From centuries-old Buddhist murals in Ladakh to antique tile flooring in Chennai, V. R. Aparajitha has worked on a range of art conservation projects.

“My heart goes out to them. I feel they are calling out to me,” says V. R. Aparajitha, of centuries-old works of art exposed to the depredation of Nature or human activity.

While most art school students are keen on making their signatures commercially viable, Aparajitha takes the road less travelled to conserve light-bleached, soot-covered, fingerprints-smeared paintings that reflect the aesthetic sense and beliefs of the past.

A student of the Government College of Arts and Crafts, Chennai, Aparajitha got interested in this offbeat profession when she visited the conservation laboratories in museums. “Not many students are drawn to these labs. To me, they changed the way I looked at heritage.” She joined the National Museum Institute, New Delhi, for a Masters in Conservation and Restoration. It was the beginning of a committed journey that's taken her from Basgo and Shey in Ladakh to the Sri Chitra Art Gallery, State Museum, Thiruvananthapuram.

“Conservation is the science of art. We are talking different materials with different dictates. It's a combination of aesthetics, technical skill and scientific knowledge of materials. The Chamba Lakhang and Chamchung temples in Basgo are world heritage monuments built with unfired bricks 450 years ago. Due to the ravages of Nature — earthquake and rain — some murals were either destroyed in part or fully covered in clay. The conservation work spanned three years (2004-2006), involving a massive clean-up and retouching with traditional materials.”

An inclusive approach

At the 350-year-old Dorje Chenmo temple in Shey, an inclusive approach was taken to enable villagers play an active role in preserving their cultural heritage. “When we landed there in 2003, we couldn't even find the murals; they were completely covered in soot! With the help of the sensitive locals we restored the works bit by bit. Both the projects were initiated by the Namgyal Institute for Research on Ladakhi Art and Culture that had pooled in independent consultants. I was part of the conservation team which twice won the UNESCO Asia Pacific Heritage Award for Excellence for the work in Basgo and Shey.”

For a young conservator, there's no bigger thrill than seeing and restoring the works of past masters. “It sounds like an attractive profession. But you have to work in difficult conditions, often dilapidated sacred spaces or dingy museums. It's a lot of physical strain. You'll have to work hours on end to restore a millimetre of a painting! Compared to other professional streams, this isn't lucrative. But it's the passion, not the pay cheque that drives me. It's a kind of madness!” says Aparajitha, who has also specialised in the conservation of photographic materials, thanks to a Charles Wallace India Trust Art Conservation Fellowship. “It was an eye-opener. Photographs suffer a faster rate of image change due to light and temperature. So unless they are preserved in a controlled environment, you might lose those memories forever.” Her interest in photo conservation took her to Chowmahalla Palace, Hyderabad, to work on a section of the Nizam's extensive collection of photographs for an exhibition.

Why trivialise the past?

Having worked on a couple of monument conservations as well, Aparajitha is pained by people who trivialise their past. “We don't have pride in our heritage. We convert monuments into picnic spots and indulge in vandalism, scribbling and littering. Recently, at Ellora, I saw an obese woman climb an eighth-century sculpture to get photographed! Barricades and a higher entry fee would help. Don't people pay extra to catch films by popular heroes?”

At Art Care, her studio, she has restored works by masters such as Jamini Roy and M. F. Husain, besides taking up projects relating to monument conservation (including cleaning 65 stone pillars at a heritage monument in Papanasam). “In the art of conservation, minimal intervention and reversibility are important. A good conservator's work is never visible. In the guidelines, the don'ts exceed the dos! And it's quite a challenge to convince clients about time and budget. It's an uphill task, but I still enjoy it. I believe art conservators fill up the blanks in the visual expression of history.”

On the flip side, this State rank holder at the higher secondary level says, as a conservator, she hates throwing away stuff. “There's always something to salvage from what's around you!” Stroking her 4 ft-long plait, she smiles, “This too is part of my conservation efforts!”

EYE FOR DETAIL

DRAWING BY ADIMOOLAM in charcoal, pen and ink on handmade paper. The frame had come into contact with moisture. The micro environment within the frame, heat, moisture and cellulose base of the paper provided ideal conditions for fungal growth and silverfish activity. This caused discoloration/staining of the paper. The work was restored with appropriate techniques and materials.

ANTIQUE TILED FLOORING dating back to 1896-1898. The only remaining original flooring in the heritage building of the State Bank of India, main branch, Rajaji Salai. Built in the Indo-Saracenic style, the architecture cost a whopping Rs. 3 lakh! They are not Athangudi tiles as often mistaken, but the then popular Minton tiles imported from England. The tiles were completely altered in appearance because of constant footfall and fine airborne coal dust (from the port nearby). The tiles were not laid as slabs but as geometrical-shapes with amazing precision. They had to be cleaned in a phased manner and a transparent polyester sheet was used to cover it. This is a non-invasive way of preserving the floor.