Monday, May 1, 2017

Letter to ed. Daily Excelsior

I write this in disgust, not at the account published in your daily at 23.4.17 of the machinations at the Public Service Commission, but at the reaction; or actually, the lack thereof, of the public at this disclosure.

I must confess, I was not surprised at the blatant mismanagement, and the devious behaviour of the commission; because at this point, nothing seems too outrageous in this state. I would go so far as to say that this jaundiced view of the state machinery is not only a personal view, but also shared by a majority of my peers not only from the Jammu province, but all over the state.

So much so that when I meet students from our state in the rest of the country, the topic of discussion is not corruption and mismanagement, for it is taken for granted, but on the degree of outrages, shared in the blackest of humour. It is as if we as residents of the state are afflicted by Stockholm syndrome, resigned to fall in thrall of the state, which has taken us collectively hostage.

Even if we take it for granted that the government and its agencies are corrupt, it still behoves the political representatives of the state to actually represent. The Bureaucrat class, as it is, is so separate from the masses, that they have no legitimate claim to represent the rest of us. But the political parties, be that the BJP, the PDP, Congress, Panthers Party et cetera, seem to be under the impression that crass political stunts, such as death panels for the Rohingya Refugees are the real issues that the state faces, rather than the issues which will actually make the difference.

To put it more specifically, the revelations of the goings on at the Public Service Commission should scare all of us as residents of Jammu and Kashmir, because these betray the underlying rot that is the real trouble in this state.
To quote your report, ‘much needed transparency and accountability in JKPSC is at stake due to nexus of some officials, who have been assigned all the key assignments and access to [the] entire secrecy section which even the members of the recruiting agency don’t enjoy. This deep-rooted nexus is leaving no stone unturned to deprive candidates from Jammu region of selections for various posts in Government departments.’ (Daily Excelsior, Jammu Ed. 23.4.17 pp.1)

While there may or may not be a conspiracy to deprive qualified candidates from one province, one would assume that interview panels, headed by equal numbers of members from each province, aided by impartial visiting experts, would lead to little favouritism, at least in principle. However, what is disconcerting is that the very same officials mentioned in the quote above, also select and brief the impartial visiting experts. (Daily Excelsior, Jammu Ed. 23.4.17 pp.11)

I assume that a grand conspiracy to deprive qualified candidates from Jammu from positions in the state administration and jobs in the government bodies is a canard. That being said, if this conspiracy did exist, the situation at the commission would be ripe for it. The conclusion I drew from the report, and which any reasonable reader would draw from the same, is that the perfect circumstances are in place for gross corruption to take place in the body.

Since the officials mentioned have such wide ranging powers, no oversight, and involvement in virtually all parts of the public recruitment process, who can say that the officials themselves are not profiting from their positions? Who knows if the doctors from the medical officers recruitment, now serving in the hospitals are not there on basis of merit, but instead on basis of political influence and suitcases full of money?   

Some would argue that the statements made above might be slanderous, but one would argue that the very fact that the appointment of these officials was so out of standard protocol, again as mentioned in your report, would be grounds for suspicion. And in Jammu and Kashmir, with our track record of financial probity of government employees, one suspects the worst. It would have been a simple matter for the powers that be in the commission to have nipped these concerns in the bud, but the lack of action on this matter is similarly suspicious. A nexus to engage in social engineering? Maybe, maybe not. A perfect setting for payoffs and corruption, almost certainly yes.

But allegations of government corruption and ineptitude are a dime a dozen in this state. What is really disheartening is the lack of public response. The day after the article was published, I saw a protest in Kachi chawni, where the protesters, all young men who are of the age to be giving exams conducted by JKPSC, were holding up placards which seemed to read “Nationalism Up, Up; Communism Down, Down”. I fail to see the pertinence of these protests, because the last time I checked, Burhan Wani and his ilk were not really students of Marx, Lenin, and Mao.

What it was, was an attempt to enter the mainstream dialogue in the rest of the country by just showing up. This situation was diagnosed in an editorial I read an year or two ago in Greater Kashmir, where the writer suggested that in lack of proper political leadership in Jammu, the political elements had tied their moorings to the cause of Delhi without due cognisance of the political realities on the ground.  The political parties in Jammu, therefore, have become mouthpieces not of the people of Jammu, but of the politics in Delhi and the State Durbar.

I would understand the BJP not taking any steps to rock the boat on the fragile coalition, because things as they are touch and go anyway. But what of the ABVP, the Youth Congress, and the Congress Party? The ABVP and the Youth Congress are supposed to represent the students and the youth, who are directly affected by the goings on at the Public Service Commission. The Congress is in the opposition. It was their collective responsibility to raise a voice against the status quo in the commission, at least to give voice to the growing resentments. But what we heard was silence.

