By Tushar Bhatt
On November 3, 1936,a young man stood nervously on the steps at the main entrance of the old Premabhai Hall in Bhadra area of Ahmedabad,clutching a sketch-book in his hand.He had spent the previous evening at a meeting at the Gujarat Vidyapeeth,trying to capture the likeness in a few bold pencil lines of the main speaker,Mahatma Gandhi.
The youth,Manilal Mulchand Mistri, was the next day at the Hall,waiting for Gandhiji.The intention was to get the Mahatma see the sketch and autograph it.
Always a punctual man,Gandhiji came ,walking briskly,almost running.Manilal meekly presented his work.The Mahatma, a man with infinite pragmatism too,turned to Mahadev Desai, as Manilal later remembered,asking him to take Rs.five for the Harijan welfare activities in lieu of the signature.Aware of the Mahatma's practice,Manilal was ready with the cash,no insignificant an amount in those non-inflation days.
Nearly six decades later , Manilal,himself a grand old man,fondly remembered those glorious years of his student days when he was chasing an unusual hobby of instantly drawing pencil sketches of great figures of the independence movement as also of the con-temporary society,and seeking their autograph on the sketches.
Seated comfortably on a sofa at his son, Vijay's house in Ah-medabad,Manilal, a lean,ramrod man in very good state of health for his age,gazed out of the spacious French window,as if trying to piece through the tiny cloud of dust kicked up in the garden outside by a hot June wind.Always a neat and dapper man,he was dressed in a khadi kurta and pyjama,topping the head with a Gandhi cap, a rarity these days even inn Gandhi's home State.
He recalled:"I must have drawn some 400 or so sketches in those years between 1934 and 1943".Most of them were with auto-graphs of the person sketched.
An engineer by training and a contractor building bridges in later days by profession,Manilal Mistri would have left his mark on the sands of time had he not done anything else but do sketches.
His collection of sketches includes those of leaders like Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel,Subhash Chandra Bose,Mrs Sarojini Naidu,Frontier Gandhi Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan,Mahdev Desai,Pandit Madan Mohan Malaviya,Acharya J.B.Kripalani,Bhulabhai Desai,Jamnalal Bajaj,Indulal Yagnik,Yusuf Maher Ali,Diwans of Bhavnagar,Prabhashankar Pattani, and of Baroda, V.T.Krishnamachari,historian Dharmanand Kosambi, singer Pandit Omkarnath Thakur,artist Nandalal Bose,philosopher J.Krishnamurti,Sadhu Vaswani,K.M.Munshi,Kaka Kalelkar,Sir C.V.Raman,cricketers Vijay Hazare and Hemu Adhikari and many others of different disposition and vocations.Almost all the sketches were done as a student while Manilal was in Ahemdabad,Baroda and Karachi in the pre-partition days.
Critics have hailed these sketches as of immense value,both ar-tistically and historically. And,yet,Manilal Mistri never had any pre-tensions to being an artist; he did not even get any formal training in pencil sketching or drawing,although his being an engineer may have helped him view things in aproper perspective and dimension.
Said Mistri:" I never gave much thought to my sketches as work of art. I was drawing them because the activity gave me pleas-ure,and to add to the sense of achievement and satisfaction, I had hit upon the idea of securing the signature of the person concerned on the sketch."
Born on July 31,1912,at Chanasma in Mehsana district,in north Gujarat Manilal has spent a life-time in Navsari in south Guja-rat,pursuing several hobby horses in addition to sketching,but had never thought of projecting his work in any manner.The family had a timber business and the young Manilal had set his heart on be-coming an engineer." When I was very young, II used to see an engineer,donning a hat,and going about with great swagger,and getting the respect of all and sundry.I had made up my mind to be-come something like him."
Pencil drawing was a kind of innocent hobby Manilal had picked up without much serious thought of either pursing an art career or doing something artistic.It was just one of his several interests."I was doing these things- sketching, writing on archaeology - for my own pleasure, Niajanand,"he said.
This was no false modesty.His sketches had remained in files,stacked away in an attic for years and years,till in 1985,the Gujarati poet,late Hasit Buch,went to see Manilal at his home in Navsari.
Buch had gone to see him for a different reason.Decades ago,the poet had read a book,written by Manilal,on Modhera,the home of a famous sun temple,near Chanasma.It was an 80-page volume,published by the former Baroda state for the young read-ers.The poet had been so impressed by it that a good many years after he had browsed through it,he had remembered it in 1985.
Manilal put two three files in front of Hasit Buch,asking mildly if he could spare some time to glance through them.The poet thought it was a manuscript of something new written by Manilal Mistri.But,when he opened the opened,the files, brilliant pencil sketches caught his eye,"an attractive and impressive array of drawings,leaving a powerful imprint in the mind"
Buch wrote later: "While looking at the sketches, I shifted my eyes to look at Manilal.In front of me,there was this unassuming man in his seventies,smiling affectionately as he he watched me poring over the sketches." The poet called it revelation of two Manilals in that moment.
Why had he hidden them away in the files? Buch suggested:"Let us put them into frames and exhibit them in Baroda." Manilal did not reply for a moment.Then, in a voice,dignified and controlled he asked Hasit Buch : "Is there really much in the sketches? You see, I had done during my college days.And may I say that at this age,neither money nor fame would motivate me. Forget it."
When Buch returned to Baroda, Manilal rang up,saying that since he was not keeping good health,perhaps Buch should drop the idea of holding an exhibition of the sketches.
