Conservation of wall paintings at Thakur Satyanarayan temple: a brief account

This hundred year old temple needed an uplift. It had wall paintings that were not clearly visible due to layers of grime and there was also heavy flaking to make the condition worst. The temple authorities had already tried a few artists to over paint the damaged paintings. The new over-painting of course looked brighter, but the quality and style were a big mismatch with what was originally there. One of the visitors discussed the awkwardness of the newly created painting and introduced the concept of “Conservation of heritage” to the temple authorities. Thus a search for a conservation team begun. Finally the HPA (Heritage Preservation Atelier) team was invited to visit the temple and advise further course of action regarding conservation/revival of the original wall paintings.

At first look, the paintings appeared beyond repairs and some of them were unrecognizable. It was difficult to figure out what was depicted in the original painting. We started with studying the paintings and doing some research to figure out their origin and artistic influence. We took some close-ups and pictures in raking light.

A closer study revealed two basic aspects of these paintings:

  1. They were done in oil based colours, and
  2. They had a lot of gilded stucco work

Another important fact we discovered was that most of them had derived their theme from the oleo-graphs or canvas paintings of the famous artist of the time, Raja Ravi Verma.

Original chromo lithograph created by Raja Ravi Verma
One of the copy of Raja Ravi Verma painting

We drafted a treatment methodology for panels of each of the four walls, because almost all the panels of a wall had similar damages(with just a few exceptions).

Some common treatment procedures were:
1. Pre-consolidation and/or facing
2. Cleaning
3. Consolidation
4. Final cleaning
5. In-painting

Cleaning

Cleaning had a drastic effect on the paintings. We could see the actual colours that artists had applied once we could remove the thick layer of grime deposited over the years (nearly a century).

Removal of damaging components to avoid further damage.

If the grime remains on the surface, it can be a substrate for many microorganisms or spores of microorganisms because they find a home to stay, as it acts as a food and substate to which they can hold onto. So, most important thing is to remove any deteriorating agent.

Similarly, if there are any accretions, they can also be damaging as it can loosen or chemically alter the original material. Any substance that was not present originally and is obscuring the painting or contributing to its deterioration must be removed.

In the painting of Lord Rama called Sagar Garv Prahar, title was discovered in the original lower layer when upper layer of acrylic paint was being removed carefully.. Cleaning of the overpaint was first carried out in less important and plain areas. Even after removing overpaint there was a dark layer of grime on it. We created a customized gel and a micro-emulsion to clean this over-painted panel.

Sarar Garv Prahar during removal of over-paint and further cleaning
over-painted verses conserved
Preparing cleaning micro-emulsion

In rest of the paintings, there were mainly a presence of grime layer and accretions which were treated in a different manner. Mainly all the original paintings had a dark layer of grime that was screening the original paintings.

This grime seems to be over a layer of natural polymer that might have been applied over the paintings when they were originally created. A pH adjusted water with small amount of gelling agent and Triton X 100 helped in removing the grime as shown in the following video.

Careful cleaning of a wall painting

For accretions like drops of lime and cement on the paintings which were there due to the construction of new ceiling of SabhaMandapa, mechanical cleaning was done. Otherwise, it was more or less same treatment as in the other three walls.

Consolidation

Consolidation was another elaborate step for many paintings. It had to done carefully with different materials in layers and with different material according to the depth of the gap and the type of gap or detachment.

Treating a detached paint layer

Lime mortars with varying composition relevant to the damaged layer in the plaster or paint, were used.

Re-construction of lost areas and in-painting

We also recreated the broken gilded stucco at some places and gilded it.

Finally, we in-painted the missing areas.

Some results

(This work is ongoing till date…)

Author: namitajaspal
Namita Jaspal, with inherited skills of art and aesthetics and passion for science, opted to pursue post- graduation in ‘Conservation of Cultural Property’ after her graduation in Science from Delhi University in 1992. Four year intense training at National Museum Institute provided the right foundation to start a career in Conservation. She is currently practicing conservation consultancy for Heritage property including monuments and collections. She has been doing independent research in conservation techniques and procedures in Indian context. She is currently working on the conservation of wall-paintings of Sri Harmandir Sahib Ji (The Golden temple at Amritsar. The project is nearing completion and getting a lot of appreciation for the organized and ethical treatment it is providing. It is for the first time in the history of Sri Harmandir Sahib Ji (The Golden Temple) that wall painting conservation and preservation is being done in a scientific manner, keeping the codes of Ethics into consideration while decision making. Another project just completed is of the Conservation of Krishna Temple at Kishankot, Gurdaspur, Punjab. In her private Conservation Laboratory, she is not only providing onservation services, but also mentoring young aspiring conservators and archaeologists by the way of training and paid internships. She has been a guest lecturer at DIHRM (Delhi Institute of Heritage Research and Management). With all the updated knowledge database and innovative practical approaches relevant to the Indian conditions, she could successfully do curative and preservative treatment of very old textiles like a nine feet long flag from nineteenth century that is regarded as priceless memorabilia of second Dogra regiment at Chandi Mandir, and four hundred years old (seventeenth century) Chola Sahib Ji of Sixth Guru of Sikhs, Sri Hargobind Sahib Ji. Apart from this she has done conservation of Photograph collections, archival records, numerous paintings, manuscripts and other cultural objects. She is also involved in preparation of up-gradation proposals for museums and such organizations. Her expertise includes Conservation and preservation technologies and procedures for conservation of varied material like wall paintings, paper, photographs, textile, ceramics, stone, metal and archaeological objects.

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