Theory of Reconstruction

ArtTheory of Reconstruction

One of the works-in-progress at the Art Life Restoration Studio in Delhi’s Defence Colony dates back to 1887, and it is marred with a multitude of white lines. “This painting came to us in about 40 pieces,” says Priya Khanna, who runs this facility. “The white lines are the fillers used by art restorers that help in rectifying the damage,” she says.

Three people are simultaneously working on the painting, a portrait, to return it to its original state. They began by cleaning the various fragments. After which they did something seriously daring: they themselves painted the bits that were irrevocably damaged or missing from the original work, which was composed by the British artist William Henry Margetson. 

Finally, the restored work was touched up by the fillers done in white that will soon be coloured with pure pigments so that the portrait is returned to its original finish. The value of Margetson’s painting had depreciated by a huge margin due to the many forms of natural deterioration it suffered over the years. But after Khanna’s team is done restoring it, the painting is likely to fetch a good amount on the market. 

And such could be the fate of the thousands of damaged artworks — paintings, sketches, sculptures, manuscripts and so on — that are currently being given elaborate facelifts at art restoration laboratories across the country. For someone working in this field, it’s imperative to have a good command over two seemingly unrelated subjects: fine arts and chemistry. In fact, it’s almost a branch of forensic science — the restorer first establishes the nature of the crime (the kind of damage the work shows) and then goes about finding plausible solutions to the problem (the kind of restoration measures best suited to revive the artwork). 

In Indian history, art restoration has always played an important part in supporting and preserving our creative heritage, ever since ancient times. But the discipline became more organised and professionalised only post-Independence. 

No sooner an artwork is created than it starts counting down its days. Much like life, art too has to face up to the ravages of time.  A painting, for instance, faces wear and tear due to many reasons and if not taken good care of, it can die a slow death.  However, unlike life art can be infused with a regenerative elixir and can, to all intents and purposes, be brought back to life. And that’s exactly what art restorers aim for. 

Preservation of artworks anyhow hasn’t been given its due importance in this country. But art restorers, as they emerge as part of a professional class, may soon change that. Anupam Sah is the head of art conservation at the Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya (CSMVS), Mumbai. “The field of art restoration is there to preserve objects which can be called both historic and artistic. These objects are the memories of human progress. People take pride in their cultural heritage and art restoration helps people preserve their heritage.”

Apart from this, there are other important aspects to art restoration. Sah continues, “These objects of the past are often referred to for research purposes. They are used to understand the materials, and how they were created in the past. In this way there are tangible benefits associated to art restoration. It has great implications in terms of industry, livelihood, urban development and much more.”

You need an understanding of fine arts as well as chemistry to become a professional restorer. According to Sah, the road ahead for students willing to pursue an art restoration course might be a little bumpy but it can bring them good returns in the near future. He says, “This decade in India is dedicated to art conservation. Which is very much needed in the country too. One of the biggest challenges is the availability of trained personnel in this field. The profession is not being strongly formalised yet. The problem lies in the placement facility for students in the cultural institutions of India. Work is available everywhere in India. All that the government needs to do is to help place the students at the right places, as galleries are coming up with a great demand for art conservationists. Such positions lie vacant as of now, though they can be filled without much effort. Someone who has taken up a course in art conservation can get Rs 25-30,000 as their starting salary.”

The restoration work in itself is full of the excitement and promise that often accompanies creative endeavours. He says, “Art conservation is one of the most multidisciplinary professions one can follow. There is no question of monotony here. It involves a huge amount of interaction with experts from various disciplines and physical dealings with varied materials. A person just doesn’t feel that he is working.”

These days, CSMVS is running an exhibition on conservation titled Conserving the Collection: The Caring Path for 5000 Years of our Art. The event, which concludes on 31 October, showcases the nuances of art conservation through 50 important and iconic objects spanning 5,000 years of history from the Indus Valley Civilization to the contemporary age.

In Indian history, art restoration has always played an important part in supporting and preserving our creative heritage, ever since ancient times. But the discipline became more organised and professionalised only post-Independence. 

“People were aware of just the traditional methods earlier,” says Satish Chandra Pandey, assistant professor and head in-charge, National Museum Institute, New Delhi. “There was rampant use of essential oils, neem leaves and turmeric to preserve manuscripts in the past. The process of conservation has become much more structured post-Independence,” he says.

The craft of restoration in the West is still much more developed as compared to India. “In foreign countries, especially in Europe, the expertise of art restorers is commendable as they started the practice much earlier than us,” Pandey adds.

However, things in this field are beginning to look up in India as well. With both government organisations and private practitioners establishing themselves in the restoration business, there is a clear scope for growth for aspiring art restorers. 

“At the National Museum Institute, we run a two-year master’s degree course in art conservation.  We also take our students to University of Applied Arts in Vienna, Austria for a short duration so that they can also get international exposure in the field.  Similarly, a few other institutes run courses on the subject. But not many people are interested in this area as there is less awareness among the younger generation about conservation. Some people also prefer to choose mainstream career options like law, medicine. To develop the real interest of people in the art conservation sector, it will take a little more time,” adds Pandey. 

A Ravi Varma painting restored by Priya Khanna’s studio.Private art restorer Priya Khanna, based in Delhi, has been practicing this craft for the last 25 years. She says, “Being in the field for long I have seen every possible damage which can be inflicted upon paintings by rough handling or time. There is no fixed amount of time a restoration project can take. It depends upon the gravity of the problem. A painting can take the minimum of one week in some cases, whereas at times the work can even go on for months. Every art object brought in the restoration lab needs separate treatment. This is one of the things which make this practice so challenging. ”

Talking about the most memorable project she undertook, Khanna recalls a painting by the well-known artist Raja Ravi Varma that once arrived in her studio. “It took me eight months to fix the glaring deterioration in that one.  Having specialised in oil painting restoration, this is the medium I enjoy working in the most,” she says. 

Rajeev Dhawan, managing director, Art District X111 Gallery in Lado Sarai, New Delhi, says that there is no fixed price a gallery has to pay for getting the restoration work done. “It totally depends upon the seriousness of the damage an art object has gone through. The cost also depends upon the medium and the nature of the work. Hence, a price range can’t be determined.” Some people, of course, are willing to shell out any amount of money to get a work of art restored to its original state. Because you can’t put a price on cultural heritage. 

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