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New Twist to Old Story

Mumbai museum restores Anvar-i Suhayli,an illustrated book commissioned by Emperor Akbar.

Written by Mihika Basu |
December 9, 2013 1:25:16 am

A manuscript of Panchatantra stories in Persian dating back to the 16th century and probably commissioned by Mughal Emperor Akbar,has now been restored by the Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya (CSMVS) in Mumbai. Titled Anvar-i Suhayli,the manuscript is said to have been created in the royal atelier of Akbar to impart moral lessons and wise conduct to his then six-year old son Salim,who went on to succeed him as Emperor Jehangir.

The museum was gifted Anvar-i Suhayli by the Latifi family in 1973. Alma Latifi,a member of the Indian Civil Service,had purchased it at a sale at Sotheby’s,London,in 1938. The manuscript has finally been restored over the last 18 months.

“There’s a lot of emphasis on visuals in the Anvar-i Suhayli,so that it would capture the attention of Prince Salim at an impressionable age and he would begin learning lessons of good moral content,” said Vandana Prapanna,curator,miniature painting,CSMVS.

The manuscript,according to experts,is a good example of the way miniature painting artists and illustrators attempted to “render naturalistic studies of animals,birds and nature”. In these tales,a world of animals and birds unfold as they are seen running and chasing,hunting,conducting assemblies and consultations,conspiring and participating in human affairs. They represent different traits of human nature — the lion is easily misguided,the hare is quick-witted,the cat hypocritical,the jackal is crafty and the monkey is loyal,among others.

The damaged paintings were retrieved,mounted and bound into an album,and purchased by Latifi in 1938. The manuscript contains over 200 illustrations,probably painted between 1574 and 1576 AD,with the stories written in Persian text. The illustrations received by CSMVS were randomly cut and stuck on pages of a scrapbook,probably after the manuscript was damaged in a fire in 1818. The salvaged parts of the folios were pasted after cutting away the charred areas. The project received funding support from Bank of America and Merrill Lynch,who contributed Rs 30 lakh. The total cost of the restoration project was Rs 50 lakh.

“The edges of the images were brittle,paint was flaking and so it was very fragile. The challenge was to implement a treatment following principles of minimal intervention,” said Anupam Sah,Chief Art Conservation Consultant to CSMVS. Close to 30 people from CSMVS worked on the conservation and restoration. The art historical team focused on disjointed texts and worked on creating a continuous narrative,and the art conservation team examined each folio,assessed and documented their condition and categorised them according to their respective priority of treatment. Each image was photographed and its treatment record prepared. After the technical studies involving infrared reflectography,UV and X-Ray fluorescence,the first step was to remove the fragments of the folios stuck on the album pages. Persian scholars have helped in translating the text,he added.

In the conservation centre,which is under 24-hour CCTV surveillance,the folios were handed over for treatment by the curatorial section. Using both physical and solvent-based processes,the folios were safely separated from the support. Once the folios came off,the curators were informed that many had exquisite illustrations on the other side too; more than 40 new illustrations were revealed.

The entire treatment process was visualised in great detail and all treatments that could run parallel were arranged to be implemented in sequence in the same stage of the conservation process. For instance,the following treatments were in sequence: separation of the folio,minimisation of deformities,de-acidification and removal of extraneous glue films. The minor tears were repaired and charred areas of the paintings around the margins,were reinforced to prevent them from fragmenting. Since many folios were illustrated on both sides,it was decided to inlay them on a mount so that both surfaces could be studied or displayed when required.

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