Working magic with the past

It’s an assiduous ritual of renewal. What was a tattered pink rag is now a royal gold-flecked silk odhni,restored to its original century-old splendour,the ravages of time on it magically annulled.

Written by V Shoba | Published:February 8, 2009 2:10 am

In the conservation lab of the National Museum,restorers,chemists,artists and photographers work patiently to restore antiques

It’s an assiduous ritual of renewal. What was a tattered pink rag is now a royal gold-flecked silk odhni,restored to its original century-old splendour,the ravages of time on it magically annulled. The ‘magic’ took six months to yield results,as Ayub Beg,Tahir Husain and Mohan Ram painstakingly redeemed the fabric by darning together the shreds that were left of it.

If there’s one thing to be learned from watching the 40-odd restorers,chemists,artists and photographers at the conservation lab of the National Museum pore over antiquities,it is the virtue of patience. While Beg and Husain—expert darners from Bijnaur whose fathers,too,worked at the museum—mend the holes in a jamewar shawl fresh from the fumigation chamber,Prem Kumar Nagta is bent over a worn-out painted door from a Gujarati haveli,solvent-dunked brush in hand. “I am stripping the varnish. Then I will retouch the Ganesha painting,” he says.

In another bottle-stacked section of the lab,Umesh Ahuja is dipping folios from a rare Persian book in a lime bath—to de-acidify them—and then in water,before laying them out to dry on sheets of blotting paper. The pages will be ironed,lined with tissue paper and bound into a treasure of a book.

“Decay is a law of nature,but neglect and ignorance cause the most damage. We advocate preventive conservation. However,when a piece of art has to be reclaimed from the verge of oblivion,we resort to surgical procedures,” says S.P. Singh,director,conservation,at the National Museum. Singh’s surgeons have restored painted ceilings in Rashtrapati Bhavan,rare oils by Raja Ravi Verma at Sri Chitra Art Gallery in Thiruvananthapuram and textiles at Patiala’s Sheesh Mahal,among other projects.

The before-and-after stories are a study in marked contrasts. Central Asian wall paintings from the 2nd century A.D. have been transformed from a crumble of mud-plaster to striking displays inlaid in plaster of Paris. Potsherds have been glued together into Harappan containers. A jaded painting of John Lawrence has come alive,the tears camouflaged to perfection.

The restorers operate by a set of ground rules—minimum intervention,chemical reversibility,durability and aesthetics. “One has to be extremely careful while retouching paintings. A single stroke can alter the expression on a face,” Singh says. He should know. Singh’s 37-year career is studded with achievements,including the piecing together,in 1975-76,of the five-tier temple chariot from Tamil Nadu that stands in a glass case at the entrance to the museum,and devising a technique for stripping pollutants off the Taj Mahal.

The museum is home to over 2 lakh artifacts and manuscripts,of which just 10 per cent are on public display at any given time,the rest stored away safely. “Paintings must not be exposed to sunlight or damp. Never keep lead coins in a wood case—it triggers a reaction. And don’t store your woolens with your silks—the protein in wool damages silk,” Singh advises.

It is with good reason that Singh and his team sensitise people through workshops on preventive conservation—the curative work at the lab is neverending. A trunk full of torn old flags from the Kumaon regiment awaits repair. A 17th-century polychrome wood pedestal for a Buddha stands on a table where art restorer Anand Kumar is at work examining its flakiness. Brittle Central Asian stuccos are placed in glass cases with lumps of silica gel—the lab is working on developing techniques to restore these pieces,which “crumble at the touch of a hand”,Kumar says. One can tell he is eager to get back to work—after all,there is a past to recreate and memories to keep alive for the times to come.

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