HERITAGE The Thanjavur Art Gallery is a treasure trove of bronzes and artefacts that are diligently cleaned and preserved.

"Brahma created this museum," says Venkatraman, curator, The Thanjavur Art Gallery, which is housed in the Palace complex of the temple town. "When archaeologist Dr. Sivaramamurthy visited Thanjavur in 1951, he found a stone idol of Brahma lying uncared for. He took the permission of the then district collector T.K. Palaniappan to take the idol to the Calcutta museum, of which he (Sivaramamurthy) was the director. But the people of Thanjavur did not allow him to take away the idol and insisted it remains in Thanjavur. The collector then wondered about establishing an art gallery there. Thus was born the Art Gallery, with the Brahma sculpture as its first exhibit! Soon, we began to get sculptures and bronzes from various parts of Thanjavur."

Works of art

The Brahma idol has pride of place in the gallery, which is housed in the 16th century Nayak Palace. The first room used to serve as the puja mandapam, and many stone sculptures are seen here. Notable among them is the Dwarapalaka brought back from the Chalukya capital by Rajadhi Raja I in 1048 A.D., as a symbol of his victory over the Chalukya king. An inscription at the base of the statue states this fact.

To the right of the puja mandapam is the Durbar Hall of the Nayaks, which houses the bronze collection. The Rishabhavahana Devar statue (11th century) was displayed in New York in 1985. It's an exquisite piece. The matted locks of Siva as Rishabhavahana Deva are piled on top of his head like a turban, and he has a charming smile. Venkatraman has installed diachronic lights for every sculpture.

"Earlier we used to get someone from Chennai to clean the bronzes. But we felt it was necessary to have a full-time conservator. So we appointed Ilayaraja," says Venkatraman, and introduces him to me.

Ilayaraja takes me to his lab, where his table is cluttered with dental instruments! "We use these to scrape off deposits on the bronzes," says Ilayaraja, who has a B.Sc in Chemistry and a Master's in Philosophy, and has studied conservation techniques at the National Research Laboratory for Conservation of Cultural Property, Lucknow.

Good patina

"Bronze sculptures are an alloy of copper, tin, lead, silver and gold. When copper reacts with oxygen, we get cupric carbonate, cupric oxide and cupric chloride. Cupric carbonate and cupric oxide leave a green and black patina on the bronzes. We call this 'good patina.' It adds to the aesthetic beauty of the statues. But cupric chloride is seen as an ugly, pale green powder, and when we see this on an icon, we say it has bronze disease. We have to remove the green powder," Ilayaraja explains.

The critical temperature for bronzes should be 20 to 25 degrees Centigrade, and the humidity should be between 40 and 45 per cent, he says. It's obvious that such ideal conditions do not prevail in Thanjavur. So do they have to keep monitoring the bronzes to check for signs of bronze disease? "Yes," answers Ilayaraja. "We give the bronzes a protective coating that consists of two grams of polyvinyl acetate added to toulene and acetone mixture."

In a corner of the lab are some beautifully carved wood panels that date back to Serfoji's time. Serfoji had rest houses built from Thanjavur to Rameswaram. "There used to be one chatram roughly every 15 km. Now only nine remain," says Venkatraman. "All the nine have become hostels for high school students. One of them is the Rajamadam chatram. The wooden panels you see here came from the kitchen of that rest house."

A kitchen with such beautifully carved wooden panels seems unbelievable, but apparently Serfoji thought that the kitchen too should be aesthetically appealing. Food was cooked in these kitchens for the pilgrims who stayed there. Later when the chatrams became students' hostels, food for the students was cooked in these kitchens. So the panels must have accumulated soot and dirt of a couple of centuries. How did they remove it?

Ilayaraja explains. "We used labolene solution and acetone to remove the soot and dirt." In fact, Venkatraman used to work in the Department of Chatrams, before his current job.

Tourist attraction

In 2008, the gallery had 1,80,000 visitors of whom 27,000 were foreigners. It is administered by a council, headed by the district collector, and is run mainly through the money from gate collections. The Central Government has been generous in giving financial assistance.

The Arsenal Tower to which steps lead from the side of the stone sculpture section, has eight tiers. There is only one entry point to the first tier, but from then on, there are four ways to get to each tier. On the ceilings here are huge wooden discs with hooks, on which soldiers used to hang their rifles. Nearby is the Bell Tower, where the bell would be rung to announce the arrival of the Nayak King.

The Palace complex is replete with art and culture, and Venkatraman and Ilayaraja are doing their bit to preserve one aspect of Thanjavur's heritage.

(Second of a three-part series on conservation.)