Nitin Mahadev Yadav is a household name in the Sable chawl of Kurla, a suburb in Mumbai. Those close to him refer to the man as a half-policeman. No, he doesn’t don a uniform, nor does he carry a handgun. The only weapons he has are blank sheets of paper and pencils.
“As a kid, I dreamt of joining the police force. While the dream remained unfulfilled, little did I think fate would make me help the force,” he says, as we chat in his one-room office in Kurla.
From a four-feet painting of Shivaji to various portraits of famous personalities, the walls of the office are adorned with vibrant paintings, and pictures of him being felicitated by the police department.
For the last 30 years, the Kurla-based drawing teacher has made a whopping 4,000 sketches for the police, of which 450 sketches have helped successfully detect suspects.
Nitin did not charge a penny for over 25 years, but over the last few years, the police have been giving him smaller amounts for his efforts. Moreover, he has received over 164 awards from several organisations including the Education Department and the Mumbai Police.
He recalls how his mother, Hirabai, a homemaker was a gifted artist. “She could knit with her eyes closed. It seems like her love for art and crafts was genetically passed down to the six of us.” While Nitin and two of his siblings are art teachers, the other three are adept at rangoli, mehendi and calligraphy.
“My inclination towards art began in Class 4, and my father encouraged it. He wasn’t an artist or a calligrapher, but he would treasure everything I ever drew, by writing my name and date under each piece,” he says in a hoarse voice, a reminder of his battle with voice box (laryngeal) cancer in 2008.
Nitin made his first lifelike piece of artwork—of a Rs 20 note—in Class 5. He spent three days giving it artistic strokes and cutting it out as per the dimensions of a real note.
“I would give it to hotel owners at first and then tell them to check the blank side. They’d be astonished at the uncanny resemblance. It gained interest amongst the teachers and students at my school too. One of my teachers who passed away just six months ago praised me, but also taught me a lesson—to never use my art for anything illegal. That message stayed with me.”
Nitin’s family wasn’t very well off. While his father was one among the hundreds of mill workers on strike at the time, his mother was a homemaker. The strike meant an uncertain flow of money into the household, so he started working when he was only in Class 7.
His first commercial artwork was a board with bulb lights for a local decorator— Rs 60 for two pieces. As work kept coming, he moved on to painting rickshaw number plates, signboards, banners etc. He used the same money to fund his education, as he did not want to burden his parents.
During a visit to a police station where he was commissioned to paint nameplates and the chowki board with the hierarchy and details of officers, he overheard a few of them speak.
The year was 1982. A murder had taken place at the popular GSK hotel. The suspect has escaped with the man’s kids. The only witness was a waiter who had served tea to the two men.
“I told the police that if you let the waiter speak, I will sketch the man based on his description,” Nitin recalls. He was a student of Class 10 at the time. Based on the sketch made by Nitin, the man was arrested within 48 hours.
This set the ball rolling and in the years that followed, the artist drew faces of suspects in major cases like three accused in the Shakti Mills rape case in August 2013, the Pune German Bakery blast case and also the murder case of rationalist Narendra Dabholkar shot dead in 2013.
From local gang members to petty thieves and kidnappers, he helped the police strike down several suspects.
In 2008, when photographers were restricted from entering the courtroom, he drew the scene of the trial of 26/11 terrorist, Ajmal Kasab for a local newspaper. All based upon a description by a journalist.
Even as police personnel continued to get transferred to different police stations and cities, Nitin’s name and contact number remained constant in their diaries. Today, he is called in to prepare sketches for cases not just in Mumbai, but also Pune and Nashik.
“If I was a police inspector maybe I would have about 10-12 big cases. But as a police sketch artist, I have sketched over 4000 pictures of which 450 have helped solve cases,” he beams.
The man who works as an art teacher at the Chembur Education Society Primary School has received death threats about four or five times during the course of his work. Not once have they deterred him from giving it up.
When I ask him about his own emotional state of the victims while he sketches these suspects, he says:
“A raging state of mind is critical. You cannot imagine what the victim is going through when they are asked to relive their experiences and recollect the face of these perpetrators. But I give them time. From how the parted their hair to their way of walking, my questions are very detailed. The accuracy of the picture at the end has had several victims bursting out in tears. I just look at them, calm them down and tell them they did well. Justice isn’t far,” says Yadav.
Ten years ago, when he underwent a surgery for his cancer and was recuperating in the hospital, he received a call. A six-year-old student from a deaf and dumb school had been raped.
Of course, the girl couldn’t describe the perpetrator verbally. So Yadav fetched his drawing book—an amalgamation of years of efforts. This drawing book that he continues to carry with him at all times, has templates of face shapes, skin tone, eye shape and colour, cheekbones, hair colour, jawline, hair parting, lips, moustache, beard, etc.
Once the girl started pointing to different templates, the face came alive, and the man was caught within 72 hours.
Tracking down such perpetrators may seem like an achievement, but the process of sketching their faces can be emotionally charged for the artist too. He gets calls from police stations, crime scenes, and even hospitals where victims are under treatment.
“I still remember the day, I sat with my sketchbook in front of a 6-year-old boy at KEM hospital where he was admitted. He had been sodomised by a 55-year-old man. The kid’s eyes were bloodshot, and he was shivering as he spoke. Even as my pencil got to work on the blank canvas, tears kept sliding down my cheek. My son was the same age at the time, and I kept thinking about how unsafe our surroundings were for children.”
Yadav drew the sketch on one condition. The day the rapist was caught, he would slap the man,
Regardless to say, he did.
Each sketch Yadav says takes anywhere between 30 minutes to 1.5 hours. He gets about three requests per day to make such sketches.
His wife Vaishali, and children, Bhakti and Pratik, are all artists in their respective fields. While Bhakti is an artist who makes sketches, just like her father, Pratik is studying filmmaking and Vaishali takes art lessons at home.
“The police get promotions and hikes. I don’t have anything to gain. But every time my work helps crack a case, I pat myself on the back. Sometimes, officers get in touch and tell me how it helped. It feels nice to be appreciated.”
I ask him if he is afraid of any death threats.
“I am just helping uncover the truth. I am not scared of death. The only thing I am scared of is injections,” he laughs.
If this story inspired you, get in touch with Nitin Yadav at firstname.lastname@example.org or contact him on 9819110139
(Edited by Gayatri Mishra)