A decent facelift

Published : Jan 31, 2003 00:00 IST

The compound wall of the Government Museum, Chennai, which was restored to its original state. - BY SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

The compound wall of the Government Museum, Chennai, which was restored to its original state. - BY SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

THE campus of the Government Museum in Chennai is bustling with the kind of activity that will gladden the hearts of conservationists. The 120-year-old semicircular Museum Theatre, with red bricks and shell-roof, is being restored meticulously to its original splendour. The heritage sandstone compound wall with its intricate carvings, which had sunk, has been re-erected, and renovation of the various galleries are under way. State-of-the-art technology has been used to make showcases to house the Museum's famed bronze icons. A rock art and cave art gallery with sound and light, touch screens and simulation effects, and a holographic gallery are being set up. The huge campus is being spruced up, and a luxurious lawn of Korean grass and fountains and metal roads are being added. The entire work is expected to cost about Rs.4 crores. Renovation of the spectacular building that houses the National Art Gallery will begin soon. This architectural marvel was built in 1902.

These activities herald the 151th-year celebrations of the founding of the museum. A mini-sheet stamp is proposed to be released to mark the occasion. Chief Minister Jayalalithaa has shown a keen interest in galvanising the activities of the Museum. Public Works Minister O. Panneerselvam and Education Minister S. Semmalai have been constantly reviewing the work. Dr. R. Kannan, Commissioner of Agriculture and Museums, is leading the activities with a band of officials, including K. Lakshminarayanan , Assistant Director of the Museum, and T. Jeyachandran, Chief Engineer (Buildings), Public Works Department, to assist him.

This Museum Theatre has played host to hundreds of plays and conferences. The damaged cornice works inside the auditorium are being restored. Its roof has been disassembled and rebuilt using aluminium cutters over teakwood planks. This is being done to prevent rainwater from seeping through the roof. A PWD official said this water-tightening was a challenging job because the civil engineers had to explore and discover the root of the problem. Rebuilding the roof without damaging its architectural members was a demanding task, he said. When the outer wall of the theatre was scraped, beautiful architectural members were revealed. They are being conserved. The expertise of K.T. Narasimhan, Superintending Archaeologist, Archaelogical Survey of India (ASI), Chennai Circle, is being used in the restoration and conservation works.

The restoration of the sandstone compound wall was not an easy job. Many portions of the long wall were missing. Sandstone blocks were brought from Sathyavedu village in Andhra Pradesh. They were sent to Mamallapuram, where sculptors repeated the hand carvings found on the old wall. The new, lower portions of the wall have been given a cladding so that their newness will not be revealed.

The staff of the Museum and the School of Architecture, Anna University, have planned the Bronze Gallery and the proposed galleries on the history of industry and handicrafts in Tamil Nadu. The planning relates to how the showcases should look, where they should be positioned, and so forth. Four new high-technology showcases have been installed in the Bronze Gallery. They house exquisite Jain and Buddhist icons. The showcases are frameless, with float glass, and are lit by fibre optics. They have Yale locks, German Dorma door hinges, Taiwanese exhaust fans and silica gel to preclude moisture inside. These showcases are the first of their kind in India. A cosmic Nataraja, lit up by fibre optics and installed on a rotating showcase, will be on display soon.

The Bronze Gallery and the Contemporary Art Gallery are being air-conditioned, and they will have modern lighting. Original paintings of Raja Ravi Verma, paintings of Governors of the Madras Presidency, and water colours are being re-arranged.

The 19th century display in the Zoology Gallery has been replaced with another four frameless showcases. The backdrop is not hand-drawn, but is a vinyl computer-made photograph print. This has been lit up by halogen lamps. The baleen whale specimen acquired in 1874 is lit with special lamps.

Kannan, an Indian Administrative Service officer, has shown that a posting at the Museum is not a "condemned" job. He has been enjoying it ever since he took it up three and a half years ago. He has received an honour for his important contributions to museology. He was invited to be a Member of the Board of Members of the International Association of Museums of History (IAMH), Paris. The Association works in liaison with the International Council of Museums to foster works and ideas of relevance to history museums.

Kannan was made a member on the strength of his monograph, "A Holistic Approach to Dating in Ancient History, Especially Indian History" and other publications authored by him. He has co-authored with K. Lakshminarayanan a monograph titled "Iconography of the Jain Images in the Government Museum, Chennai (Madras)". This documents all the Jain sculptures and bronzes and has excellent pictures and exhaustive references to Jain philosophy, theosophy and literature. A second volume by Kannan, called "Iconography of the Jain Images in the Districts of Tamil Nadu," may be released during the celebrations. He has co-authored with R. Balasubramanian, Curator (Archaeology), Government Museum, Chennai, a monograph titled "Documentation on the Cannons in the Government Museum, Chennai". He has republished the earlier, rare publications of the Museum.

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