When Dr Bharat Vatwani was en route from Mumbai to Manila to receive the prestigious Ramon Magsaysay Award, his thoughts kept wandering back to another equally momentous journey that he had embarked on in 1993. An independent psychiatrist back then, Vatwani was struggling with something personal — his desire to rescue mentally-ill destitutes off the streets, cure them and, finally, reunite them with their families.
Vatwani and his wife, Smitha, had established Shraddha Rehabilitation Foundation in 1988, but the limited space they had — a two-room tenement in Mumbai’s Borivali — prevented them from taking up more than a couple of cases at once. “There are at least four lakh mentally ill destitutes in India. We would encounter several of them and wanted to treat them so that they could lead the rest of their lives with dignity, but we had limited resources,” says Vatwani, 60. This is when he received patronage, in 1993, from an unlikely source — artists who came together to garner funds for him.
In the winter of 1992-93, Vatwani met artist Hemant Thakre on the steps of Mumbai’s prestigious Jehangir Art Gallery. While students from Sir JJ School of Art had informed the doctor that his patient was an artist and a former lecturer at the Sir JJ School of Art in Mumbai, he knew nothing more about his patient. “The college authorities had rusticated him due to his erratic behaviour, but no one realised that he was schizophrenic. Soon, he found himself on the streets,” says Vatwani.
Not only did Vatwani treat Thakre, he also helped reinstate Thakre in his job at the college. “That is when a lot of his students suggested that I organise an art exhibition to raise funds for my foundation,” says Vatwani. He was also informed by the students that veteran artist Manu Parekh had expressed concern for Thakre at a Jehangir Art Gallery exhibition, a few months before Vatwani met Thakre. It so happened that Thakre had been a frequent visitor to Parekh’s exhibition. “He showed keen interest in my work and I would often ask him if he had taken his meals. After I was told by the office staff (of Jehangir Art Gallery) that he was an artist I started encouraging him to paint,” recalls Parekh.
After coming back to Delhi, Parekh lost touch with Thakre, but a few months later Vatwani contacted him with Thakre’s whereabouts. “I was really happy that he had been treated and was practising art again. Vatwani asked me if I could make a contribution to his foundation. When I consented, he was here within two days with Thakre. I was happy to see them and when Vatwani told me how he was rescuing people from the streets, I was touched,” says Parekh, 79.
Vatwani eventually returned with a 48×72-inch figurative Parekh canvas titled, The Family II, and also a list of other artists whom he could approach. Several of them, including Manjit Bawa, Ram Kumar, GR Santosh, Vivan Sundaram and Arpana Caur, committed to donating their works for an exhibition, the sale proceeds from which could be used by Vatwani for his foundation.
Encouraged by the artists’ response to the exhibition, Vatwani travelled across India, including Kolkata, Baroda, Bangalore and Hyderabad, collecting works from artists such as Ganesh Pyne, KG Subramanyan, Jyoti Bhatt, Bhupen Khakhar, Nilima Sheikh and Ravindra Reddy. Diaspora artists such as SH Raza and Sakti Burman in Paris, Krishna Reddy in New York and Prafulla Mohanti in London were contacted through letters, and they generously couriered their works to Vatwani. The works exhibited at Jehangir Art Gallery in October 1993 fetched Rs 15 lakh, with which Vatwani purchased land to build a 20-bed psychiatric institution in Dahisar in north Mumbai. “I never knew we will come this far. I hope this international recognition will also draw people’s attention to the mentally ill on the roads and the fact that they can be treated,” says Vatwani. His current centre in Karjat accommodates 120 patients, and, in the last three decades, Vatwani has treated and reunited more than 7,000 destitutes with their families, including patients from West Bengal, Andhra Pradesh, Nepal and Iran, who were on the roads of Mumbai.
Beyond the global and national recognition, the element of trust Vatwani has inspired from people is something he cherishes. Vatwani still holds on to notes addressed to him by artists Krishen Khanna and Mohanti. “I remember Krishen Khanna telling me that he was approached by many for donating his work, but he was careful that they went only to people he trusted. I consider myself fortunate that I was one of them,” says Vatwani.