What Does It Take To Preserve Our Nation’s History In Today’s Age?
Anupam Sah has just returned to his den at the Museum Art Conservation Centre (MACC) in the Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya (CSMVS) after watching the 1997 comedy, Bean. The head conservator laughs about Mr. Bean’s disastrous attempt at salvaging Whistler’s Mother, the 19th-century masterpiece that he inadvertently sneezed on in the film. Of course, Bean’s notion of restoration took the form of a hastily drawn caricature in place of the artist’s mother. And while that might be the stuff that movies are made of, in reality, art requires far more complex curative measures.
“Conservation is needed in every cultural context. The industry in India is still nascent; at the same time, techniques to maintain artworks are millennia old,” underlines Mortimer Chatterjee, co-owner of the Chatterjee & Lal gallery in Mumbai.
Yet until recently, few were aware of the difference between conservation and restoration. Speaking about how public interest suddenly peaked between 2004 and ’08, Priya Khanna, owner of the Art Life Restoration Studio in New Delhi and the face behind the restoration of the Taj Mumbai artworks damaged in the 26/11 attacks, says, “Earlier, art was not on anybody’s agenda. But when Indian art started gaining popularity and the prices started rising, people began looking seriously at the collections they had…they started pulling out all their artworks from under beds, over cupboards and from stores and garages just to see what they had!”
Leaving no mark
At the eight-year-old MACC, Sah is poring over a wood-and-ivory decorative object, examining it thoroughly and deliberating on what course of action to take. Highlighting the subtle distinction between conservation and restoration, he explains, “Conservation aims to increase the life of an object (like controlling diabetes or removing a tumour) while restoration aims to revive the message of the object (like recreating a broken nose on a bust for example). The extent of the intervention is aptly defined in the Burra Charter — ‘Do as much as necessary and as little as possible’. Restoration is often required when the item has lost its significance or function through past alteration or deterioration.”
The two approaches often go hand-in-hand, but it depends on a number of factors. Elaborating on this, Rupika Chawla, one of the most experienced faces in art conservation in India (she’s been doing it for 37 years), says, “Each work of art has its own demands and there is no hard-and-fast rule. One needs to understand the nature of each object and painting and do the needful accordingly. But one must do it ethically because remember, when you are done with the object/painting, you must not be anywhere in it. It is the artist’s totally and no one should be in the position to realise that another hand has intervened.”
Tricks of the trade
Saloni Ghuwalewala is an expert when it comes to dealing with works of art on paper, maps, manuscripts, photographs, books, lithographs, letters, documents and any other paper object. “Paper is very fragile and delicate to work with. One of the biggest challenges is conserving paper objects in the monsoon — due to the extremely high humidity (which can go up to 90 per cent or higher), it is almost impossible to flatten a work completely,” reveals the Mumbai-based conservator who has restored letters penned by George Washington, works of art by Husain, Souza & Dali, etc. She shares her experience with a map that she once worked on. “It was extremely fragile and came to me in pieces, with some areas missing. I managed to clean it, mend it and salvage the pieces to make the work as stable and complete as possible.”
Restoring an object made from a single material is more manageable than handling mixed-media works, believes Khanna. “They tend to pose a challenge because you’re dealing with lots of different elements within one work. So if the under-layer of a painting is done in acrylic and the top layer is done in oil…whatever chemicals are used for oil might completely ruin the acrylic underneath,” she shares.
But with the challenges come
the thrills. “There is great excitement when you receive something that is a total wreck…and when you start to visualise the way it is going to be when you are done with it. It is very painstaking, and the process is not miraculous. It is very slow, methodical, systematic and almost architectural in the way you build it up. Of course, you have to have detailed knowledge of art, too. You have to know the artists, their techniques, their lives and their art before you attack a work,” states Chawla.
Scratching the surface
Even though Sah believes that this is the decade for heritage restoration, he cannot ignore the irony that abounds in the fact that “resources for conservation are aplenty, but properly trained manpower is in shortfall.” He adds, “It is imperative that we also create conservation literature in India’s various official languages as only then will our lingually diverse population engage with this subject.” In his capacity, Sah is making concerted efforts to motivate the youth to opt for it as a career. While the MACC already conducts a one-year post-graduate diploma course in museology and conservation for the University of Mumbai, he is all set to start a specialisation course at St. Xavier’s College, Mumbai.
Khanna too is of the opinion that progress is being made, but insists that it is strictly in the private space and is devastatingly critical of the government. “When my students come to me, they don’t have much practical knowledge. And in this field, if you don’t use your hands, you’re not going to be good at it. The museums also are not allowed to give their own works for restoration to private restorers,” Khanna rues, adding that even when the government does receive UNESCO funding, the resources often go towards “work on a temple in Rajasthan” rather than restoring modern or contemporary art.
For what it’s worth
“People have this notion that a work that has yellowed is in some way antique. While ageing is only natural — and fine to a certain extent — they need to realise that was probably not the way the artist intended or envisioned it,” highlights Sah. Although many assume that the vintage look will command a higher price, it is not so. Contrary to a popular misconception, a retouched work of art will not depreciate in value simply because someone other than the artist has mediated. “Any type of damage will devalue your work — whether it is a tear or fungus. Now, if you don’t take care of the artwork, it’s going to deteriorate further and soon, there will be no sentimental or monetary value left. After restoring it, the value will go back to being about 85 or 90 per cent at least,” affirms Khanna, who has amassed over 20 years of experience in the field. “Consider artists who are dead and gone like Raja Ravi Varma or even M. F. Husain. In such cases, the value shoots up even higher than what it was originally because you know that you are not going to be able to source another one easily. So you might as well restore whatever is coming your way and keep it intact for another 30 to 40 years,” she reasons.
For the most part, our idea of art encompasses paintings, sculptures and artefacts, but conservation isn’t restricted to just these ‘high art’ mediums. It extends beyond and includes everything from textiles to cinema posters and pop culture ephemera, too. And so, it is imperative that we recognise their value sooner rather than later, because it is as the Latin aphorism goes — Ars longa, vita brevis (Art is long, life is short).
For the record
If conservation is integral to preserving our country’s heritage, so is ensuring that a repository of information is available on each work of art or artefact. Deepthi Sasidharan, director of Eka Archiving Services in Delhi, assists private collectors and public organisations to do exactly that. Currently completing a project for the Amrapali Museum in Japiur, where her team worked with traditional silver jewellery, she shared her insights on the subject….
Importance of documentation and archiving The information we gather and present forms the basis of everything we do in a museum or any art institution. Documentation helps all art institutions and collectors to effectively research, manage and provide organised information. While recording information about an artwork is called documentation, capturing data in preset formats for historical documents, records and papers is called archiving.
How it works Say a painting shows deterioration, the documentation records will reveal how it happened and help take the next decision or even justify when you have to get funding for restoration. Or if an object is stolen, precise measurements, photographs and descriptions can be circulated to aid in its recovery.
Need of the hour Our museums must share with the public how funds are spent on their activities. I believe it will lessen the oft-harsh criticisms that these institutions receive and at the same time, people can be made aware of the myriad jobs that are done to look after our art heritage. Also, support is needed not just in terms of funding but also in the appreciation of work done by archivists.