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Repaired, retouched, reborn: Art restoration is finally getting its due in India

‘Jaipur Procession’

‘Jaipur Procession’

A huge oil painting, said to be the second largest in the world, is currently on display in the Royal Gallery of Kolkata’s Victoria Memorial Hall (VMH). Titled Jaipur Procession , this painting from 1876 by Russian painter Vasily Vereshchagin freezes a moment in the Prince of Wales’ tour of the Indian subcontinent. The pomp of the royal visit — the painting shows the prince seated on a bedizened elephant, followed by a large retinue — is as evident today as it was when the canvas was painted.

And the credit for this goes to the VMH staff, who have painstakingly restored the painting over months.

In Kolkata, VMH is possibly the only institution where one can learn the ropes of art conservation and restoration. Yet art restoration is in vogue, with a high demand for experts. So, Anamika Kala Sangam Trust (AKST) organised a three-month training course on conservation of oil paintings at the Kolkata Institute of Art Conservation (KIAC) from September to December 2021. Supported by the Tata Trusts Art Conservation Initiative, the course was mentored by Sanjay Dhar, a leading art conservator-restorer.

With the programme’s focus on current thinking on conservation of canvas paintings, the interns were oriented with the science, art and ethics of conservation. The stress was on “critical thinking, on problem-solving, on figuring out what can be done safely given certain limitations,” says Dhar.

Innovative use

The trainees were encouraged to look for answers in different places. Investigations don’t always require heavy equipment or expenses, and a lot of time was devoted to showing how a microscope and ultraviolet or infra red imaging can be just as helpful. Or how the expensive cold-lining process can be replaced by innovative use of easily available material.

“Around the world, conservators generally do the retouching. In India, artists do it. We taught the trainees various retouching techniques such as chromatic selection, where pure colours are applied in layers. In this technique, colours remain fresh,” says Dhar.

In a paper on the history of conservation in the subcontinent, Dhar writes that Hindu, Jain and Buddhist religious and cultural

material has survived for ages because there are elaborate instructions on their upkeep in religious texts. The Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) and the Public Works Department laid the foundation of scientific conservation in the 19th century, stressing the need for a separate wing for the care of monuments and antiquities. The ASI set up its first chemical branch at Kolkata’s Indian Museum in 1917, later shifting it to Dehradun and establishing other centres under archaeologist Brij Basi Lal.

Inadequate outcome

After Independence, when the government sought help from international experts and UNESCO, the ASI provided human resources and technical advice to the many museums being built all over India. A conservation laboratory under T.R. Gairola was created by National Museum in 1958. The first long-term course in conservation was also introduced around this time when the National Gallery of Modern Art set up a laboratory under conservator and painter Sukanta Basu.

In 1985, Indian National Trust for Art & Cultural Heritage (Intach) established a conservation laboratory in Delhi under Basu, who trained an entire brigade of experts, including Dhar. However, as Dhar points out, in spite of the introduction of courses all over the country, “the outcome is inadequate and good conservation is the exception rather than the rule.”

Visual reintegration being done on a painting during the training course

Visual reintegration being done on a painting during the training course

Conservation began to be taken seriously only when the Calcutta Tercentenary Trust, created in 1989 and chaired by British high commissioners in India, assembled a project team of the best restorers from Victoria & Albert Museum, British Museum, the National Gallery, and several other institutions in the U.K. to train the VMH staff. The results show in the restored Jaipur Procession, to cite just one example.

The Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya Museum Art Conservation Centre, Mumbai, is also being acknowledged globally as an upcoming premier facility for heritage conservation, research and training. It offers its services to various museums, cultural institutions and private collectors.

Explained lucidly

One of the most remarkable projects of successful restoration in recent times is that of Zoffany’s Last Supper (1787), which hangs in St. John’s Church, Kolkata. It was restored in the church over five months in 2010 by a team of conservators from Intach headed by Renate Kant, a Singapore-based German conservator.

Kant says the “vandalised” painting was “hanging and sagging”, with numerous gashes at the bottom, when they started. But now everything is “consolidated and structurally stabilised” — the restored painting is a treat for conservators and lay persons alike.

The Tata Trusts Art Conservation Initiative proposes to establish, develop and strengthen art conservation centres across India, and to create a cohort of trained art conservators. KIAC was selected as the zonal centre of the eastern region for the project, with an outreach in West Bengal, Odisha, Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh and the Northeast.

A small exhibition was held as part of the training course. Conservation work on oil paintings done by five trainees — Kartik Kayal, Glen Fernandes, Upasya Ghosh, Arpita Das, and Shreya Chakraborty — was presented for evaluation. It was instructive to look at the before-after images, which came with detailed texts and graphics. Kayal, Fernandes and Ghosh, along with Sumanta Biswas, laboratory technician at KIAC, explained the complicated processes and techniques in lucid, comprehensible terms.

The case studies were oil and mixed-media paintings damaged in different ways. The participants were taught the processes of extending canvas edges by using suitable material, mending tears and holes, as well as filling, texturing and visual reintegration.

The writer focuses on Kolkata’s vanishing heritage and culture.

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Printable version | May 13, 2022 8:56:17 pm |