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Monday, June 25, 2018

A Pole in the palace

During WWII,a Polish painter fled the Germans to find refuge in India. Now,four restoration experts from Poland camp at Jodhpur’s Umaid Bhavan Palace to restore the works of Stefan Norblin

Written by Apurva | Published: February 1, 2009 3:37:57 pm

During WWII,a Polish painter fled the Germans to find refuge in India. Now,four restoration experts from Poland camp at Jodhpur’s Umaid Bhavan Palace to restore the works of Stefan Norblin
Barbara Szykulska sat in a circle of light thrown across the room by strobe lights,her brush poised in mid-air. In the darkness around her,colours glowed like sullen pin-pricks. As the 53-year-old Polish conservator dabbed the mural in front of her,the pale yellow turned to a shade of ochre,the green grew verdant. The faded image on the wall—Ram and Sita on the banks of a river—was coming back to life. To an Indian eye,the figures on the mural look nowhere like the familiar Raja Ravi Varmaesque gods of calendar art. This is Ram and Sita as seen by a European—angular,lanky and exotic. But for Szykulska and her team of restoration experts,the images they have been restoring and re-imagining in the Oriental Room of Umaid Bhavan Palace,Jodhpur,are a corner of a foreign land which is forever Poland.

The life-size mural is Ramayana as imagined by Stefan Norblin,Polish exile and official court painter of Umaid Bhavan Palace from 1944 to 1946—and among the numerous artwork that Norblin created as décor for one of India’s grandest palaces. But how did the Pole come to be in the palace?

In 1942,three years into a war that would hasten the beginning of the end of the Empire,a ship sunk off the coast of Africa,chased to its end by the mighty German navy. In the cargo that the waves swiftly swallowed were the paraphernalia of another imperial affair—furnishings and artwork that Maharaja Umaid Singh had commissioned from London for his magnificent palace in Jodhpur. For a building in its thirteenth year of construction,that was bad news indeed.

But the war had also washed ashore the answer to the king’s conundrum: Norblin,among hundreds of Poles who fled his country after the German invasion in 1939,and who reached Bombay in 1941 after travelling through Romania,Turkey and Iraq. Each sojourn brought him work from the royal families and embassies. By the time he was in Bombay,his reputation had been established.

But while royal families in Bombay and Gujarat commissioned Norblin’s paintings,Umaid Singh gave him a free hand in designing the interiors for the palace as well as the designation of court painter. In 1946,however,Norblin left for the US. Six years later,he committed suicide at the age of 61 after a long battle with glaucoma,never to return to his homeland. In India,he had left behind 72 works of art: paintings,portraits,glass paintings and murals.

In Poland,there has been a renewed interest in Norblin—a documentary on his life was released last year. “Norblin’s contribution to art in and outside Poland cannot be ignored. We decided to restore all his works in Jodhpur as it is a symbol of our culture,” said Artut Lompart,counsellor for promotion of culture,science and higher education,Embassy of the Republic of Poland in India.

That the Umaid Bhavan Palace should have been home to such eclecticism is no surprise. One of the largest private residences in the world till date,it sprawls across 26 acres of land—and is a quirky mix of modernist Art Deco and traditional Rajput architecture. Part of it is now the Umaid Palace Hotel,which has hosted the Angelina Jolies and Brad Pitts and watched the Liz Hurleys get married,and where the least expensive room goes for Rs 41,000 a night.

The palace was built between 1929 and 1945,envisioned as a drought relief measure by Umaid Singh—a fiscal stimulus if ever there was one. The architect was Henry Vaughan Lancaster,who decided on a design that was a cross between ancient Hindu temples at Angkor Vat and a British town hall. On a warm summer day,it is a fantasy castle towering over Jodhpur,its sandstone buttery gold against a blue sky and at every corner,its design yoking together the East and the West.

Not much is known of his two-year stay in the palace though photographs of him at work and with family (wife and son Andrew) adorn the palace wall. “His European influence is striking as his imagination is very Roman,(the figures) complete with sharp facial features and sometimes even attire,” said curator of the Meherangarh museum,Karni Singh.

Downstairs is a blue deco swimming pool,its walls covered by Norblin’s drawings of fish blowing bubbles. Only two rooms in the entire palace depict scenes from Indian mythology,the Darbar Hall and the Oriental Room,which served as a special meeting room for the king. It was only for the latter that the Maharaja insisted on a mythological theme. Though there is little ‘oriental’ influence here,save four suspended electric lanterns,the room has six life-size murals,which depict scenes from the Ramayana and the Mahabharata.

How did a man with little knowledge of local customs and culture manage this feat? “As the royal state painter,Norblin was respected in the region. He got his ideas by talking to people from various walks of life and looking up mythological works,” said Singh.

The question of foreignness is more problematic for Szykulska and her team—Ira Malczewska,Maria Banasz and leader Jozef Stecinski,who have been flying in from Poland to Jodhpur every winter since 2006,when the restoration began (The Polish government funded the project while Jodhpur’s Meherangarh trust provided the logistics). Once they check in,the four Poles leave behind the comforts of language—they know neither English nor Hindi—and are barred to the world. Except for Sunil Laghata of The Indian National Trush for Art,Culture and Heritage (Intach),they have no link to the accents and cultures swirling around them.

And yet,they have hardly felt at a loss. “Usually there is no need for communication. This is a scientific process and we know what we have to do. Sunil is always with us and sometimes we bring a colleague who knows English,but we mostly speak among ourselves,” said Stecinski through an interpreter. Agreed Laghata,“When we work on a panel,things just happen.”

The Poles said they found evenings in Jodhpur “fascinating” but seemed reluctant tourists,more eager to talk about their work. Like how the dry conditions in Jodhpur and the Oriental Room’s low humidity have ravaged Norblin’s Ramayana. “The tempera first cracks,thins out and then falls off. This is called flaking. Some panels have lost close to 60 per cent of their original imagery,” Laghata said.

The restoration is unavoidably long-winded and will take five years in all. When we asked Stecinski to explain,he drew pictures for us. “First we do something called facing,which is coat the entire painting with silicon paper to prevent further destruction. Then we consolidate the paint layer and finally retouch the completely obscured parts,” he said.

Norblin painted the murals using tempera technique. “This was created using a mixture of dried pigments and a binding medium such as egg yolk,milk or honey. Such paintings survive only under ideal conditions,” Szykulska said.

Clearing the layers of time to reveal the tracery of Norblin’s brushstrokes is difficult detective work—one that needs imagination and homework. And if Norblin had as his guide the royal decree,his countrymen too have reference points. For one,they are not alien to the epics. Stecinski explained that it would be scandalous to try and restore something they do not understand. “We first had to research and submit an exhaustive report on the murals to the Polish culture ministry and Gaj Singh. Only then was the project approved,” said Stecinski,who has restored Polish art for 20 years now.

Then,there are pictures of the completed works,which the Maharaja has loaned. “A photograph is studied and compared with the panel. We mark off segments that require work,” Laghata said. They then take a sample of the wall to the Intach lab in the Meherangarh Fort for testing. “We have to duplicate the mural in every way. For those flaked off segments,we apply another layer of lime plaster. Only then do we paint on it to complete the picture,” Szykulska said.

Steckinski pointed to a completely restored mural to explain. “Every time we feel a little tired,all we need is one look at this mural. We finish this year’s leg in February and will probably head off to another project. But there will always be a longing to return to the Umaid Palace and fix up Norblin.”

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