Restoring life

As an art conservator, M Narayanan Namboodiri continues to dedicate his time to restoring paintings for the sake of posterity even post-retirement, writes Sajini Sahadevan

Before restoration

The heady odour of turpentine is hard to ignore in M Narayanan Namboodiri’s makeshift lab, a traditional Kerala-style standalone room, where he is restoring a vintage painting for a private client. Translucent grids cover the length and breadth of the painting, resembling a maze only Namboodiri can seem to comprehend.

For someone who has been on the job for 30 years now, one of only four art restorers with such expertise in the country, Namboodiri’s is a story of exemplary love for art driven by passion.

It is a particularly humid day in Thiruvananthapuram where he has been painstakingly working on one prized work at a time, often for months together, absorbed in the process and taking the heat in his stride. But such is his love for conservation. The meticulous process involves documenting every step with photographs and notes before, during and after the restoration. Heaven forbid that a sleight of hand causes any damage. It is the greatest crime that a restorer can commit, he says, alarmed at the very thought.

After restoration
After restoration

Painstaking

The septuagenarian returns to the painting, explaining the grids. “It’s a solvent,” he says, quickly grabbing a reed, binding a tuft of cotton wool to its end and teasing the surface of a square patch on the canvas which quickly transfers a layer of the ages-old varnish onto the bud. “See the difference between the original surface and the one without the varnish?” he asks. The lines serve as a guideline, as he retouches the painting, one specific portion at a time. It doesn’t end there. After each partial cleaning, it is kept overnight to dry before another layer is taken off again. When the entire process is done, Namboodiri will top off his work too with a layer of varnish. “This is nothing, retouching is not restoration,” he adds with a smile, “There are large paintings that have crumbled to pieces before reaching us.”

The largest challenge that surfaced before him was that of Lord Curzon visiting Burdwan, a 20-ft-tall painting at Burdwan University that required teamwork spanning five years. “It was in tatters. But restoring that work made everyone on the team confident of taking on any kind of painting later,” he notes. During his tenure in Calcutta, Namboodiri has restored paintings housed in numerous government institutions.   

As a young boy, all Namboodiri knew is that he wanted to be an artist. One of eight children in Palakkad’s Sri Krishnapuram village, it was his reply to an officer who visited the school where he was a student, that set him on his course. “I don’t recall his name or what he had come for, but because we were at that crucial stage where our ambitions mattered, he asked each student about their plans and I said ‘artist’. ”

M Narayanan Namboodiri
M Narayanan Namboodiri

An education

Namboodiri’s persistence meant that he did pursue his interest and passed all five tests to gain a seat for the five-year diploma course in fine arts at Maharaja Sayajirao University in Baroda. Once through, Namboodiri, in between developing his skills, took to working to support himself through college. 

In 1985, he was selected for a four-year art restoration course at National Museum, Delhi. It was an opportune time for Namboodiri as Sonia Gandhi, a qualified art restorer herself, had initiated the restoration of oil paintings from the colonial period at the museum. Namboodiri recalls how she was never dominating, rather saying just enough to guide the team.   

He joined Victoria Memorial Hall in Calcutta as Technical Restorer in 1989, in-charge of restoration of oil paintings. It has been a long innings and in 2012, Namboodiri retired, choosing to return to Kerala and settle in Ernakulam.  

Apart from teaching conservation at Hill Palace in Kochi, he is also training students to work on artefacts at sites under the Muziris Heritage Project. The revival of the green conservation project, one of the largest such in India which was first started in 2009, is aimed at conserving heritage sites in 14 panchayats and two municipal corporations.

Muziris, the ancient port city on the Malabar Coast that once did business with close to 30 countries, holds immense historical significance. Namboodiri is disappointed about the lack of awareness on the need for restoration. He says that even now, there are many paintings languishing in the dark, musty corners of private homes, the residents ignorant about their value. There are enough paintings even in the public eye requiring conservation, projects that could keep experts engaged on a continuous basis.

A layman needn’t be intimidated in Namboodiri’s presence as he enthusiastically elaborates on the subject. “Restoration is a natural phenomena, one that has existed over the years, when ships required restoration before setting out on voyages. Only, then it was done using traditional methods without understanding the scientific aspect.”

Demand for restoration increased after World War II. While fleeing the war, owners of art in Europe hid their prized possessions in wells, only to find that they had been damaged when taken out again.

Challenges faced

Chemical restoration is the norm now as it ensures minimal deterioration whereas traditional restoration uses very little chemical substances. Challenges facing an art restorer include damage while in transit and climate variations.

He explains the two types of restoration: preventive and curative. The former is done when there is slow deterioration because of changes in climate or atmospheric variation. Curative restoration, based on an object’s physical and chemical strengths, and an assessment with the naked eye and scientific tools determines what is needed to keep the object preserved for longer.

“We have six seasons, so apart from learning from the West, there is a lot to be observed based on the environment here. We deal with about 85 per cent humidity or so on a day like this,” he says. “One of the first things we do before starting work is measure the humidity in a room. The weather was more systematic 500 years ago. Now we can’t predict anything and it takes a toll on artefacts. These are aspects we learn over time.”

“As restorers, we are taught to touch an artefact only if preventive restoration does not work. Preventive restoration is carried out when the painting or artefact shows signs of deterioration from climatic or atmospheric variations. Raja Ravi Varma’s works prove the toughest because of the colour combinations and the very style,” he notes. One restorer, he reveals, will always leave a code for the next restorer for when it is time next. This will not be apparent to the layman’s eye.

The art restorer is happy as long as he is restoring paintings, knowing they will be around for posterity’s sake. “Paintings, if restored, will last long after we are gone.”

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