Restoring pieces of history – Adi Granth to Tagore portrait

By Shudip Talukdar, IANS,

Lucknow: A portrait of Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore dating back to the early 1940s had become dull and lifeless. The colours had faded with cracks and stains visible on the surface. But the canvas has got a new lease of life.

Support TwoCircles

This has been made possible by the Indian Conservation Institute-Lucknow (ICI-L), which claims to be the largest centre for restoration of manuscripts and tomes in India.

The ICI-L received the 61 cm by 75 cm oil painting in a shabby condition from a private collector. Beginning with its photographic documentation, the technical staff cleaned the painting with a soft brush using a solvent to undo the yellowing effect of varnish over the portrait.

Further, the paint layer was consolidated with the help of heat seal adhesive. All the cracks were filled up carefully. A protective layer of varnish was applied over the portrait, restoring it to its original glory. Even the name of the painter and its commissioning date Oct 2, 1944, became clearly visible.

The ICI-L is a non-profit organisation set up in 1986 under The Indian National Trust For Art and Cultural Heritage (Intach). It has counterparts in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Karnataka, Kerala, Orissa and New Delhi. The institute also undertakes conservation of artefacts such as stone, rock or wood carving, engravings, miniature or canvas painting, which are under threat from natural and climatic factors – not to mention man-made pollution.

ICI-L director Mamta Mishra said the restoration of hundreds of years old Adi Guru Granth and Dasham Granth housed at Hemkund Sahib in Uttarakhand – among the holiest of Sikh books – were some of the biggest projects ever undertaken by the institute.

“These scriptures are accorded all the reverence that accrues to a living saint and are referred to as the ‘Baba’. The followers brought the holy books with due ceremony from Uttarakhand, carrying it on their heads when they stepped into our premises,” Mishra told IANS.

“The magnitude of the task can be gauged by the fact that the books had a thickness of 11 cm and 13 cm respectively, with a combined weight of several kilograms,” she said.

The pages were handmade, turning brittle and acidic after weathering centuries of use. They were fastened with tape at many places.

“The conservation staff at the ICI-L took six months to restore the huge tomes, beginning the task in December 2006. They worked under strict instructions, one of which was to be barefoot in the books’ presence and never placing them on the floor,” added Mishra.

According to an Intach survey, thousands of manuscripts written hundreds of years ago on palm leaves or paper and housed in temple collections, libraries and private collections are languishing due to neglect or indifferent handling.

They cover a bewildering range of subjects from astronomy, astrology, medicine, music to literature, history and religion.

These documents form an invaluable part of our cultural and artistic heritage and have a host of enemies. Presence of fungus, termites and silverfish, lack of ventilation, moisture, dust and dirt, acidic pigments and ink, excess of light and high temperature being some of them.

Another notable work undertaken by the ICI-L is the conservation of the wall paintings in an old Shiv temple at Meer Ghat, Varanasi. Algal growth on the temple steeple was also cleaned.

The institute undertook the restoration of the beautiful wall paintings done by master artists Nandlal Bose, B.B. Mukherjee and Somnath Hore at Viswa Bharati, Santiniketan, West Bengal.

The ICI-L restored 16 important manuscripts having 3,054 pages in Persian belonging to Meherji Rana Library, Navasari, Gujarat. It carried out the work at an on-site lab it had set up for the purpose. Besides, the institute also conducted a detailed survey of 22 museums in eight districts of the state.

Other projects include conservation of a rare collection of textile samples called the Watson Collection at the BDL Museum in Mumbai, dating back to the 19th century.

In Uttar Pradesh, the ICI-L undertook the restoration of seven large mural paintings on the walls of the Vidhan Bhavan in Lucknow.

(Shudip Talukdar can be contacted at [email protected])