It was a fascinating evening I spent not long ago watching a presentation on preserving a bit of heritage rather differently. The presentation was the outcome of a near-completed documentation project that revealed enormous possibilities of the way some of our heritage could be preserved.

Tamil Nadu has 135 temples with frescoes, all this art in various stages of decay. In 42 of these temples, the frescoes are in panels that tell stories from theRamayana. But different versions of the epic have been used as sources in different temples. M.V. Bhaskar, who was given a grant by the Indian Foundation for the Arts, Bangalore, chose for his pilot project the Venugopala Parthasarathy Temple in Chengam, not far from Madras, where the narration in the frescoes — which are in fairly good shape — is based on a Telugu version of theRamayana. What the project entails is a true reconstruction of the frescoes for digital storage.

Bhaskar and his team photographed the frescoes bit by bit using sophisticated digital cameras and, then, physically pieced the bits together to create each strip in its entirety in actual size. Colour corrections were also done digitally to get an almost identical likeness to the original. Then the artists in the team painstakingly re-traced in red and black the lines of the frescoes to get a line drawing version of what was painted on the walls centuries ago — in this case during the Nayak period. Missing lines, figures, decorations etc were searched for in other temples of the same era where there were similar representations in frescoes or sculpture and fitted in. For instance, a missing forearm and hand in one fresco were found in an almost similarly posed sculpture far from this site and copied. At the end of it all, the entire story told in frescoes in Chengam has been re-created as a line drawing that is of the same size as the original. And stored digitally.

These line drawings have lent themselves for use as base drawings for a range of Kalamkari items. But more significantly, they will be coloured to match the originals and a re-construction almost 90 per cent true to the original will be stored for posterity in print and digital forms. This kind of preservation of murals is something the Hindu Religious and Charitable Endowments Board should be looking at for all 135 temples. Bhaskar and his team are, however, looking at taking the step they've taken further and are exploring the possibilities of digital animation which will enable a procession, for instance, in a fresco to come to life with music and movement. That I think is taking heritage “conservation, reconstruction and restoration” a step too far, but so long as the near-original digital image is preserved for posterity a little bit of “fun” harms no one.

Bhaskar, a graphics, design and imaging specialist with an academic publishing services company, has been working with mural paintings in Tamil Nadu from 2004. He is also working with Tamil-Brahmi stone inscriptions, documenting and archiving them for the Central Institute of Classical Tamil, a project which began in 2007. He was first drawn to mural paintings through a project to document the Nayaka murals. The subject has kept him interested at many levels; there is art in it, also history, science, technology, education, entertainment, utility and public interest. “Through the IFA project I aim to bring all these together,” he says.

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Madras medical scholarship

I've had a chance these past couple of weeks to catch up with some of the Madras-centric papers scholars from abroad have sent me over the last year or so. And they do provide a wealth of grist for this column's mills.

Dr. A. Raman of the Charles Sturt University, New South Wales, has for long been pursuing the medical history of Madras and keeps sending me from time to time tidbits found during that quest. In the past, he's sent me brief information on medical journals published in Madras (Miscellany, December 6, 2010). He has now had published in an international journal,Current Science, a much more detailed study of Madras's old medical journals and that paper offers new insights into the publications as well as the publishing scene in 19th Century Madras.

The first issue of famed British medical journalLancetappeared in London in 1823. Sixteen years after that theMadras Quarterly Medical Journal (MQMJ)saw the light of day (1839-1844). It was the South's first and one of around 50 professional medical journals published in India in the 19th Century, beginning with theTransactions of Medical and PhysicalSociety of Calcuttawhich came out just two years afterLancet.

TheMQMJwas printed and published by J.B. Pharoah of the Athaeneum Library and edited by Samuel Rogers, Assistant Surgeon, Madras Establishment (later Madras Medical Establishment). Now Pharoah, I had heard of in the printing world, but the connection with the Library intrigues me and the answer to that awaits further digging; was it the name of his printing press or was it really a lending library? The printer and publisher of the journal changed a couple of years later, the Union Press in Armenian Street, a name that, I rather think, survives, taking over. I look forward to some answers to these posers from R. Narayanan, who, assisted by V. Madhavan, is very much into Madras printing history.

Around the time the journal moved to the Union Press, Rogers was joined as Editor by Alexander Lorimer, another Assistant Surgeon. And what strikes me as curious — in this and other journals I mention below — is Assistant Surgeons playing not only a keen role in their publication but also urging their superiors to provide the journal with well-researched, statistically-sound articles. Many of those early articles focused on regimental medical reports, recording the health of troops, hygiene, food etc in the various cantonments they were stationed in or barracks they were housed in.

Madras' other 19th Century professional medical journals wereThe Madras Journalof Medical Science(1851-54),The Madras Quarterly Journal of Medical Science(1860-69), theMonthly Journal of Medical Science(1870-73),Transactions of the South IndianBranch of the BMA(British Medical Association) (1887-1910) and theMadras MedicalRecord(1890). The other of these journals Raman was able to access wasTheMadras Quarterly Journalof Medical Science(TMQJMS).

The TMQJMS also was edited by an Assistant Surgeon, Howard B. Montgomery, who was posted at Fort St. George and was additionally Professor of Botany and Materia Medica at Madras Medical College. To be better known in the years to come were William Cornish and Henry King, who were its Assistant Editors.

This journal was printed and published by the Gantz Brothers at their Adelphi Press in Vepery. I recall the firm as Gantz & Son, John and Justinian, who ran a printing press and bookshop in the Vyasarpadi area — where a Gantz Road, if memory serves me right, still survives — rather better for taking over the bi-weeklyMadras Times(1835) in 1859 and making it a daily that published from Popham's Broadway. In 1910 theMadras Timesmoved to Mount Road as part of Associated Printers, then partly Indian-owned. Indian ownership took over the business completely in 1913, but sold it in 1921 to John Oakshott Robinson, perhaps the first takeover king in India, who merged it withThe Madras Mailhe bought at the same time.

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