At the Chemical Conservation Section of the Government Museum, Egmore, B.Thirunavakarasu is bent over a stack of palm-leaf manuscripts and uses a scalpel to uniformly fill the holes. A sturdy looking light-cum-magnifying glass is there to aid him in his task but he seldom uses it as his eyes are accustomed to working under natural light.
The bamboo pencil in his right hand makes circles on a damp Nepali tissue paper breaking it into finer strands, while a thin pencil in his left pushes a mixture of tissue paper and a cellulose paste into the tiny holes that are left behind by persistent bookworms. Neatly formed circles are all over the leaf. “The holes have to be filled so that the worms do not lay eggs and cause more damage,” he says, pointing to the places where worms had eaten into the inscriptions. This process can take several weeks during which manuscript conservators work in a bent position with unwavering attention on the leaves.
The script is Grantham, a combination of Tamil and Sanskrit, he says, an information that is only secondary to this chemistry graduate's line of work who has been involved with conserving all kinds of manuscripts for the last five years at the Museum.
“When we receive a stack of manuscripts, the first step is to fumigate it for at least 15 days,” says another conservator, S.Senthil Kumar. “If this is not done, not only our hands but our entire body will itch,” he adds.
The conservation team at the museum is much sought after, with a stream of objects such as paintings, metal objects, palm and paper manuscripts and pieces of textile that find its way into the section from both the museum's own collection and private collectors. “If the case is very serious, we start treatment immediately, before the paperwork is carried out,” says curator, J.M.Gandhi Mathi. Conservators themselves are prone to health risks as they are exposed to chemicals that may be harmful.
Artist-cum-lab assistant, J.D.Jaganathan, says he can tell immediately what kind of treatment an object requires. “Till date, my judgment has never failed me,” he adds. He has been part of the conservation team for 27 years. It took him six months to bring back a life-size painting of Thomas Munroe back to its earlier glory. “Ninety nine per cent of the time we only do touch up job,” he says, pointing to the ‘Before' and ‘After' snapshot of the painting. “We do not bring any artefact back to its initial state as that would mean tampering with it,” he says.