Touching the brave history of Punjab

through a Robe worn by Sri Banda Singh Bahadur ji: Story of the first attempt to preserve it

One of the most revered heroes of our land and culture is Banda Singh Bahadur ji. Whenever i tried to write about Banda Bahadur ji, i couldn’t. I also couldn’t sleep that night. I encourage readers to know more about this real-life hero through other sources till i gather the courage and get the divine order to write another blog dedicated to Him. Here i am trying to share the experience of conservation treatment of one of the robes that belonged to him.

About the robe

An angrakha used to be a robe with long sleeves, worn by men. The term, Angarkha, comes from the Sanskrit word aṅgarakṣaka, meaning ‘body-protector’.

This particular quilted angrakha belongs to Banda Singh bahadur ji. It’s quilted with inner plain cloth and outer cotton cloth printed allover with a floral motif. The two layers have a layer of cotton sandwiched between them. Unique thing about this robe is that the cotton is not held in place with stitches as we usually see in the quilting. Here the cotton is held in place by pressing with a heated wire frame. This is confirmed by the pattern visible all over the angrakha. It is completely hand stitched with the fineness surpassing the machine-made finish.

Condition of the robe

The Angarakha of Banda Singh Bahadur was in extremely deteriorated condition. Its cotton has become quite brittle because of the general ageing or oxidation. There is overall fading of the background colour and accumulation of general grime.

1. More than 70 % of the quilted robe was lost mainly because of apparent cutting by certain devotees as memorabilia. These losses are not just from the edges of the skirt area, but also from the upper areas of the skirt. The left chest area is also lost both from front and back. This loss may be for various reasons apart from vandalism.

Portions cut in the history of the robe by devotees

2. Previous restoration attempts – There were many rough attempts of repair from the past. In one attempt a separate overall lining was created on which the Angarakha and its separated portions were attached by few loose stitches. There were stapling pins and rusted thumb pins also attached as previous attempts to keep the pieces together. At one place in the skirt area there was a very old restoration in the form of very fine darning which we did not remove.

portions and pieces of Angragha attached to an overall lining
Attempts to repair/stitch the gaps and tears
Stapling pins and thumb pins recovered as previous repairs and mounting material respectively

3. Biodeterioration – The robe had mud houses of termites at many places. a dead insect was also recovered from the dress, indicating biological damage from various insects.

Magnified view of a termite mud tunnel created on the robe

4. Stains – The robe has many types of stains apart from general dirt. There are blood stains also at many places. Whether they belong to Banda Singh Bahadur ji is not confirmed.

Blood stains

Treatment steps

Before starting any treatment, the condition was fully documented. Some tests were performed to understand the condition better and plan accordingly. Following is a brief account of the treatments:

Dry cleaning

Most of the loose dirt and mud from the termite tunnels was removed carefully with the help of brushes and dry-cleaning sponges.

Wet cleaning

Using blotters to take away maximum water before it can be left for air-drying.

The fabric was quite brittle to be able to take extensive handling required in wet cleaning with the help of de-ionized water and saponifying agents. It being quilted added to the concern. Since there was a lot of engrained mud and grime that could not be removed by dry cleaning procedures, it was decided to briefly wet clean with one rinse of de-ionized water. De-ionized water itself is ion hungry and would take away all the ionic soluble impurities present on the fabric.

After rinsing the Angrakha with de-ionized water and removing the water with impurities, the angrakha was dried first with blotters and then by air drying.

Stain reduction

Various stains were treated with different stain removing techniques. Most frequently used one has been Agarose gel treatment.

Removing old restoration attempts and stitching with ethical conservation stitches wherever required

Old restoration attempts were from various eras. AT least one was extremely good darning which was barely visible as a mending on the first look. Others were very rough attempts to keep the torn and withering pieces together. These included very rough stitches and use of stapling pins etc.

Use of stapling pins
Fine darning from past

Finding the cotton cloth with similar composition and thread count as the original

Comparing the thread count of the original and new cloth

Dyeing of cloth to match the original robe

Matching the colour was the toughest job. We could find little areas that were protected under a sewn or an overlap. These areas had the closest original colour. When we matched this colour it appeared lighter as compared to the oxidized/aged fabric that had gone through the ravages of time. If we dyed the new fabric a shade stronger or darker, it would match from a distance but would not feel right, because the original appeared off-white gone dirty, not brownish or darker! We tried natural dyes first, but after a lot of experimenting, we finalized on the synthetic dye only.

Consolidating the frayed and damaged areas

Damaged and frayed areas were secured by self-couching stitch and other techniques.

self-couching

Attaching the cloth to fill the missing areas

Attaching the dyed cloth to the original in the missing areas was a challenge because we were not adding a backing or lining but recreating the lost areas. This addition had to go with the flow of the original fabric. We used the conservation stitches to do this.

Making of the wooden blocks identical to the original motif on the robe

Four wooden blocks were made, one for black outline and other three for the other three colours, green, pink and red.

Block printing in the added cloth

The added cloth was hand printed with the pattern similar to the original motif with the help of wooden blocks.

Creating the outline of the motif with the help of wooden block

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