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Reclaimed treasures

Print edition : Aug 15, 2008 T+T-
AN ASI photograph of the damaged mural (left) of the Sri Krishnaswamy temple at Neyyatinkara, Kerala, and (right) the mural after restoration by INTACH.-PICTURES: M. KARUNAKARAN

AN ASI photograph of the damaged mural (left) of the Sri Krishnaswamy temple at Neyyatinkara, Kerala, and (right) the mural after restoration by INTACH.-PICTURES: M. KARUNAKARAN

THE restoration of ancient murals at Lepakshi near Anantapur in Andhra Pradesh, the Sri Krishnaswamy temple at Neyyatinkara in Kerala, and the Naalaknadu palace at Kodagu in Karnataka are instances of government and private initiatives in art conservation. While the murals of Lepakshi were chemically cleaned by the Archaeological Survey of India (Hyderabad Circle), this work was done at Neyyatinkara and Kodagu by the Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (INTACH).

The temple at Lepakshi teems with murals on the walls and ceilings of its mandapas. Most of them portray Siva in his various forms. The muha mandapa had a rich set of paintings on its ceiling. However, a large part of these have been lost owing to the seepage of water from the roof, says Dr.V.S. Raghavendra Rao, Deputy Superintending Archaeological Chemist, ASI, Hyderabad. But the colours continue to be distinctive. The pigments of some of the paintings on the walls and the ceiling of the ardha mandapa were charred owing to the performance of yagnas there. Further, there was a thick deposit of bat excreta on the murals at the Somawara mandapa and a huge painting of Veerabhadra was covered with soot.

Since it was important to document the paintings before conserving them, the ASI photographed the murals. Subsequently its chemists removed the soot by using a mixture of chemicals. Systematic chemical cleaning and the removal of soot, dust and oil led to the unravelling of beautiful murals.

INTACH faced a similar problem at the 18th century temple at Neyyatinkara. Soot from oil lamps, dust, dirt and deposits of oil had covered the paintings of gods and goddesses. A metal awning erected to provide shelter from rain blocked the soot from rising and so it settled on the paintings.

Devotees used to splash sandal paste on the paintings, said Arvind Kumar, Centre Coordinator, INTACH Mural Painting Conservation, Research and Training Centre, Tripunithura, Kerala, who led the restoration of the affected paintings.

Even after conservation, they look like old paintings. Basically our aim was to maintain the antique value of these paintings and ensure minimum intervention, said Arvind Kumar.

There was a layer of dust and soot. After its removal, what we obtained were damaged paintings. Instead of converting them into new paintings, we joined the original fragments by using the same colours. We achieved good results, he said.

The conservation of murals at the Naalaknadu palace presented a different kind of challenge. The palace was built in 1792 by the king Chikka Veera Rajendra. There were murals on the ceiling of the queens chamber and they were mostly floral designs. But the plaster on which the murals had been drawn detached itself from the wooden support on the ceiling and was hanging loose.

The extremely fragile painted surface presented a big challenge, said Madhurani K.P., Centre Coordinator, INTACH Chitrakalaparishath Art Conservation Centre (ICKPAC), Bangalore. There were wasps nests on the wooden beams and there were holes in the ceiling.

Madhurani said: The cleaning was done in several stages. Support had to be provided to the plaster; the wasp nests had to be removed; wooden planks had to be replaced; and holes in the ceiling had to be plugged. We had to consolidate the entire surface. An adhesive was injected into the holes in the wooden planks. The damaged planks were reinforced with new wooden reepers. The floral designs were re-created with minimum intervention.

The murals on the walls had been lime-washed. When the lime was removed beautiful murals came out. This included portraits of the queen in three postures. The paintings on the wooden ceiling of the rajas durbar hall were also conserved in a similar fashion.

T.S. Subramanian