Despite the long chill in relations between India and Pakistan over the November 2008 terrorist attacks in Mumbai, two Indian art restorers are working to save a Pakistani art treasure.

It was a gift from one of Pakistan’s best known artists to Lahore — a mural on the ceiling of the entrance gallery in the city museum. Measuring 100 ft x 40 ft, it is called the Evolution of Mankind, a rich tableau of circular images — whorls, wheels, clocks and a fiery sun — and the artist’s signature outstretched cactus-like arms, the entire work executed in bright blue and flaming orange, brown, white and black.

Syed Sadequain Ahmed Naqvi, or Sadequain Naqqash, better known as just Sadequain, was a painter, muralist and calligrapher, and in all three fields, a “flagbearer of modern radicalism” in Pakistani art, as an obituarist noted on his death in 1987. He took up the Lahore Museum mural in 1972, completing it in 1973.

Grand works

Sadequain’s works are scattered throughout the world in private collections, but Pakistan has several murals by him, at the State Bank of Pakistan in Karachi, at the Punjab University and at the Mangla Dam, all of them grand and imposing depictions of the march of human progress. Murals by the Amroha-born artist also hang in India, the most well known at the Aligarh Muslim University and Benares Hindu University.

The mural at the Lahore Museum is made up of 48 canvas panels affixed to the ceiling. Sadequain painted them all at the museum. But in the 36 years that the arresting vision has greeted visitors to the museum, the heat and moisture of Lahore, and termites, have all taken their toll on the mural.

Surprisingly, it was only when parts of the canvas tore and pieces began dropping off from the priceless work some years ago that the museum actually noticed the extensive state of decay that it was in.

Now, two well-known Indian experts are working to restore the Pakistani national treasure and put it back in shape, a cross-border project that those associated with it said speaks of the bridge-building possibilities that still exist between India and Pakistan despite the mutual distrust the hostility.

Srikumar Menon and Manindra Singh Gill were hired by the museum in mid-2006. Since then, if the work did not proceed as quickly as those involved in the project would have liked, it had nothing to do with the sorry state of India-Pakistan relations, but was more a result of routine bureaucratic delays.

Even the 2008 Mumbai attacks, which virtually froze ties between the two countries, have not been able to kill the project.

The Lahore Museum’s reasons for hiring the two Indians were pretty simple.

“The whole problem in Pakistan is that we don’t have experts who can restore oil on canvas,” said Salima Hashmi, dean of the arts school at the Beaconhouse National University, a well-known artist herself and a member of the technical committee constituted by the Museum for the mural’s restoration.

The six-member technical committee looked around the world, Ms Hashmi said, and “found the expertise was available in the neighbourhood for a price that we could afford.” Menon and Gill were hired.

Their familiarity with the local climatic conditions was an additional advantage over an American or European art restorer.

The duo has previously worked on the restoration of valuable paintings in India at the Rashtrapati Bhavan and also on a collection of 70 paintings at the Mysore Palace, in addition to conservation work on heritage buildings.

They first visited Lahore in November 2006 for an initial look at the mural and interviewed several young Pakistani artists for the team they wanted to train to work with them, also conducting a two-week workshop on restoration.

In the months and years since, the Museum frantically looked for the money that was required for the restoration. Eventually, the Punjab government allotted Rs 1.5 crore for the restoration work in December 2008, and those involved in the project said if more was required, there would be no difficulty in obtaining it.

Nor was there any particular opposition in handing over the restoration to Indians. According to Ms. Hashmi, “the officials involved in giving the clearances were generous enough to realise that this project is something that is above suspicion.”

The Indian team was supposed to return in October 2008, but the museum, where top officials had been reshuffled, was not fully prepared for the visit. They finally came back in April 2009 by when the museum was able to complete photographing and documenting the mural, a vital preparatory step in the restoration process.

Sami-ur-Rehman, a famous Pakistani photographer, was commissioned for the task. From his photographs, experts will recreate a replica of the mural. The original will be taken off the ceiling and the replica fixed to facilitate the next phases of the restoration.

Lasting symbol of cooperation

During their visit earlier this year, Menon and Gill carried out a detailed examination of the mural from a mobile scaffold. The entire work is now covered by a fine plastic net to catch any more falling pieces.

They are now due back at the end of this year, when the work is expected to begin in full swing. When completed, said Ms. Hashmi, the restored mural will become a “lasting symbol of cooperation” between India and Pakistan.

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