Caring for our legacy

Caring for our legacy

Preserved for ever    CSMVS Museum, Mumbai is where restoration is now taken seriously.

India’s art market may be on the upswing, but the infrastructure that supports it has yet to find a solid footing. An especially fragile area, is conservation and restoration. Despite the country’s growing demand for indigenously produced art, there are only a handful of recognised art conservation experts. “Painting restoration is in its infancy, there are not enough restorers and not enough institutions to support it,” said Pheroza Godrej, a gallerist and art historian in Mumbai.

At the country’s leading museum, the National Museum — which houses an institute that teaches conservation — many works requiring restoration don’t see the light of day because of a shortage of staff.

Historically, India has focused more on conserving its monuments under the auspices of the Archaeological Survey of India. But over the past 40 years, paintings and decorative arts have been garnering more attention, in part because it’s in this period that Indian art began significantly appreciating in value.

“Today, there is more demand for restoration, because there is more awareness,” Godrej said. The country’s leading conservators can be found in Delhi and Mumbai, which experience the most frenetic art activity. The National Museum’s Institute of History of Art, Conservation and Museology has granted masters degrees since 1990 and, in its initial years, served as a breeding ground for talent.

In recent years, however, the museum’s conservation institute has languished. “The institute is not quite worthwhile in its current state,” said Rupika Chawla, a well-known painting restorer and one of the first graduates of the institute’s program. “The students are introduced to a lot of theory without much experience in practical work. Can you become a conservator without using your hands and mind together?”

The decline can be attributed to a number of factors, including lackluster leadership at both the museum and the institute, minimal overseas exchange programs, and a general reluctance to share knowledge with the broader conservation community.

In Mumbai, the independently run Chatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya, or CSMVS Museum, formerly the Prince of Wales Museum of Western India, is upgrading its conservation lab over a three-year period, courtesy of a Rs 20 million, or $400,000, grant from the Ministry of Culture. There is also the noted nonprofit Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage, known as Intach, which also works on architectural and textile conservation.

And while there may be dozens of painting restorers in private practice, conservators like Priya Khanna, based in Delhi, say that there are “just a handful of good conservators, who are educated and qualified,” adhere to global standards and are trusted by collectors and auction houses. Other conservators backed up this assessment.

Museum restoration work is typically done in house by the museum’s own conservators, as India has myriad laws governing public sector institutions that often prohibit private practitioners from participating in public projects.

Many of the most prominent restorers have degrees from the West. Kayan Pandole, who works exclusively with paintings, studied in Florence, for example, while one of the few paper conservators in the country, Saloni Ghuwalewala, earned a master’s degree in art conservation at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario.

Ghuwalewala has restored works by some of India’s foremost artists, including MF Husain, FN Souza, SH Raza, and the Tagores — Rabrindranath and Abanindranath. The oldest work on paper she has handled was a map of India from the mid-1600s. “14 years ago, nobody knew the importance of paper conservation,” said Ghuwalewala. Pandole had a similar tale. “When I started working 15 years ago, there were hardly any restorers in Mumbai and hardly anyone had any formal training.”

Ghuwalewala attributes this to a lack of knowledge on the part of art owners. That is starting to change. Khanna, who runs one of the largest private conservation studios in India, said that “Indian art hit the international scene and values shot up.” Pointing out the distinction between a conservator and restorer, Ghuwalewala explained that while the former is focused on preservation of the work, the latter “is associated with the beautification of things, without necessarily paying attention to the future of the object.”

Mumbai’s humidity, combined with minimal climate control, rudimentary framing and poor storage, make works of art  vulnerable to  fungus buildup, waviness, spots, pigment damage and tears. Another impediment to restoration in India is the lack of local materials. Restorers must rely on a minuscule number of suppliers who import the needed restoration materials .

Mumbai’s CSMVS conservation lab is headed by Anupam Sah, an early graduate of the National Museum conservation institute who also studied in Britain and Italy. “We want to create an exemplar, which will impact western India, the rest of India and eventually South Asia.” The lab functions as a conservation center and a research institute. It just held the graduation of its first class of  20 students who obtained postgraduate diplomas in conservation and museology.

Collaborations with the Courtauld Institute of Art in London and recent visits by conservators from the Dresden Museum in Germany indicate that the lab is already garnering attention. In 10 months, 249 works have passed through the center — a significant volume for such a young institution.

But Sah acknowledged that conservation had a long way to go. “We are not attracting smart people into the profession,” he said.  Sah added that in addition to lack of rigorous training, there is also little documentation of conservation work.

“One reason India doesn’t figure in the conservation consciousness of the West is that we don’t document our work,” he said. “We have no skills in reporting in a credible manner or in academic writing.”

He hopes to change that. Conservators at the lab are required to document each process, and each work is photographed extensively at various stages of restoration.
Indians “have the right attitude and a sense of respect for the object,” he said. “We just have to temper that with systems and processes and the surrounding environment.
“Give India five years, you’ll really see a respectable recognition of conservation done in this country.”

Comments (+)