Healer of the arts

Road less travelled

Healer of the arts

Breathing life into ancient and damaged art fascinates Aparajitha, who has worked on a range of art conservation projects including centuries-old murals in Ladakhi monasteries and oil paintings of Raja Ravi Varma. Hema Vijay engages the art restorer in a tête-à-tête

A few years ago, the ancient Shey monastery in Ladakh had abandoned one of its traditional rooms of worship and relegated it to serve as a storeroom because its walls were too dark and sooty. Ironically, the sooty wall was the result of centuries of incense burning, which condemned the 250-300-year-old yantra painting (a mural painting ascribed with spiritual powers) on its walls to dark obscurity. Luckily, the Namgyal Institute for Research on Ladakhi Art and Culture stepped in, bringing together a motley of experts that included art restorers, artists and architects to restore the monastery.

Then of course, there was the part played by the villagers around the monastery, who chipped in with labour and sourced local material from river beds and mountain slopes, appropriate to the monastery’s original architecture and art. Among them was Chennai-based V R Aparajitha. “The mural was basically a clay brick wall finished with chalk plaster and finer clay that had been sieved from the local soil. It was tricky going, deciding on the right solvent for clearing out the soot and the grime while leaving the original clay wall and the painting intact. But once we did that, the wall mural was a revelation, and showed a beautiful painting of a serene Buddha,” recalls this art conservator and restorer.

Similar runs the story of the Maitreya temples of Basgo, a 15th century monastery near Leh, now declared a world heritage site. This monastery had numerous paintings all over its walls and ceilings, and was sadly ravaged by rains. Luckily, this monastery experienced a restoration effort too. In fact, the Basgo restoration project went on to win the UNESCO award for excellence in conservation, and Aparajitha was part of the team which restored the monastery. “The Ladakhi monasteries were conceived and built at a time when Ladakh never had rains, but only snowfalls. These structures are simply not geared to withstand seepage from rains. Altered climate is a big challenge for these monasteries, as the rain seeps into the clay and runs down the painted murals. There are hundreds of such temples in the region with exquisite ancient paintings. How are we going to rescue and safeguard all of them?” wonders Aparajitha, who is one of the few trained art restorers in this part of the world.

Rediscovering heritage

“We are more familiar with the wall paintings of Italy, than with the wall paintings of Chhittanavasal, which is why we mistakenly ascribe the word fresco to all wall paintings. Actually, our cave art and wall art are mostly tempera paintings that have been painted over dry walls with an adherent medium, rather than painted when the wall is still wet. Across India, in every region, there are many fantastic tempera and mural art works that are in danger of irredeemable damage,” she rues.

Over the last decade, Aparajitha has been breathing life into ancient and damaged ceramic art, oil paintings, sculptures, photographs and prints. Besides restoring mural paintings on the clay walls of high altitude monasteries, she has had a hand in restoring Raja Ravi Varma’s oil paintings at the Sri Chitra Art Gallery in Tiruvananthapuram, the British oil paintings of Asiatic Society Collection in Kolkata, ancient photographs at Chowmahalla Palace in Hyderabad, stone pillars at Papanasam in Tamil Nadu, antique tiled floors in Chennai, Thanjavur, Kalamkari and Pichwai, as well as modern paintings such as those of the late Aadimoolam. In 2007, she set up an art conservation studio in Chennai called Art Care.

As an art student at Chennai’s Government College of Fine Arts, a module on art restoration which had art students pitching in to restore art works of the Chennai Museum introduced Aparajitha to art restoration. Aparajitha was one of the very few students who found it truly fascinating. “When you create art, you also learn to appreciate art that has been created by others. And heritage art is intriguing by itself,” she shrugs.

Context, science & art

Aparajitha went on to study art restoration at the National Museum, Delhi, interned at the Art Conservation Centre, INTACH (Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage), New Delhi, and later, a visiting fellowship helped her learn photography conservation at the Centre for Photographic Conservation, London.

However, art conservation is not something that can be learnt through a certification, she insists. “Like a medic, an art restorer or conservator needs to work under more experienced conservators to understand what really works on the field, and in learning to make those crucial decisions on restoration material.”

The restored work is often an unforeseen visual feast, as when a Ravi Varma painting or print is cleared of its surface tonal impurities. However, for art restoration to work with unknown art and artefacts, having a sense of the history and context of the artwork is essential. Art restoration, then, is one of those cross-disciplinary fields that bring out both the artist and the scientist in the restorer. Knowing material science is essential; so is skill in brushwork. “For instance, you have to decide on solvents which work best in oil paintings, and solvents that do the job in water paintings, glue that doesn’t change colour with time, the chemical make-up of the paper or the medium, etc. Each work of restoration is a challenge and a new path,” muses Aparajitha, adding, “It is best to keep art restoration local, because transportation brings its own set of damages, plus, there is the question of exposure to a different climate.”

There are also the occupational hazards she has had to handle. “We often work with aromatic hydrocarbon solvents we shouldn’t inhale; so an art restorer has to learn to work quickly and yet calculatedly, and also document the restoration process simultaneously, because, there is also the possibility that the restorer may be called upon to prove that she or he has not altered the work, but just restored it,” Aparajitha informs.
The process of art restoration is not about enhancing the art, but in redeeming its original self, without negating its antiquity. Perhaps that is what makes art restoration so exciting for the few who have taken it up. It is a search for the true identity of the art. Sometimes, hidden details emerge, such as the date the painting was created on, and the identity of the persona in it. Aparajitha muses, “In the case of very ancient art, not often does the artist’s name surface. It is incredible that in ancient India, artists chose, or were consigned to remain anonymous even though art was accorded such high value.”

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