As luck would have,Hasit Buch himself was unwell when they spoke and so Manilal came over to inquire after his health. Buch wrote later that he told the old man: "Manibhai the holding of this exhibition is not a matter involving you alone. It is not even our matter; it is something in entire Gujarat is involved. My appreciation of visual arts is that of an interested onlooker.Even then, it seems to me that if we put these sketches on public view,the viewers will have something to gain. Do not say no now,please."
Gujarat ,and the world at large, came to know about these excel-lent sketches,which take the viewers on a visual journey down memory lane,nearly 41 years after they had been pencilled.Some more exhibitions have been held of the sketches since,and one more to come will be at the Jehangir Art Gallery in Bombay in Feb-ruary next.
Said Manilal of his own work: "Of all the sketches I have done, I like that of the Mahatma the best. For one thing, he was the tallest human being I am ever likely to encounter. For another thing, in a few economical lines,I ,even at that young age, seemed to have captured the essence of his greatness. I cannot describe it in words;I can only feel it by looking at the sketch.Others tells me they too experience a similar feeling." The Gandhi sketch showed a thin moustache,and a strand of hair,which many have taken to be a tuft.
Similarly,the pencil sketch of Vallabhbhai Patel, done January 6, 1935,in Baroda is also outstanding. It brings out the stern discipli-narian that the Sardar was.It also has Patel having a bush mous-tache.
The sketches of Subhash Bose,Frontier Gandhi,Mahadev Desai and Sarojini Naidu,too are of immense artistic and historic worth for the history buffs and ordinary souls alike.They together tell the viewers how did our national leaders look six decades ago.
Recalled Manilal: "I used to go to the school in Cha-nasma,always wondering at the excellent sketches and pictures done by the renowned painter Ravi Verma,which were on display at a shop in the village. I often felt tempted to copy them and when I became monitor of my class,I tried copying a few of them on the class black board.They turned out to be very good.Then, a teacher suggested that I draw more often ,and, there I was doing just that. In course of time, I developed an ability to draw exact likeness of an individual's face,without wasting too many lines and that too us-ing a soft black pencil. A pencil was then available in six an-nas.One day I got the idea of seeking autographs of the people whose sketches I had done to authenticate them,along with the date.Even than I did not think of it much beyond a hobby that gave me immense pleasure. I would do the sketch, get the signature and put it away-- perhaps for posterity." His hobby blossomed further when he went to Patan for further schooling.He went to Karachi in 1940 to join the engineering college to become a civil engineer.
These sketches were almost always done very quickly. Said Manilal: "I would go to public meetings and hastily draw the sketches, often standing up or sometimes sitting on the ground.Sometimes I would present the sketch to the speaker the same day,or if the person was to stay, the next day.It was some-thing done in some fifteen to 20 minutes."
Was ever any of his sketch rejected as an unlikely caricature by anyone? No,said Manilal. Most people who looked at the work, would be pleased and would put their signature happily. "Only in one instance I remember this did not happen. I had drawn a sketch of the writer-politician K M Munshi and presented it to him for auto-graph.Munshi signed it,but put at question mark near the carica-ture.I drew another sketch of him and took it to him the next day. Munshi signed without demur."
After taking the engineering degree, Manilal worked as an engi-neer in Baroda for a while, and then joined business in a bobbin manufacturing factory at Kosamba in south Gujarat. Some years later,he became a bridge construction contractor,making home at Navsari.Early in 1940s,he gave up doing sketches alto-gether,worldly matters of working, making money and raising a family becoming his major concerns. He took up the pencil just one more time in 1961 to draw the sketch of Nehru,and never touched it again. "I am now too old and not patient enough to do sketching. I do not have the requsitie strength."
The sketch of Nehru was also different from others in one sense.Manilal could not meet the then prime minister personally and had mailed the sketch to him for a signature,if Nehrru found it good enough. Nehru did find it okay,autographed it in April,1961,but forgetting to put the exact date.
Manilal has also been deeply interested in archeaology too,and had brought out a book on Modhera 60 years ago.At the ripe old age, he was busy updating it, and contemplating to bring it out in English too. He was also toying with an idea of amateur excavation near Modhera to test some of his hypothesis.
Said Pranlal Patel, famous photographer: "In addition to every-thing else, Manibhai was a very good pictorialist.Even at his age, he was interested in outings for photography.Whenever we could manage it, we set out for taking pictures,both in black and white and in colour." The photographs taken by Manilal are also of high quality,revealing a quality conscious mind.A few won prizes and awards in competitions.
Manilal,nearing 90,was a very affectionate family man.Why did he not pursue art as a career."You see,one could not live by art comfortably. I had become an engineer by choice and had plans to excel there too.I never even thought of turning into a professional artist." Even in the autumn of his life,Manilal,as head a family that included two sons and four daughters,was simply adored by his friends and family as a lively grand old man.His wife died in 1990, and he himself was not been keeping well occasionally.
But,Manilal never called it a day."If I rest,I rust" was Manilal's life-long motto,something he had picked up from an obituary of Sir Victor Sassoon that appeared in The Times of India when he was young.His friend,cartoonist Chakor said:" Manibhai was always busy with something or other.He was a true karma-yogi." He had always done things whole-heartedly,but also with a clinical de-tachment,and without any airs.
His sketches,which he never called art,pleased him while do-ing.And,so do they please all those who see them;after all,imparting visual pleasure is an essential ingredient of art.Yet Manilal gave up pencil sketching. How many can give up to-tally,doing something they were good at for a while? He has now gone to his Maker; one can only wonder if he ever picked the pen-cil to sketch Him. No third party will ever know.