This is the rot that I have mentioned. The powers that be are, or appear, corrupt. The representatives do not represent. And the people, who are supposed to be served by the aforementioned two, are left in a lurch. This is an issue that not only affect the people of jammu, but people all over the state.
What happens to the good people of Kashmir when they find out that their candidates, who studied and worked hard for a government job, lost out to someone with influence and money as his only support? The public memory is fickle, but the start of the militancy was when idealistic candidates were robbed of their seats in the government because of rigged elections.

What about the people in Leh, who already have to go above and beyond for a proper education. What happens to them when they realise that what is rightfully theirs is denied to them, continuing a trend of them being side-lined in the narrative of the state.     

 It is intriguing to note that while the rest of the country is seeing rising youth movements, such as the ones in JNU, led by Shehla Rashied, one of our own, and the ones in DU, Jammu and Kashmir has had nothing. Of course, there are the protests in Kashmir, but they are of the violent nature, which I cannot condone.

What happened to fighting for what is rightfully ours? What about the 4 who died in 1966 agitating for educational opportunities? What of the protests of JJAC in 1998, when MLA’s from the Congress, the BJP, Janata Dal, and Awami League collectively occupied the well of the J&K Assembly, again protesting disparity in selection of MBBS candidates? It seems that we the people in Jammu and Kashmir are resigned to being sheep, preyed on by both the political parties and the bureaucracy. It seems a fitting end for a people who choose not to fight their own battles.                

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

The Restoration of Oil Paintings: An Ethical Perspective

            The before-after photograph is often the best tool that art conservators have to truly show the true, and if I may so, magical, nature of the work they do. The dramatic tension between the images; with the before image damaged, yellowed, and in a generally poor shape, and the after image, with the painting pristine, with colours bright and shimmering; make a clear case for the role of the conservator and the restorer in the world of the plastic arts. However, this magical, and in some cases, even surreal transformation comes in with its caveats. This piece is an exploration of these caveats, and how practising conservators and restorers deal with them.

            When I am asked by folks about what I do, the answer that I am an art conservator never really does much. Conservation is what you do for endangered plants and tigers, right? So I draw upon a somewhat trite metaphor, and say that the art conservator is for a painting or a sculpture, as a mechanic is for a car or a motorcycle. While this is true to a fair degree, what with the stress on working with the hands, and understanding the mechanics  of the original materiel, what is often ignored  is the creative aspect in the trade of conservation and restoration. While for the most part, conservation is all about getting the object in a stable state, and performing all its functions, a very important part is the restoration, and retouching.

            Retouching is the area where the fine line between the conservator as a preserver, and the conservator as a creative agent comes in. Imagine you are a conservator in London in the late 1980's, and you see a piece by Da Vinci come in. It has pieces missing, because someone shot it with a shotgun. You are tasked with preserving this piece of cultural heritage. What would you do with the pieces that were missing, annihilated by the pellets of the shotgun shell? Would you leave them as is, so the piece is riddled with holes, or would you paint them in?

            For your reference, this quandary did emerge, and the restorer replaced 60-odd fragments of paper some of which were one-half inch long and some that were down to an eighth of an inch, by them one by one. Later, the restorer, working with a magnifying glass and surgical instruments, re-established the texture of the drawing's surface by filling in the gaps where paper is missing with paper fibre pulp and retouching them with charcoal and white chalk, Leonardo's original materials. No attempt was made to match Leonardo's strokes. [1]

            On the other hand, what would you do with a painting of Barnett Newman that got slashed with a knife? Would you stitch up the canvas and leave the cuts as is, or would you paint over the cuts? You might want to think about your answer, because the restoration of the Newman painting became a major cleaning controversy.[2] The question to ask is not what choices make a restoration controversial, but why can certain choices can make the restoration controversial.

            These conservation controversies are a reflection on the conflict that is central to art to the modern age, that is , is art for the cognoscenti, or is art made for the consumption for the people? Would a restored painting be better appreciated if it was restored to the state it was  when it left the artist's studio, or would it be better that it reflected the time's passage, and the momentous occasions that it lived through?

            These statements might seem like demagoguery, but a cursory study of art history reveals otherwise. Most art that we know we know and love since the renaissance was made for the wealthy patrons. Van Gough was possibly the first artist to fit the mould of the romantic artist we ascribe to today, wherein the artist's art is an expression of his creative genius, rather than having an at-least minor inducement from the patron-client. Similar trends were evident in art restoration, with most early restorers being practising artists.[3]

            This is an important point to take note, because the early restorers restored according to the demands of the clients and the patrons, whose demands were modulated to the changing perceptions of art over time. While this is the case even now, as I shall describe later in this paper, there are opposing theories, which as Andrea Rothe said “provide strict guidelines that should be followed to achieve an “honest” result. Unfortunately, well intentioned practices can be totally foreign to the nature of painting. By calling attention to themselves, these techniques compete with the artist’s original intention[4]

