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A brush with change

The recent allocation of Rs. 31.33 lakhs towards the restoration and conservation of paintings at the Sree Chitra Art Gallery, though insufficient, will help retrieve some major works from the jaws of destruction.

THE RECENT allocation of Rs. 31.33 lakh by the Government to the Sree Chitra Art Gallery by way of promoting tourism in the State is being used for the restoration and conservation of paintings.

The sum, though, will not be sufficient to restore all the paintings. Says the Director of Zoo and Museum, C. S. Yalakki, "The money will fall short as most of the paintings here are in need of some kind of restoration. But its utilisation will be on a priority basis, depending on the degree of damage suffered. We have already identified the paintings that will need some work upon them and these include half the Ravi Varma collection."

The restoration work will be undertaken in association with the National Museum at New Delhi. "We want to take no risk by giving it to local restorers. The process involved is scientific and the National Museum has a team of experts for the purpose. We want to ensure that the paintings are treated in a non-invasive manner, so that their originality is not disturbed and they are not damaged, " Yalakki said. Experts may also be drawn from the National Research Laboratory for Conservation of Cultural Properties, Lucknow, he added.

Yalakki said efforts were on to ensure that the paintings would not have to be transported to New Delhi. "Since, they are prone to damage, we hope to bring the restorers here." The process, he added, would be over in three months. The money will also be used to lay granite flooring for the rooms that house the Ravi Varma paintings. "The existing floor is very patchy and the carpet that covers it tends to accumulate dust. During the rains, the mud from outside sticks to the carpet and once the moisture evaporates, the dust flies around, even settling on the paintings, thereby harming them. The new floor will prevent such problems," Yalakki says.

Restoration apart, there are several other issues at the gallery that need to be addressed urgently.

Art critics allege that the upkeep of the paintings is far from satisfactory. Says critic R. Nandakumar, "The museum houses a precious collection of Japanese prints and paintings as well as some Chinese paintings. But no art historian or scholar of eminence has engaged his attention on these nor has the museum availed of such scholarly authority and expertise."

Nandakumar also expresses dissatisfaction with the manner in which the acquisition register is maintained. "None of the details such as the title, medium, size, date of paintings, date of purchase and source can be seen in the register." Counters Yalakki, "The stock register is an original document that has been maintained since the gallery opened in 1935. It lists facts such as the serial number, the medium and the source. Other details such as type, description, size and identification marks are all listed in the catalogues, according to Government guidelines. These catalogues are maintained not only for the paintings at the gallery but also for the objects on display at the Museum and have been made into a CD."

"But I do agree, to some extent, with what has been pointed out," Yalakki says. "The royal collection was given to us way back in 1935. We have, therefore, with us only those details that were listed in the register then. To find out information like who gave a particular painting to the royal family or what was its price is almost next to impossible now. On the other hand, there are details such as authentication that can be confirmed and we will try and complete them."

Doubts also exist about the labelling, dating and authentication of paintings. Says Nandakumar, "It is a disgrace to label a Rajput painting as a Rajasthani one, leave aside matters of period and the particular regional stylistic school it comes from. In the absence of proper authentication by experts, one wonders about the genuineness of at least some of the miniatures. Neither do the paintings indicate which period they belong to."

"Mistakes will be rectified, things will definitely change," Yalakki says.

Other issues that leave the experts fuming such as lack of space, of minimum viewing distance, lighting, exposure to vandalism, climatic factors such as salt and humidity that result in degradation too may be solved once the existing gallery moves to its new premises.

Says Yalakki, "The present gallery was once the private property of the royal family. Since no other option was available then, the paintings were housed there, though the building did not suit to the purpose. But of the 1,100-odd paintings we have, only around 420 can be put up for display."

The plan to shift the gallery has been pending since 1965, says Yalakki. "Owing to various factors, the project was put on the backburner all this while. But the Government has recently revived it. Land for the purpose has already been earmarked near the Children's Park. A comprehensive plan for the project is being drawn up and it will be discussed with the Central Government and financial assistance sought.

The new facility will see a good storage room, security measures such as closed circuit TVs and barricades separating the visitors from the paintings, a library and a cloak room.

Unlike the existing structure that has 24 small rooms, the new gallery will have larger halls that are easier to monitor.

Valuable paintings such as the original Ravi Varmas, and the Japanese prints and paintings will have special areas earmarked for them.

The new structure will come up at a cost of Rs. 2 crores, to be contributed by the State Government and the Centre. "The project is still in the initial stages and it's too early to say when it will see the light of day," says Yalakki.


Photos: A. J. Joji

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