What to preserve — art or architecture?

The modest structure of Sri Chithra Art Gallery on the zoo premises in Thiruvananthapuram is the unassuming home of some of the art world’s most treasured artefacts.

There are frames that could fetch millions, considering the value assigned to Raja Ravi Varma paintings at upscale auctions held world over. There are 43 original works of the master painter on display inside this heritage building. Therein lies a conflict in its ongoing renovation, which was launched two years ago.

On one side, art connoisseurs are unhappy with the way the invaluable pieces of art are displayed, the works of Ravi Varma being just one section of the collection here. With one segment of the building rendered out of bounds by restoration work, the works are stored in an unscientific fashion — some are covered by paper and stacked up. Several paintings, including rare pencil sketches by Ravi Varma, have had to be taken off the walls. Art experts are keen on a time-bound renovation.

On the other hand, heritage building conservationists frown at the pressures being put on the age-old structure for making it more suitable for exhibiting art. It is the Archaeology Department, and not the Museum and Zoo Department of the State government, which is responsible for alterations on heritage buildings under which category the gallery falls. Conservationists with the Archaeology Department say that altering the features of the gallery to make it air-conditioned, and thus a venue better suitable for display, is not so easy.

They say that as newer components such as air-conditioning are added to the renovation plan, it must be ensured that not a sliver of the old structure is removed to make way for new concrete and steel. Even if newer components are put in, it should be possible to remove them without damaging the older features.

Conservation engineers say that the structure, being such an open building, is hardly the best place to be made a gallery. The KCS Panicker Gallery here was renovated with lesser effort since it is a relatively new building and no second thoughts were required to make amendments, such as installing air-conditioners.

Currently, one part of the building is empty and newly white-washed, while the right side, which is open to the public, is crammed with Ravi Varma’s works. The staff say they are constantly reminded about the need for maintenance by tourists who come from across the world. They say that all they can do is keep an eye on visitors and ensure that no one touches the works that are so easily within reach.