Uma Mani, in her 50s, is a Chennai-based self-taught artist. She used to paint tulips and roses until 2010, the year in which she learned about coral reefs in Juan De Nova, a French documentary film, screened by Alliance Française Maldives for Earth Day. Fascinated by the world of corals and underwater life, she decided to paint them. “Until then, I was unaware of the fact that the presence of corals in the ocean is extremely important. It made me realise that they are on the brink of extinction,” shares Mani.
Some of the most diverse ecosystems, coral reefs are threatened by climate change. The temperature rise over the past few decades driven by climate change, has caused coral bleaching and death. Along with global stressors like the elevation of temperature, local stressors like overfishing and pollution also damage the corals and a recent study published on Science confirms the same.
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Uma’s first painting exhibition on coral reefs themed ‘The coral reef gardens’, was held in 2012 in Shangri-La Maldives at the Marine Lab. She has held five more painting exhibitions in the same trope in Maldives and three exhibitions in India.
At one of these exhibitions in 2014 at Taj Vivanta, Maldives, a visitor remarked sarcastically asking if she had ever seen real corals before painting them. That question haunted Uma for several days. “It was a big knock on my face and it hit me so hard that it disturbed me for days,” the painter says. But it also triggered her to do something she had never dreamt of doing. She decided to descend into the deep blues to see what corals really looked like in their habitat.
When the artist decided to dive in
She shared her dream with her husband Dr. Chalam Mani, a doctor who worked for the Government of Maldives, and close friend Dr. Aamaal Ali who introduced her to Shaheena Ali, the first female diving instructor of Maldives. At that time, Mani did not even know how to swim in a pool and Ali knew that it was going to be a task.
Mani first learned swimming and practiced daily on the artificial beach in Malé. Unmindful of the mockery and stares, she trained hard to hone her skills. On December 14, 2014, Mani wore a wetsuit, a pair of fins, a diving mask and a dive computer around her wrist. With a scuba tank on her back and rest of the gear in place, for the first time ever, she jumped into the ocean to see real corals. She was accompanied on her first dive by her husband, Chalam, her son Bhaarath and a diving instructor.
Not letting the age unnerve her, Mani pursued her passion to study the corals, even when the rigorous training fatigued her. She was also discouraged by family members for taking up diving close to fifties. “At first it was the passion that made me take the first dive, but I was still scared. Then, curiosity took over my fear. I never had an idea that I would even swim, let alone dive deep-sea,” exclaims Mani.
Since 2014, she has dived at Nilaveli and Trincomalee in Sri Lanka; Banana Reef, Shark Point, and Hulhumale in Mauritius; and in Thoothukudi, Ramanathapuram, and Rameswaram in India.
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What one sees in the abyss
“Oceans look blue and beautiful from the surface level. But marine life is at high risk due to the presence of industrial and domestic wastes in the sea. In one of my dives, I saw used diapers and sewage floating in the water. This is the real face of the ocean,” reveals Mani. Corals need clean waters to survive and anthropogenic activities have been killing different forms of marine life. Scientists who studied the Great Barrier Reef in detail, among several hundred other corals over the years, recommend that we take urgent and rapid action to reduce global warming to help the corals survive.
Through her paintings, Mani has been trying to draw public attention towards the devasting effects of climate change on corals and other marine life, and coastal communities. Almost 50% of all the proceeds from the sale of her paintings are donated for coral restoration.
Documenting the diver’s work
In 2016, Priya Thuvassery, an award-winning documentary filmmaker, decided to make ‘Coral Woman’, a film on Mani’s life and work. The film was produced by Public Service Broadcasting Trust.
The film has been screened both at national and international film festivals such as the 14th Tasveer South Asian Film Festival, Jio Mami 21st Mumbai Film Festival 2019, and the 18th Dhaka International Film Festival 2020. It has bagged the Woodpecker Film Festival 2019 and Tulum World Environment Film Festival awards.
“I ventured out to do the film, thinking that I am making a film about Mani and her journey to learn and dive. But the film developed beyond her, to address the coral reefs in the Gulf of Mannar and what’s happening to them,” comments Thuvassery. The four major coral reefs in India, are found in Andaman and Nicobar Islands, Gulf of Mannar, Gulf of Kutch, and Lakshwadeep Islands. The film was shot at Gulf of Mannar, which lies between the west coast of Sri Lanka and the south-eastern tip of India, in the Coromandel Coast region.
With increasing conversations about the Lakshadweep development projects and marine health, it becomes important to understand more about coral deterioration. When corals are under extreme stress caused mainly due to high temperature, bright light, and lower salinity, they eject algae living on them which results in bleaching. It is vital that we take immediate measures to stop coral bleaching.
Mani’s efforts extend beyond painting and diving. The documentary film has led to the creation of ‘Coral Woman Movement’ that works to create awareness and build youth ambassadors through different forms of art to help revive the corals.
[This story was first published on Mongabay. It has been republished with permission. The original article can be found here.]