Mumbai: Restoring a tale from the Arabian Sea

Updated: Jul 01, 2018, 08:02 IST | Benita Fernando

At the Dr Bhau Daji Lad Museum, a diorama of the Bombay Castle and its surrounding waters is getting a facelift

Mumbai: Restoring a tale from the Arabian Sea
INTACH's senior conservator Kirti Joshi and her assistants Jitendra Mayakar and Santosh Yadav seen working on the diorama at Dr Bhau Daji Lad Museum in Byculla. Pics/Atul Kamble

A sailing ship by the Bombay Castle has sent out an SOS. Its unfurled sails have come off, its ropes need replenishing and its cannons require polishing. Only, we are not seeing a life-size vessel, but a miniature replica on a diorama - a small-scale 3D tableau that captures a scene like a photograph, in great detail - at the Dr Bhau Daji Lad Museum in Byculla.

For a month, this diorama of the Bombay Castle - one of the many that the museum has in its fascinating collection - will undergo conservation and restoration, and will therefore, be off the shelf. Last week, we paid a visit to the museum's conservation lab, run by the Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (INTACH), to see how the work is coming along.

A life-size vessel, which is part of the diorama that depicts a maritime scene from around 170 years ago
A life-size vessel, which is part of the diorama that depicts a maritime scene from around 170 years ago

This diorama is of significance as it depicts a maritime scene from around 170 years ago, set off the Bombay coast. In the background is Bombay Castle, one of the city's earliest colonial structures, and a site that was contested by British and Portuguese powers. Against this background, float members of the East Indiamen, sailing ships that were chartered to any of the East India Companies through the 17th and 19th centuries. The East Indiamen were trained to use firearms, and safeguard merchant vessels with precious cargo, usually pepper, from rival armies and pirates.

A museum representative tells us, "All the dioramas with the museum are meticulously made, representing the communities and occupations of the city. They were made in the early 20th century, when 'the history of Bombay' narrative started coming to the museum."

At the lab, INTACH's senior conservator Kirti Joshi, who is aided by assistants Jitendra Mayakar and Santosh Yadav, is busy with fine brushes and adhesive. "Every work of art needs to be checked to stop degradation. These are made of organic material, and many parts of the diorama have come loose, so they need a fresh coat of adhesive," she says, pointing to mini cannons, the size of a thumbnail.

A major part of the restoration work will involve getting back the moss cover, all natural, around the Bombay Castle's rocky pedestal. Next, is the blue-green sea. "If you look at the rocks and the sea, you realise how detailed the work is. The craftsmen have used thick layers of paint [called impasto] in order to achieve the waves. Our work will involve removing the fine dust that has settled into the cracks and retouching parts of the sea," explains Joshi. The INTACH team will also take care of the watercrafts in this stationary sea, redoing the threads that mimic ropes.

The fine work, says Joshi, will take them about a month. When the diorama is back on the shelf, she hopes people will not use flash photography, either from mobile phones or DSLRs, as it will reduce the life of these historic pieces.

Castle of yore
The Bombay Castle is considered one of the city's oldest defensive structures. It once housed a Portuguese nobleman Garcia de Orta's manor, which loans it the name Casa da Orta. The castle was built of blue Kurla and red laterite stones from the Konkan. The East India Company took possession of it in 1668. Bombay Castle used to be the seat of the Governor's residence, until it was shifted to Parel and then Malabar Hill. Today, the area has restricted entry, and houses the offices of Flag Officer Commander-in-Chief of the Western Naval Command.

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