When people no longer lined up at his PCO to make calls, Suresh Shankar Mahadik turned to painting, his childhood hobby, to support his family.
The Jehangir Art Gallery, with its notorious “inward-looking” architecture, contends that art is an exclusive society. But its front yard and its fences – adorned by small paintings on paper and leaves, of deities, sceneries and portraits of bystanders made by street artists – are scrambling to change the narrative.
One humble next-door neighbor, in particular, is a starkly antithetical sight – it’s a small PCO booth with its bountiful interiors on display for the world to see.
While these stalls are no longer as common a sight as perhaps a decade ago when lakhs of them dotted Maximum City, one still knows what to expect from them – the usual worn-down Beetel landlines reminiscent of your living room in the 90s, and crude stationery and knick-knacks the keeper stocks up on to optimally utilise the space.
Not this one, though.
On every inch of the 7ft x 5ft x 10ft stall, meticulously framed, hauntingly beautiful sketches have been propped up, turning it into a banausic but striking nonetheless, art gallery.
And yet, Suresh Shankar Mahadik, looking over at his mighty cousin, insists he is not an artist. He says painting is a hobby, and he merely does it to better use his time after the decline in demand for PCOs.
“There are big artists around me, so I am too small to call myself a painter and call this my business. I am just doing what I love,” he tells me.
Born in Raigad, he calls himself a “dasvi-fail” and says he might be between 45 and 50 years old. He moved to Mumbai immediately after marriage with his wife and parents, around 1987. Disabled since birth - his left hand is mostly powerless, cannot lift or perform any sudden movements - Suresh was granted an HPCO, a Handicapped PCO, to manage in 1998.
But the number of PCOs, which peaked at 5.98 million in 2008 in India, fell to a tenth of that by 2015, according to the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India. Only 5.77 lakh survived the onslaught of cellphones. While Mumbai still houses the highest number of PCOs with 81,248 centres at last count in 2015, business was hard to come by.
“My business was always this PCO. But while I used to earn close to Rs 1,000 a day daily earlier, the figure started falling sharply after 2005-2006. Today, barely 20-25 people come in, and I only make around Rs 50 per day from the PCO,” he reveals.
They live in the servant quarters of the family his wife works for as domestic help, and the couple has a daughter in the seventh grade at a school in the Churchgate area.
“I had to support my family but I felt helpless. I could not be whiling away my time because times were swiftly changing. So, around 2006, I remembered my childhood hobby of painting and got into it once again,” he says.
As it turns out, it was more than just a hobby – it was a lifelong passion, and a trove of talent. And he was more than just filling up the empty spaces in his day – he was making works of art that would soon become a source of livelihood for the artist (as much as he resists the title).
“People slowly started appreciating my art, and started buying my pieces. My household runs on the money I make through this,” Suresh says.
The range of his work is baffling. I spot pictures of houses and families, birds and trees, sceneries and abstracts, all pleasing jamborees of colour. The background on most of his pieces is light and shaded, achieved by washing out the paint in different intensities at various spots, giving the painting a three-dimensional effect, to depict open skies, clouds, the ocean and so on. On this background, he uses the almighty ball point pen to draw in the details – simple yet unbelievably intricate.
Suresh says the inspiration for these paintings is his imagination.
“I use my imagination, and then access my memory to make it more real. The image I then get in my mind is what I paint,” he explains.
While he does not know the name of the paper or frames he uses, he does know that the paint that he uses is acrylic paint. His paintings range from Rs 200 to Rs 1,000.
Reminding me once again that he only paints as a hobby to make better use of his free time, he informs me that he does not keep track of how many paintings he creates or sells on a weekly or daily basis. But the PCO business, the paintings and the assortment of the stationery and utility items he sells, together, help the family get through the month.
“My dream is to see my daughter happy and successful, and I want to fully support her. There have been challenges in my life ever since I was a child. I believe in God and prayer, and attend satsang regularly. I feel people of all backgrounds face sorrow, what you can do is take it in your stride and be unfazed,” Suresh signs off.
If you "take the call" of swinging by his exhibit, you will find his PCO booth on the sidewalk outside Kapoor Lamp Shade Co. At Kalaghoda.