Restoring and conserving art works is one of artist M. Narayanan Namboodiri’s main contributions to art. His current exhibition of watercolours has a delightful lightness about it

An exhibition of paintings by M. Narayanan Namboodiri, ‘Hallucinations’ is on at the Madhavan Nair Foundation’s art gallery in Edappally. Narayanan says these paintings reveal his mindscape – his memories and the sights he has seen.

For him the paintings constitute his passion and profession. Before his retirement last year he was in charge of the restoration of oil paintings at the Victoria Memorial Hall in Kolkata. He retired in March 2012. This alumnus of Maharaja Sayaji Rao University (Baroda) started his career as an oil painting restoration expert with a tenure at the National Museum, New Delhi.

Watercolours

“Paintings have been a huge part of my life – professionally and personally. However, I have opted for a medium that is different. My medium is watercolours. Professionally it has been oil painting but passion-wise it is the other,” Narayanan says. A difficult medium to handle, watercolours are a true test of an artist’s expertise. It is this challenge that draws him to it. .

The paintings take the viewer through strange spaces. The works mislead one into believing that they have been worked on oil. “There is a type of watercolour paint which give the effect of oil,” says the artist. The tones of the painting and the manner in which he has handled or rather manoeuvred the medium reveal the artist’s expertise in oils. The paintings have a texture which is normally not seen in water colour paintings. Also missing is the lightness, the almost transparent quality of watercolour paintings.

The abstracts tell many stories, “I have been inspired by several experiences and places. These find a resonance in my works,” he says. The abstracts are a break from the figurative paintings he has restored, he adds.

A presentation on the restoration of oil paintings was scheduled as part of the ongoing exhibition but could not take place due to the absence of sufficient number of attendees - an experience missed for students of conservation.

Narayanan brings with him almost three decades of conserving and restoring paintings. “Restoration or rather curative restoration is the last resort. The focus is always on conservation; restoration comes only if the work will not survive. And we are not permitted to do anything that is permanent by way of restoration. It has to be the kind of thing which can be reversed if there is technology that will ensure the longevity of the work. We are also not allowed to add anything that would mar the original,” he says. The primary causes of damage are mishandling and environmental factors.

Among the works that he, along with his colleagues, has helped restore is the painting of ‘Lord Curzon visiting Burdwan’ at the Burdwan University Museum. The painting had torn into two pieces. The pieces had to be joined and restored. It was a painstaking, time-consuming project which took close to five years. “There are two aspects to restoration and conservation – one is observation and the other is the scientific part. Looking at something, finding the problem and fixing it requires years of experience while the other is about in-depth knowledge.”

He has restored paintings at places such as the Raj Bhavan (at Kolkata and at Tripura), Kolkata High Court, a couple of paintings at the Rashtrapati Bhavan besides several other projects. The presentation, he hoped, would create awareness about the conservation of oil paintings. Narayanan, besides being a consultant at the Muziris Heritage Project’s conservation laboratory, is a guest lecturer (in conservation) at the Hill Palace Museum.

The exhibition is on from 9.30 a.m. to 6 p.m. and concludes on October 11.