How 40 kgs of onions were used to restore paintings on the life of Adi Sankaracharya

In 2018, when artist Saju Thuruthil, head of the Fine Arts Department, Sree Sankaracharya University of Sanskrit (Kalady), saw for the first time, after the floods, the condition of the University’s 31 oil paintings based on the life of Adi Sankaracharya, he was shocked. “College had re-opened after the floods, and we had opened the Kanakadhara auditorium. Cleaning was being done and we had opened it for classes. That’s when we discovered the paintings – some had fallen off, the frames of some had broken. It was a very sad spectacle,” recalls Saju.

A trained art conservationist and art restorer, from the National Museum Institute (Delhi) Saju offered to restore the paintings as was possible. On getting the go-ahead from the University VC, Dr Dharmaraj Adatt, he embarked on an eight-month long effort to restore the 6ft by 4ft paintings. Cleaned and restored, the works by Thiruvananthapuram-based artist JR Palakkal, believed to have been done in the early 90s, are on show at the Art and Mind Art Gallery in North Paravur at an exhibition, ‘Sree Sankaram 2019’.

How 40 kgs of onions were used to restore paintings on the life of Adi Sankaracharya

The oil paintings, in the hybrid Indo-European style called ‘company painting’, were done 25 years ago for the University. The series has 32 paintings (32 is symbolic of the years the philosopher lived). The series charts the course of his journey through episodes in his life, from his parents moving to Kalady till his passing. The last painting, of Adi Sankaracharya, hangs undamaged in the University – this work is not on show at the exhibition. “The response has been amazing...teachers from nearby schools brought students to exhibition. They were able to show Sankaracharya’s story to the kids, who have lessons based on his life.”

He hadn’t expected the restoration to take so much time. “I thought, at the most, it would take two months, but I had misjudged the damage. There were several layers of dirt and fungus on the paintings. Then there was humidity — these were hung in the auditorium which has air holes for ventilation. These extreme conditions wreaked havoc on the paintings.” The works were restored at the art gallery, which is also Saju’s studio.

How 40 kgs of onions were used to restore paintings on the life of Adi Sankaracharya

Saju explains that he brought the paintings to the studio in North Paravur as the floods had almost destroyed his house-cum-studio in Kalady. He had lost a number of his works there, he and his family had moved to the first floor studio space.

The restoration had to be executed carefully; in this case it was more conservation. The 51-year-old artist explains, “We had to first remove mud and dust from the paintings, only then did we remove the paintings from the frame. After which we dried the canvas in the sun, not under direct sunlight which was followed by rubbing the paintings with onions, to remove fungus and bacteria. Then wiped with isopropyl alcohol (diluted in water) and also acetone – these don’t damage the works.” He offers as an interesting nugget that they used 40 kilos of onion for the conservation. Primarily a mural artist, Saju has restored murals in 14 temples across the State.

Each process had to be done carefully, lest it do more damage to the already ‘diseased’ canvas for which reason he skipped a few things. “Mainly I did not stretch/tighten the canvas when we re-framed them, might have caused more tearing which I wanted to avoid.”

How 40 kgs of onions were used to restore paintings on the life of Adi Sankaracharya

Saju agrees that 25 years is not a long time, but the extremes these works faced exacerbated the condition. He consulted with other restorers while he worked on these paintings, “inputs from others would only help, I believe. If there is a better way of doing something then why not plus these are valued works. I didn’t want to take a chance. Also it helps when an artist does the restoration he understands the canvas and the work on it. The original artist’s signature on the work should never be lost because of either conservation or restoration.” Saju was assisted on this effort by an assistant, Vinayan. Saju says he couldn’t find the artist, JR Palakkal, despite several attempts.

The idea of the show came from the response of those who came to see him at work. “There was so much curiosity about the works and Sankaracharya, I felt we ought to show the works. ” As part of the exhibition, conducted in association with the Fine Arts department and the Vedanta department of the Sree Sankaracharya University, a seminar on Adi Sankara’s philosophy was held and also a music concert of the philosopher’s kritis.

The future of the paintings, Saju says, lies in a museum of art planned at the University. “The VC has said that the paintings will get the pride of place at the show.” The show concludes on August 5, for details contact 9496576876.

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Printable version | Apr 27, 2021 10:37:01 AM |

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