateur 15-minute-long video, I didn’t really know the craft. So, I contacted Priya Thuvassery, an accomplished documentary filmmaker, instead. She agreed to make one, saying she would do so when the time is ripe. To my surprise, she documented my journey and named it Coral Woman!
7. Art exhibitions in the Maldives or India—your preferred galleries and why?
I like exhibiting in both the countries, but the audience of each differs. In the Maldives, people know what coral reefs are because it is an island nation. They identify them in my paintings and enquire about it during the exhibitions. In India, the audience shows interest in learning more about the corals and they ask several questions.
8. Your favourite diving spots?
I like Banana Reef in the Maldives and, of course, Hulhumale. The reef walls in Maldives are rich in marine habitats—be it corals, or fish. My dive at Trincomalee, Sri Lanka was fairytale-like. I will never forget the cup corals, leather corals, and the acres of plate corals there.
9. A diving destination you’d like to visit once the pandemic evaporates?
I would like to dive in at least 50 countries, document it, write a book about my dives, and—of course—paint the corals I see there. My favourite destinations are the Great Barrier Reef, Australia; the Coral Triangle around Malaysia; Shallow Reefs in Florida, USA; The Dubai Aquarium; and Dwarka, Lakshadweep and Andamans in India.
10. What are some ways to conserve corals and prevent marine pollution?
It all begins with us. We need to dispose waste responsibly, so it doesn’t reach the ocean. Treat sewage before letting it into the oceans, stop littering oceans with plastic waste, go solar, and save rainwater.
Editor’s Note: Keeping the current situation of the pandemic in mind, T+L India recommends every reader to stay safe, and take all government-regulated precautions in case travel at this time is absolutely necessary. Please follow our stories on #IndiaFightsCorona for all the latest travel guidelines.