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Breathing life into dead artefacts

A thing of beauty would be a joy forever if attention is paid to conservation and restoration. Artefacts in Salarjung Museum owe a lot to the restoration efforts led by the Chief Conservation Officer, Uniyal.

Restoration would contain flaking of this priceless painting of tilak ceremony.

A BEAUTIFUL painting with a blemish is like a body without its soul. The 2,000-odd priceless miniature paintings and other artefacts in the Salarjung Museum, Hyderabad, have managed to retain their `soul' thanks to the efforts of a dedicated team of restorers led by Chief Conservation Officer, Uniyal.

Conservation and restoration finds a mention in ancient Sanskrit texts like Silpa Rama, Agni Purana and Manasara. Emperor Ashoka embarked upon a massive restoration work of Buddhist stupas in Niglihawa (Nepal) during the fourteenth year of his rule.

"But they were isolated attempts at restoration," Uniyal says as he imparts finishing touches to a restored pahari painting. "Restoration could never assume a mass movement though its relevance has assumed greater significance in recent times due to increasing level of pollution."

Works of art suffer damage due to environment, insects, pollution and mechanical factors. The unregulated humidity level inside the museum could stimulate growth of micro-organisms that not only infest organic materials like textile, paper or leather but also attack glass and stones. Oil paintings in particular are susceptible to adverse humidity and temperature resulting in flaking, loss of colour and fungus formation.

Related to humidity is the menace of insects, which probably cause the maximum damage to art objects. Peering over a large-moth infested painting, Srinivas Murthy, picture restoration artist, identifies silverfish, termites, moths, beetles and cockroaches as the major harmful insects.

A painstakingly restored picture could still be prone to degradation if it is exposed to wrong type of lighting. The ultra-violet rays emanating from sun and fluorescent lamps can trigger photochemical changes in a painting. The accent now, therefore, is on providing the best display with the least lighting.

Rapid industrialisation has exposed museum objects to the danger of pollution especially from reactive gases like sulphur di-oxide. Paper, textile and leather-based paintings turn brittle and fade rapidly due to the acidity induced by sulphur di-oxide, carbon monoxide and nitric oxide.

Chief Conservation Officer, Uniyal, at work.

Are our museums well equipped to carry out the herculean task of restoration? Uniyal says, "Though we have about 700 museums, there are hardly a dozen restoration centres of repute."

The Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (INTACH) with its seven centres has been doing some pioneering restoration work. The job of a restoration artist is very tedious and involves days of hard work -- first identifying the cause of damage and then selecting a suitable remedial measure to contain the damage without altering the original appearance or ambience of the object.

Fumigation of the painting with para dichlorobenzene or carbon tetrachloride is an effective method of controlling the menace of insects.

The climatic and humidity control inside the museum should ideally begin with the very designing of the museum in such a way that it is immune to the vagaries of nature. Appropriate air-conditioning and art-sorb machines to regulate humidity can control the havoc wrought by pollution to a great extent.

Thus a good picture restorer should not only be conversant with the technical nitty-gritty of his job but also be an accomplished artist charged enough to devote days or even months to restore the sensual smile on the jaded face of a damsel in a Raja Ravi Verma painting defiled by decades of decay.

Text and pictures


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