To keep paintings pristine

Published : Jul 30, 2004 00:00 IST

A Tanjore painting photographed in ordinary light. - BY SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

A Tanjore painting photographed in ordinary light. - BY SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

Conservation experts across the country meet and discuss the restoration and preservation of ancient paintings and review the advances made in the field.

WHEN it comes to conservation, paintings are a class apart. They are multi-layered; a defect in one layer gets transmitted to the other layers by and by and the ultimate damage may seem irretrievable. However, over the years, restorers of paintings have performed miracles, giving back to damaged paintings their pristine condition.

This conservation work is a continuous process, and it was to review the advances in the field that recently the Indian Association for the Study of the Conservation of Cultural Property collaborated with the Allahabad Museum to assemble conservation experts and let them talk on their metier.

Professor Govind Chand Pande - historian, philosopher, writer - set the tenor of the discussion by giving a gifted outsider's view of the discipline. He called attention to the fact that traditional methods had taken care of our invaluable art heritage over the centuries and cautioned conservators that in the mad rush to adopt modern processes, traditional methods should not be neglected altogether - rather, the attempt should be to combine the best of the old and the new techniques.

A.S. Bisht, a modern-day conservator of eminence with years of experience behind him, was equally cautionary. He compressed all his experience into a few vital maxims: preventive conservation is more important than curative conservation; pollution afflicts all antiques unless controlled constantly; air-conditioning helps against pollution if it is operated all the time.

Another vital maxim, he said, was that art objects selected for acquisition by a museum should be first examined by a conservator in order to assess their condition and check their authenticity. Modern science and technology have provided curators and conservators a number of means of authenticating an object.

Elaborating on the topic, V. Jeyaraj of the Madras Museum in Chennai detailed the use of infra-red rays, ultra-violet rays and X-rays for authenticating paintings. In days gone by, overzealous restorers concealed patches of lost pigments; fakers did the same though for a different purpose. They took an ordinary painting, made a few cosmetic changes in it, and passed it off as the work of a master. Jeyaraj said that infra-red, ultra-violet and X-ray photography laid bare the secrets of ancient paintings on canvas and wood.

Cleaning old paintings is an art by itself. Old paintings get darkened because of grime and discolouration of the varnish layer. Over-painting by zealous restorers is another affliction plaguing ancient paintings. Here again, modern tools steal the show. Anupam Sah of INTACH-ICCI described how powerful laser beams deftly get rid of extraneous matter.

Miniature paintings, which constitute a precious part of our art heritage, benefit a great deal from conservation. C.P. Unniyal, who heads the Conservation Laboratory of the Salar Jung Museum, Hyderabad, spoke on the cleaning of miniatures. He described how the removal of surface accretions using selected solvents bring out the blaze of the original colours used by the artist and reveal his skill and mastery.

Sukumar Menon, a conservator from Delhi, described the stunning effect that resulted from the cleaning of a painted jhoola; the wooden railings of the jhoola were painted with lacquer for preservation.

Paintings on cloth like Tibetan thangkas and kalamkari pieces get hardened and brittle with time. Vivek Kumar Tyagi recounted the methods of softening and strengthening Tibetan thangkas. Bessie Cecil from Chennai did similar work for kalamkari pieces, which are indigenous to South India and are acclaimed for their artistic qualities.

In an exciting discovery, C.B. Gupta, formerly a restorer in the National Museum in New Delhi, found 26 manuscripts inside a Buddhist image of unbaked clay which he took up for treatment. He treated the manuscripts too.

In fact, illustrated manuscripts have claimed the attention of the Central government in a big way. A national manuscript mission was launched in February 2003. While launching it, Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee remarked, "We in India have been making many claims about the progress made by us in ancient times in diverse fields of science and technology... There is much truth in these claims. However, modern science and modern mind accept only those claims as true that are backed by evidence. Our vast treasure of manuscripts provides, will provide, this evidence."

Innumerable manuscripts lie unseen as family heirlooms and in the holdings of temples and palaces. Some of these are illustrated manuscripts with paintings of unsurpassed beauty. The National Manuscript Mission has a five-year programme to get at all the manuscripts and conserve them.

Ritu Jain, Project Director of the Mission, spoke of the preparation of a catalogues catalogorum, which would be a comprehensive alphabetical register of works in Indian languages. Actually work on the catalogue was initiated by the Madras University in 1935 but in later years its progress slowed down considerably. Now, it will be accelerated and completed with the support of the National Manuscript Mission, which would set up manuscript resource centres and manuscript conservation centres across the country in order to increase the effectiveness of the project through decentralisation.

Experts discussed some other aspects of the discipline too. Gautam Lunkad made a presentation on fibre-optic lighting that would illuminate painting galleries without harming the paintings. Framing of paintings is itself a matter of technical skill and unobtrusive design that would play up the beauty of a painting.

I.K. Bhatnagar, who was until recently the Dean of the National Museum Institute in Delhi, had the last word. It was not enough that conservators did their work, he said. Their work had to be evaluated constantly because they handled ancient objects of a highly delicate and sensitive nature. Conservators would have to evaluate the effectiveness of the methods and materials used by them if scientific conservation is to retain its credibility, he said.

N. Harinarayana is a former Director of Museums, Tamil Nadu.

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