Meet Uma, The Coral Woman

How learning to dive changed Uma Mani’s world

Jump Uma jump! That was the divemaster in Maldives encouraging homemaker and artist Uma Mani to take the plunge. Mani hesitated at first. Yes, she wanted to dive; yes she wanted to see corals underwater and yes, she had made the effort to learn how to swim to achieve that. But now that the moment to dive was here, the 10 to 15 ft jump made her hesitant. 

Finally, Mani decided to take the plunge, telling herself that she couldn't turn back. Her world has never been the same since. 

It may seem a familiar first dive story for many. What makes it different is that Mani was 49 when she took that first plunge. Until then, she was the homemaker and doctor’s wife who lived in the Maldives and liked painting corals, from the photographs she had seen.

One day a visitor at one of her exhibitions asked her if she had ever seen corals underwater herself. It was a somewhat sarcastic question that changed the direction of Mani’s work. She took it to heart and decided to learn how to swim to get a real understanding of corals under the sea and also to know more about marine ecosystems and the impact that a changing environment was having on them. 

Uma Mani on a diving trip to Netrani Islands
Uma Mani on a diving trip to Netrani Islands

Mani is now a PADI certified open water scuba diver. Her journey is now on film, showcased by filmmaker Priya Thuvassery in the documentary Coral Woman. It’s also in a book written by children's author Lubaina Bandukwala and published by Harper Collins with help from Avid Learning as part of increasing the impact of the work. Her paintings have changed too. “I have more fishes now for example,” she says. You can view Mani’s painting at Part of the proceeds from the sale of her paintings go towards restoration of coral reefs.

Like Mani did herself, the documentary too goes beyond her personal journey of learning to swim and dive and focuses on the threat to coral reefs from bleaching, pollution and global warming. 

There is no denying the beauty of coral reefs, one of the most vibrant and diverse ecosystems. But many of these reefs are also dying a slow death, threatened by climate change, overfishing and pollution. 

Thuvassery, who had never made an environment film earlier calls Coral Woman as much her own journey as Mani’s, culminating in a friendship that has given her an awareness about the fragile ecosystem below our oceans and what we could do to protect it. The film ends with an image of hope and discoveries, with Mani and the filmmaker, who doesn’t dive but now loves to snorkel, floating side by side.

Mani likes to laugh away the fact that she learnt to dive, not always an easy feat for a non-swimmer, at an older age. She now lives in Kodaikanal and when we speak tells us how diving opened up an entirely new world for her, beyond the home, art and her everyday life. As we talk Mani says how she likes to handwash her doctor husband’s white coat herself. In almost the same breath she tells us about an upcoming diving trip she has planned with two young female divers at Netrani islands, Yes, she knows someone like her isn’t always common in the diving community but Mani wears all her hats – homemaker, mother, artist, diver – with an equal and easy charm. 

Thuvassery thinks what makes Mani stand out is her ability to see the positive even in the bleakest of situations. “Even when things are so chaotic or claustrophobic, she can find hope,” Thuvassery says. “When we were diving in Tuticorin (off the Gulf of Mannar, a region that has seen huge coral devastation in recent times), Uma and our cinematographer Nitasha, would go underwater, do their dive and come back. Uma would excitedly say, she saw a pineapple coral or a baby coral that’s growing and Natasha would say it was heartbreaking to see everything dead. At night when we were watching the footage, Uma would excitedly show us what she was talking about, even in a shot of dead corals. She finds hope in the middle of all the chaos and I think that’s the kind of hope we need in today’s times." 
- Priya Thuvassery

Finding bleached coral reefs in the Gulf of Mannar region was a shock for Mani too. It propelled her to spread awareness about the threat to coral reefs. "I had only seen beautiful happy reefs in the Maldives before that," she tells us. "It was heartbreaking and disturbing. I was diving in sewage which is released directly into the water in that area." 

 Asking Thuvassery to make a film was part of Mani's idea to spread awareness about the destruction of coral reefs after she realised it would be difficult to make a film on her own. Given her enthusiasm to learn new things, she even tried making an underwater film with a GoPro camera.“I didn’t want to be the subject of the film,” was her humble request to Thuvassery, something she thankfully did not listen to, given how unusual Mani’s story was.

Mani now thinks the film and her story could be an instrument of change.

“All of us lament about losing the coral reefs and we know that this is manmade destruction. Once I had seen it with my own eyes I started letting people around me know what was happening to the corals underwater."
- Uma Mani

Mani's also began the change in her own home. "I started segregating garbage and composting and teaching people around me to do the same."

It’s the basic impact Thuvassery and Mani wish to achieve from their film. “Each time someone sees this film, if they take a slice of it with themselves and remember it the next time they use plastic or forget to turn off the light, I would think there is a small change. Even a small change in behaviour is good,” the filmmaker says. 

To take the Coral Woman impact forward, Thuvassery says besides the book there’s also an art residency planned with five people -- three artists, one diver and one conservationist – to take the idea forward. The film has already bagged an award at the Woodpecker Film Festival 2019 and Tulum World Environment Film Festival Awards among others.

Mani wants to continue diving as long as she is able to. Her way to stay fit is simple. “I’m active the whole day. I do all the housework by choice these days plus a dog to care for. I do Yoga and I walk everywhere I can. And I always take the stairs.  And I do all this not just for diving but because I want to stay active.” She has also signed up for an online certificate course in Understanding Dementia recently. “A happy, active and healthy lifestyle is important,” she chuckles, “So I keep doing something or the other.”

"I never thought I would swim, or dive in the deep-sea,” Mani says as we speak. She’s glad working on the film gave her a chance to dive in Sri Lanka and Mauritius apart from India. Mani misses living near the sea as she did when she started diving in the Maldives. But she isn’t one to rue over it.

 “Life gives us opportunities and I just grabbed mine when it came.” 

About the author

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Reshmi Chakraborty

Reshmi is the co-founder of Silver Talkies. She loves books, travel and photography.

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