THE stone head of a Jina, currently lying inside a vitrine at the Premchand Roychand Gallery of the Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya (CSMVS), was once attached to a sculpture from Mathura. Crafted out of spotted red sandstone, it was made during the second century (CE), when the Kushan dynasty’s rule extended all the way from Bactria in Central Asia to the Indo-Gangetic plains. Over the centuries, it acquired layers of grime, and by the time it came into the custody of the museum, much of the original beauty of the craftsmanship was obscured from view.
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Yet, when the CSMVS Museum Art Conservation Centre began its work on the head, it wasn’t simply a question of scrubbing and washing the impurities off the stone. As Anupam Sah, head of art conservation, explains, the nature of the material, of which the sculpture was composed, had to be determined before any steps were taken, since sandstone often contains a mineral called feldspar that turns to clay over time. Each time the stone is washed, a bit of the clay is washed away too, which causes the stone to begin disintegrating. This is obvious from the pores and holes, visible on what was once a smooth stone surface. “Sometimes, in our enthusiasm, we may do something that damages a piece of art,” he explains.
The ongoing exhibition, called “Conserving the Collection”, seeks to highlight precisely such dilemmas that confront art conservators — how much repair is too much? What if the act of conservation causes damage? What if the intervention carried out now needs to be reversed in the future? These questions, and others, are posed in the exhibition, through the medium of 50 iconic objects that represent 5,000 years of Indian history. These objects are fascinating in themselves, but they also provide a glimpse into the range of materials used in Indian art over five millennia, as well as the heights of creativity that have been scaled over this period. There is, for example, the Sthanaka Narasimha, a 400-year-old bronze sculpture from Tamil Nadu. It is a rare depiction of the Vishnu avatar, that is otherwise usually represented with Hiranyakashyapa laid across his thighs. Another fascinating object is a chanderi sari from the early 20th century, woven during the Indian freedom struggle, which uses the phrase ‘Vande Mataram’ as a design motif.
Each object in the exhibition is unique, as is the conservation dilemma attached to it. The work done by the team at the CSMVS Museum Art Conservation Centre in resolving these questions is explained by the principles that every conservator follows, as well as the techniques used. There’s also the revelation that medical machines are sometimes used for conservation; for example, x-ray machines are sometimes used for the “diagnosis” of antiquities, such as a 17th century ivory figurine, which depicts Thirumala Nayaka of the Madurai Nayaka dynasty. This object was found to have an earlier, shoddy repair, which was eventually reversed, so that the correct conservation technique could be applied. Throughout the exhibition, there are also attempts to clear misconceptions, such as the widely-held belief that any type of discolouration or dullness on antique objects is valuable ‘patina’. Another text talks about why the Ajanta murals cannot be called ‘frescoes’, while elsewhere is an enumeration of all the types of ivories, besides elephant ivory, that exist, including vegetable ivory and hornbill ivory.
“Conserving the Collection” is the first of three exhibitions that have been planned, which will spotlight the work under ConservArte, an art restoration project which began in March 2015. With this show, the CSMVS has become the first museum in the country to host a full-fledged exhibition exploring the principles of art conservation. “Article 51-A (f) of the Constitution of India states that it shall be the fundamental duty of every citizen of India to value and preserve the rich heritage of our composite culture,” Sah points out.
For an exhibition that is so concept-driven and which unreservedly expounds on the theories of conservation, “Conserving the Collection” has proved to be gratifyingly successful. Even as he walks me through the show, Sah is approached by people who ask if there’s any way in which they can contribute to the conservation efforts. Clearly, the exhibition is doing a good job of reminding people of their constitutional duty.
The exhibition at Premchand Roychand Gallery, Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya, Mumbai, is on till November 27