From Louvre Museum to preserving India’s manuscripts: the journey of V Jeyaraj

The veteran conservation expert has been giving damaged books a new lease of life for decades. He walks us through this delicate process

Books are fragile objects. But they have the ability to further the cause of their own preservation, as V Jeyaraj discovered decades ago. The field was almost an accidental discovery, for this pioneer in manuscript, book and art restoration in the city.

Jeyaraj, who is currently director of Hepzibah Institute of Heritage Conservation, has to his credit the restoration of books and manuscripts in Madras Literary Society, Government Oriental Manuscripts Library, the Chemical branch of Archeological Survey of India and Government Ophthalmic Hospital in Chennai, in addition to a host of respected institutions around the country like State Archives and Institute of Museology in Kerala; Cuddappah Library in Andhra Pradesh and Reserve Bank of India’s money museum in Pune. He has also helped preserve and restore pieces for the museum of the Madras Regiment in Wellington and Krishnamenon Museum in Kozhikode, and evaluated the gold leafing on artefacts for Mysore Palace. And that’s just the tip of the prolific iceberg.

It all began when he chanced upon some books on the topic, during his work with Government Museum, Chennai. “At that point, I wasn’t aware about the concept of conservation; could barely spell the word ‘museology’,” he says, “I read book after book, and took notes.” But that wasn’t enough for him, “I had the knowledge, but no training. I wanted to look at the process in close proximity.”

From Louvre Museum to preserving India’s manuscripts: the journey of V Jeyaraj

He began to take up opportunities wherever he could, and ended up interning in 44 institutions around the world, including the Louvre Museum in Paris, Victoria and Albert Museum in London, and the British Museum. Some of his stints at those hallowed halls were a week long, while some lasted three months. Some let him lend a hand in restoring paintings, while others made him stand back and observe. But his cumulative experience of them all is what Jeyaraj considers his real education.

“All this information helped me affiliate our institution — the museum — with the University of Madras, as a research institution in the field of museology and conservation.”

Pages of yore

“Conservation is just increasing the life expectancy of any material. It’s what you and I do when we go to the doctor,” he says, before moving on to the difference between preventive and interventive conservation. “The first is what you do to prevent damage. The second is what you do when damage occurs, and experts need to step in,” he explains. And damage can be of many types: stains; holes caused by insects; folds that have persisted for aeons, causing the paper to come apart at that point; loss of paper or loss of ink over time; and more instantaneous ones like fire or spilt ink.

From Louvre Museum to preserving India’s manuscripts: the journey of V Jeyaraj

But, surprisingly, the one thing that isn’t considered a cause of damage is soot. “In the olden days, important documents used to be rolled up and stored in a loft-like space just above the kitchen. When they cooked, the fumes would form a layer of soot over them, and they would be blackened,” he says, moving on to immediately dispel the assumption that this layer was a problem.

The basic goal behind it all is to avoid or reduce acidification. “Machine-made paper has less tensile strength than handmade, and gets acidic very easily.” And because strength varies from paper to paper, there are some basic tests that need to be done on a manuscript before touching it with any preservative chemical. “You need to see how it reacts to water, does it dissolve the ink? If it does, you have to protect the ink by brushing over each line with a protective solution,” he says. Once that assessment is done, the treatment can be adapted accordingly.

“If a paper is full of holes, and there is no writing on the other side, you can paste good-strength, handmade tissue paper on it using reversible paste,” he says. Then to remove acidity, all the treated paper has to be put in a shelf with ammonia gas kept below the rack. “Ammonia will percolate through the shelf, react with the acidity in the shelf and neutralise it.”

Paper can also be dipped in magnesium bicarbonate to keep it alkaline. “The delicate documents cannot be touched directly, and must be covered with a material on both sides first,” he says. And is there anything we can do to keep the object from reaching such a delicate state in the first place? “Take good care of it; maybe keep it in a frame,” he smiles.

If you wish to learn from Jeyaraj or are in possession of a book that needs restoration, contact him on 9381008253.

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Printable version | May 31, 2020 11:12:59 AM |

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