Today, we are honouring the memory of late Sarudhaaru Dhon Manik (Dhombe), a man who lived a life so extraordinary, to determine where to even start is a tough ask. Not only was he Maldives’ first ever diver, but he was also the pioneer of souvenir art in the country, often signing his paintings ‘SDM’.
Born in 1926, SDM hailed from a family of creatives. He was the son of a craftsman renowned for his Arabic calligraphy and expert carvings on tombstones. Marking his entry point into the world of art, SDM was first commissioned, like many young artists, by his friends.
As his work caught on, he was later commissioned to create portraits and copy printed images by Indian (Bohra) traders who were stationed in Male’ from the late 1800s until the mid 20th century.
SDM began gaining recognition for his art as early as the 1940s, during the presidential tenure of Amin Didi – a period regarded as a literary and cultural renaissance. However, it was the advent of tourism during the 1970s that truly cemented his name in Maldivian history. Merging his talents with the newly booming industry, SDM instigated a movement known as ‘souvenir art’, comprising works of art produced to sell or gift to tourists. Maldives’ very first souvenir t-shirt depicting a shark’s head was also designed by him.
As an avid dive enthusiast, undoubtedly, SDM drew much of his inspiration from the ocean. He maintained a scrupulous documentation of Maldivian marine life, typically relying on pure memory of what he had witnessed from his underwater sessions. One of the first series of posters displaying fishes and shells of the Maldives was illustrated by him, still published by Novelty Printers and Publishers decades later.
While diving in his prime – he’d often free dive up to 20 meters, easily holding his breath for about 3 minutes – SDM donned a handmade mask, emulating that of famous Austrian diver Hans Hass. The mask was so well-designed, with glass and rubber tires as a seal, that the Maldivian Army consequently ordered 60 masks from him. During his dives, SDM also carried a handmade speargun, ‘gayaa vakivaa hathiyaaru’, and was the first in the country to be given permission to build one.
Among his other remarkable achievements, SDM was also part of the team that designed the very first Maldivian currency notes.
Through the lens of an artist, SDM’s style fluctuated between trends such as modernism, surrealism and the abstract. Bold use of colour, close attention to detail, and an oftentimes dream-like quality were all hallmarks of his work. Apart from the seminal collection of art he had produced over his lifetime, what stood out most was his gift of experimenting in many different mediums. From pencil, water, acrylics and oils, to sculpting clay and carving wood, SDM mastered them all.
A true visionary, SDM defied the odds and pursued his calling over the years, venturing out into unknown waters and clearing the way for all who would come after him. He was the embodiment of zeal, not just for your work and creative passions, but for life itself.
Sarudhaaru Dhon Manik passed away last Thursday, the 13th of May 2021. His passing is mourned as an incalculable loss to our country, but it is certain that his legacy will live on and transcend the bounds of time.
May he rest in power.