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Chennai’s 115-year-old National Art Gallery reopens, houses original Ravi Varma paintings

March 27, 2024 03:15 pm | Updated 05:54 pm IST

After over a decade, the National Art Gallery nestled in the Government Museum complex, is open to the public showcasing original Ravi Varmas, large British portraits, and contemporary art from the Madras Art Movement

The renovated facade of the National Art Gallery | Photo Credit: S Shiva Raj

On a scalding summer day, the pink sandstone cupolas shine brighter. While cruising down the Pantheon flyover, they catch one by surprise begging a second, curious glance. Further down, the structure teases one by revealing its ornate jharokha (stone window) and intricate arches reminiscent of Mughal architecture — a sight surely uncharacteristic of the chaos that is Egmore. 

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The National Art Gallery, an architectural marvel that Chennai should be proud of, despite being 115 years old, remains a mystery. Nestled inside the calm, verdant oasis of the Government Museum campus, the Gallery is now open to the public after being shut for a renovation project that spanned more than a decade, as per official records. The long-drawn renovation is perhaps the reason why the historical building is alien to young public memory. 

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An ode to Akbar’s dream doorway, the Bulund Darwaza in Fatehpur Sikri, the structure built in the Jaipuri-Mughal style by Namberumal Chetty in 1909 was designed by Henry Irwin, a regular contributor to the British-era Madras skyline. It was earlier called the Victoria Memorial Hall, and was one of two buildings meant to honour Queen Victoria. It hosted the Victoria Technical Institute until 1951, when it was christened one of India’s National Art galleries. Most paintings that belonged to the archival section of the museum then were relocated. “It is Chennai’s only Indo-Saracenic structure inspired by Mughal architecture,” says N Sundararajan, Assistant Director-in charge, Technical, Department of Museums. 

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Inside the gallery: DP Roy Chowdhury’s Victims of Hunger | Photo Credit: S Shiva Raj

Today, busloads of (mostly) Architecture students, and an almost steady stream of local visitors and tourists through the day, is a happy sight. There has been an increase of 200 to 300 in footfall per day since the reopening. Past the mammoth facade, unique for its pale pink palette, and replete with bulbous domes, pointed arches, jaali work, minarets, and stained glass, an amalgamation of Mughal, Persian and Hindu elements that came to prominence in the 19th Century, is a deep hallway, sans pillars. Housed here are over 120 works of art moved from the adjacent Contemporary Art Gallery. 

“When cracks were identified on the roof, the building was no longer in a condition to house the paintings. The cement layering was disintegrating,” says J Kalathy, Curator, National Art Gallery. After years of back and forth, the renovations were sanctioned for ₹12 crores. “Most of the paintings were cleaned by chemical conservation before displaying them again. The frames that have been found broken have also been repaired. Apart from that, we have erected panels for the 12 British portraits that were not in a good condition, now saved through chemical conservation.”  The upkeep of the facade is hinged on sourcing pink sandstone from Andhra Pradesh, adds Sundararajan.   

A close up of the entrance to the National Art Gallery | Photo Credit: S Shiva Raj

The newly plastered walls of the white hallway broadly categorise the art, some of which are undated, into the schools of Tanjore, Mysore, and Rajput paintings. While some are recreations, specific canvases like that of the portrait of Rani Durgawati, or Jehangir atop an elephant are priceless originals. While the display lacks a narrative, and is sometimes ambiguous in its descriptors and attributions, this cross-section speaks volumes of the museum’s vast collection. It is important to also note that a more sensible lighting design and the use of non-reflective glass in vitrines, would have helped the viewing experience a great deal more. 

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Visitors at the gallery | Photo Credit: S Shiva Raj

The entry into the hallway is flanked by smaller rooms that host abstract canvases apart from bronze and wooden sculptures by the veterans of the Madras Art Movement. The idea was to bring South Indian works of art into focus, adds Kalathy. Some of DP Roy Chowdhury’s rare, poignant works in bronze, and Redappa Naidu’s distinctive strokes that are hard to come by, make for great viewing.  

However, the gallery’s small yet brilliant collection of the original works by Raja Ravi Varma (which were conserved in 2020) are an easy crowd puller. Here, one can see the nuances that make a typical Ravi Varma canvas, up close, through The Miser, Yashoda and Krishna, Old Peon Taking a Nap and Mother Preparing Vegetables. The beauty in each of these oils on canvas cannot be contested. “But the most popular work that people specifically come for is Shakuntala. It is without doubt a treasure for India,” says Kalathy.

The grand balustrades and vintage hanging lights have now taken on the role of a portal to the past, silently putting the curious minds of 20-somethings to rest as they enthusiastically pose for the camera in front of the facade. A quick selfie with the bronze Nataraja sculpture inside, is next on the agenda. There is no one way to appreciate history.

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