Priceless paintings crying for attention

FADING ART: One of the paintings that has been dumped in the gallery building. Photo: S. MAHINSHA  

Staff Reporter

THIRUVANANTHAPURAM: The exhibition of paintings belonging to the Bengal School, being planned by the Directorate of Museums and Zoos, has focussed attention on badly preserved paintings that have been held in reserve at the Sri Chithra Art Gallery for want of display space.

The Museum authorities have said that the exhibition that begins on Wednesday and similar other exhibitions planned subsequently are but an attempt to focus public attention on the bad condition of the paintings.

The gallery has a collection of 1,142 paintings. Of this, only 420 paintings have been put on display for want of space. The rest have been dumped in two rooms in the gallery building. Many of the paintings have reportedly been damaged by rainwater from leaks in the roofs, while many others have been affected by fungus. Even the Museum authorities are not sure just how many paintings have been so damaged.

The 800 plus paintings that have been stacked in the rooms include copies of Kerala-style murals, copies of the sculptures at Ajantha and Ellora caves, sketches by Raja Ravi Varma, paintings of the Ravi Varma School and those belonging to the Bengal School. Many of the paintings are thought to value crores of rupees in the international market.

"We have no space to store the paintings, though we know that storing them where we have will do untold damage to these masterpieces. Our art gallery was not designed to hold so many paintings. Even the ones we have now are not being displayed properly. The only way we can prevent these paintings from being destroyed is by building a new art gallery," director of Museums and Zoos P.N. Unnikrishnan told The Hindu .

Mr. Unnikrishnan has now written to the State Planning Board seeking Rs.3 crores to begin work on a new gallery that is big enough to house all the paintings in a scientific manner. In 2004, the directorate had submitted, through the Central Government, a proposal to the Government of Japan for a Rs.10-crore grant to rebuild the art gallery. The proposal envisaged a multi-level gallery of 94,000 sq. ft., complete with a conservation laboratory, storage space for paintings, library, auditorium, reading rooms and climate-controlled display areas with special lighting systems for the paintings. Advanced security mechanisms, including closed circuit cameras were also envisaged.

Owing to the lack of follow-up measures from the State Government, the proposal is now in limbo. What P.N. Unnikrishnan has asked for is seed money to begin construction of the new art gallery after finalising the building plans according to the proposal submitted in 2004. "We need at least Rs.3 crores to construct the gallery building. If we can set the project rolling then I am sure that we can find donor agencies to provide the rest of the money required," said Mr. Unnikrishnan.

If the proposal too does not materialise, pointed out Museum officials, the paintings held in reserve at the art gallery are doomed.