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The art of conservation

Mumbai’s rains seem to have given the outer façade of the Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya (CSMVS) a glow, and amidst a sprawling lush environ, the history buff in us felt more than welcome for our hour-long conservation class with restoration expert Anupam Sah. Later this week, the heritage conservation expert will conduct a discussion on Nepalese Thangka paintings for members of the Asia Society (a not-for-profit educational institution working to foster greater understanding about art), with a privileged access to the Museum Art Conservation Centre. While this session isn’t open to the public, one of the many art conservation projects that Sah is currently working on is Anvar-I-Suhaili, a Persian translation of the Panchatantra that was commissioned by Mughal Emperor Akbar. It is expected to be open for visitors by 2014.


Looking through the microscope to detect cracks and other defects in an artwork

Art of the matter
Sah eases us into the important processes of art conservation with the help of Thangka paintings that were being worked upon. “Paintings often arrive in bad shape; we need to line a painting by applying pressure on it. For this, we use a multipurpose low suction heat table.

It can heat up at a temperature you prefer, it can create a vacuum pressure and adjust the humidity. this is used for suction treatment of the painting. With its help, it’s possible to create an atmospheric negative pressure on it, which can be controlled. The temperature, humidity and suction settings help in different purposes such as removing stains and activating the adhesives,” he explains.


Anupam Sah takes us through the history of Thangka paintings at the Museum Art Conservation Centre  Pics/Bipin Kokate

To the naked eye, the 15th century Thangka looked perfect but Sah asked us to look through a microscope; we spotted minute cracks in the paints used across these artworks. “To identify different pigments used in the painting in order to determine the year and region it belongs to, we use an Fourier Transform Infrared Spectroscopy (FTIR). After placing the sample on it, molecules begin to vibrate and a graph is formed which helps to identify different compounds and thus, the materials,” shares Sah.


Anvar-I-Suhaili, the Persian translation of the Panchatantra

An interesting set of equipment that we noticed was the infrared camera that helped us look at drawings beneath the painting. “It’s an important device to study formative stages of a painting with help from artist drawings,” informs Sah. Through the camera, we noticed initial pencil drawings; some of which were painted over and where the artist had even made changes to the final version compared to the original drawing.

Art and science
Sah reasons that Buddhism moved from India to other countries and hence in the Nepalese Thangkas, one can see several Indian motifs as compared to Thangkas from other regions. “Nepalese Thangkas will have earthy colours including reds while the rest also use blues and greens. You will spot arches in these Thangkas akin to those in Indian temples while facial structures of their deities are different, too. Apart from artistic differences these Thangkas are also indicators of other cultural differences including fabric used as base to give an idea of the painting’s origin (country, period it was found in),” says Sah.

Sah then showed us the completed bits from the Anvar I Suhaili, which had a beautiful mix of calligraphy and painting. “We look at these paintings as pieces of art. But we have to remember that for their creators, they were a spiritual process that wasn’t viewed at objectively. Art was and is a means of the development of the creator and therein lies the beauty of these pieces,” says Sah.

Thangka paintings
Thangka paintings are a form of Buddhist art which has been practised in Nepal, Tibet, China and India since the 11th century. 

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