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Intach: Keeping art intact

Hidden within the building of The Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage - better known by its acronym Intach - at Delhi's Lodi Estate isa wonderland known as the art conservation laboratory, where painted works of varying dates are brought in for repair and restoration. ANJANA RAJAN takes a look round the lab where artistic inspiration meets the miracles of science... .

THOSE WHO appreciate art need not be reminded about the painstaking process of creating an oil painting - the various technical procedures that intervene between the artist's inspirational vision and the final work as a framed and finished object. But as soon as that work is ready, a process of change begins that is not immediately perceptible, rather like the course of aging in a living being.

HIDDEN SECRETS: Research and restoration at Intach.

To preserve the painting from the ravages of time is a specialised job, and not many are aware of its intricacies. Even artists - for whom each creation would be equally cherished - are not usually equipped with the technical know-how required to preserve, protect and repair their works.

The art conservation laboratory of the Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage - Intach - amid the lush environs of Delhi's Lodi Estate, where oil paintings and other painted works that come in often unrecognisable condition are restored houses some fascinating stories.

The process is detailed and scientific, beginning with documentation of the state of the work. This procedure includes photographing a painting by infrared or ultraviolet light, which allows otherwise invisible details to become visible. It is even possible to decipher how an artist might have changed the original sketch.

Documention is followed by cleaning, consolidation, detailed treatment for the particular problem and photographing the work again. Time and the elements are not the only enemies of the painting. Often other restorers have been at work, trying to repair damage and in the process worsening it or straying from the original colours or lines.

Over-painting is a common example of this kind of damage. Paintings acquire cracks where the coats of paint have dried and split, or where the canvas may be torn. Simply painting over the cracks is not the solution, and sometimes even the original artists repair their work after a number of years in this way.

In such cases, the restoration team must first undo the earlier changes and then proceed to fill the cracks and paint them again. The greatest care is taken to ensure that the original intentions of the artist are respected. In some cases artists send their own paintings for repair. A contemporary artist may require the service because of the demands of exhibiting in many places, calling for packing and shipping that take their toll on the paint and canvas. In such cases, the work of the restoration team is rendered easier since any doubts can be verified with the artist.

Using `raking light' - that falls at an angle and exposes many facets otherwise not clearly visible - is another way the restorer can see where changes have been made to a painting. To find out whether the artist made the change on purpose requires chemical analysis using microscopic examination of a tiny piece of pigment taken from the painting, as well as minute observation of the brush strokes of the artist. Art historians are aware of the chemical composition of colours as well as brush strokes preferred by each artist and `interpolations' can be ruled out in this way.

FROM THE JAWS OF OBLIVION: Stages of a painting from acquisition to final restoration.

The Intach team have developed some ingenious and indigenous tools to beat the prohibitive costs of art restoration that an Indian NGO cannot easily bear. The vacuum table that holds down a painting so that adhesive can be applied uniformly for attaching a strengthening lining is one such. The moveable grills on which to hang paintings out of sunshine or electric light for safest storage, and the fume extractor that protects staff from harmful gases let off by some of the chemicals used are other examples.

The restoration team at Delhi are drawn from science backgrounds as well as the fine arts, Chemistry is an important subject. Many of them have been trained in art restoration from Delhi's National Museum. An important aspect to be considered is that the changes made in restoring the painting - while they must blend with the aesthetic - should be easily discernible to observers and future generations.

No doubt future generations will have access to even better analysis and preservation techniques. It will be even more interesting then to read the tales these pictures tell.

Photos: V.V. Krishnan.

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