Plans to hold a grand exhibition of K.C.S. Panicker's works in connection with his birth centenary celebrations will come to naught if steps are not taken immediately to restore his paintings. A respected and celebrated painter of his times, Panicker could have made a fortune from his works.

Neither was he born in Kerala nor did he live in the State. Yet, K.C.S. Panicker chose to donate all his paintings to the State in 1976. One of the greatest artists of India, he was born in Coimbatore, lived in Chennai and established Asia's first artists' village at Cholamandal, Chennai.

A respected and celebrated painter of his times, Panicker could have made a fortune from his works or established a museum at Cholamandal Artists' Village. The reason why Panicker donated his works to the land of his forefathers is another story, deeply related to his own being, identity and creativity.

But was it a right decision? At least recent history proves otherwise. As the centenary year of K.C.S. Panicker begins in 2010-11, preparations for several commemorative programmes are being discussed. Significant among the programmes would be a retrospective exhibition suggested by the National Gallery of Modern Art, New Delhi. But chances for such a show are bleak because of the deteriorating condition of the paintings.

Nanda Gopal, eminent sculptor and son of K.C.S. Panicker, along with many artists of the country feel that shifting the paintings from the gallery in his name in Thiruvananthapuram would be disastrous.

Change of colours

The K.C.S. Panicker Art Gallery, adjacent to the the Museum office and auditorium, in Thiruvananthapuram has never had a temperature control system in the span of 30 years. The paintings are exhibited seven hours a day and locked inside for the remaining 17 hours of the day without air-conditioners, air purifying system and dehumidifiers. The most visible factor is the change of colour of the paintings. Eminent art historian R. Sivakumar confirms that the colours have undergone changes.

Nanda Gopal fears that 30 years of being hung in a single direction might have also led to the deterioration of the works. Leading art galleries with permanent canvas exhibits have a system of ‘reverse hanging process' to maintain the equilibrium, which has not been followed in this gallery. It is a basic fact that like every object, paintings hung on the wall are also affected by gravitational forces, which naturally would have contributed to the decomposition of the material.

Unless the authorities immediately initiate the installation of a temperature control system and then proceed to the restoration project, chances of a retrospective are grim.

Restoration of paintings is not a new phenomenon in the museum art gallery.

The Ravi Varma paintings, which are a century older than the K.C.S. Panicker paintings, were successfully restored in 2005.

Unlike the Ravi Varma canvases, the K.C.S. Panicker paintings demand a different approach towards restoration in terms of colour pigments.

Method of painting

As common to the artists of his period in India, Panicker painted with thin layers of paint, especially in the last phase of his creative life. In all paintings of the ‘Words and Symbol' series, he was deconstructing his European method of easel painting practice by using transparent layers and delicate linear images with a self-induced calligraphy.

The damages and decolouration in these thin calligraphic forms along with the sweeping fine lines pose a great challenge to restorers. Taking stock of the situation, it is learned that M.A. Baby, Minister for Culture, has initiated some steps to install temperature control system in the gallery as a first phase of the work.

In addition to several bureaucratic and administrative hurdles, the museum does not have a record of having a museum expert to head the institution. But these problems of governance should not stand in the way of efforts to save a cultural project of prime importance.

The K.C.S. Panicker retrospective deserves a grand design like that of the Raja Ravi Varma exhibition executed by A. Ramachandran in 1992 in New Delhi. K.C.S. Panicker, who stands on the threshold of the modern art movement in South India as a painter, teacher and organiser, will definitely become a focus of cultural studies related to modernity and tradition of 20th century India, once his lifetime works are presented contextually in the cultural arena.