            Of course, the obvious question arises of the artist's intention. How does one know it? Unless the artist is present, and willing to co-operate with the restoration team, the original intent can only be extrapolated from a collection of writings about the work, and if lucky, good colour photographs. But that in itself is a problematic notion, because it puts forward the idea of a “preferred state” where the painting ought to exist, and this preferred state is conjectural. This is where Cesare Brandi comes in.
As Miraz states “Brandi is recognised as one of the exponents of phenomenological approach in Italian aesthetics. He developed the concept of astanza as a presence that is disconnected from time, and discussed about art as a presented reality in which the present that gave it origin is reactivated ad infinitum; art is an extra-temporal present. Brandi attempted to offer an explanation of the essence and existence of the work of art with a phenomenological approach. The need to configure this system compelled him to explore, and then to overcome, philosophical trends of his time proposing an aesthetics from which his theory of restoration could be later deduced.[5]

            Brandi's core belief, shorn of continental philosophy, was that conservation and restoration should preserve and recover aesthetic integrity while preserving the integrity of the historical traces on the object. Of course, keeping aesthetic integrity while keeping traces of history is an example of trying to have the cake and eat it at the same time. This is one of the reason techniques such as trattegio were developed.

            The premise behind trattegio  and other such techniques is philological in nature, whereby the losses are filled in, in such a manner to maintain a semblance of aesthetic completeness, while still keeping the sense of aesthetic and historical 'trueness'. The issue with this approach is raised by Muños Viñas, who states that

            “Since its very inception, conservation processes have been modifying objects and these modifications have presumably been made for the sake of authenticity. However… the modifications that have been made to bring the objects to a preferred condition cannot make them any more authentic then they are at present. The belief that the preferred condition of an object is its authentic condition, that some change is performed upon a real object can make it more real, is an important flaw...” (emphasis mine)[6]
            Over time, I have created a simplified theoretical model for art restoration, which tries to incorporate many of the theories of Salvador Muños Viñas, a Spanish paper conservator, who published The Contemporary Theory of Conservation in 2005. This model is broad, and does not dictate any interventions, rather, it leaves them at the discretion of the conservator and the restorer. The primary aim of this model is to analyse not just the aesthetic value, as Brandi suggests, but also to look at the intangible qualities that paintings accrue over time. I call these qualities utilities, and posit that while any act of conservation and restoration will damage certain utilities of a painting, the main intent should be to actually maximise the positive qualities, whereby the act of conservation becomes a utilitarian calculus.

            To restore, is to return to an earlier state of functionality and purpose. The important part here is the question of function, and how to bring an object to a state of optimal functionality. Thus, when you go out to get your shoe mended, you are getting it restored, because it helps you walk better. Similarly, when classic cars are restored, they are brought back to the state they were when they rolled out of the factory; i.e. when they were as fresh and efficient as they were going to be. A similar aim comes in when we look at the restoration of art and built heritage. The aim is to  regain optimal functionality. 

            The optimal functionality of cultural objects, however, is not as easily gauged as the optimal functionality of a mass produced good, such as a car. For one, the object is usually not mass produced. In addition, there is a cultural and historical meaning that the object has gained over time. Thus to restore functionality, the aim would not only to make the object visually and aesthetically functional again, but to also become culturally and historically functional. Herein lies the problem for the restorer; how to restore in a manner that the object regains original function, while also keeping in aspects that help the object retain the cultural and historical meanings it has gained over time.

            It is pertinent to remember that optimal functionality is not predicated on an absolute truth, but rather on the concept of utility. Truth is just one of the factors that comes in when looking at optimal functionality, which is why this approach is different from classical approaches to conservation. Also pertinent here would be note that the aim that divides restoration and conservation is evident in the name. While Restoration aims to bring back optimal functionality, conservation aims at keeping the object at a state of functionality where it was found. In this manner, it is assumed that at a later time, when the methodology is more appropriate, the object can be restored i.e. brought back to optimal functionality. 
            We can divide the various functions that the object into three large categories -Structural, Aesthetic, and Cultural. The intent in demarcating these functions is not to make a check-list that needs to be ticked off, but to delineate the various kinds of areas where interventions can be made. Often interventions in one aspect will harm the other aspects, and here comes in the need for a properly trained, and conscientious restorer. 

            The structural function an object is the easiest to deal with. The very nature of an object is to be an tangible thing. This tangibility needs to be kept to a state where its 'completeness' is not at risk. (The very concept of completeness is in itself a very problematic notion, but here it is used in the sense of being not at risk of losing its very tangibility or structural stability.) Interventions such as patching a hole in a canvas, or addressing flaking in the paint layer using a vacuum suction table and localised consolidation of the flakes with sturgeon glue would be a good example of structural conservation.

            The question comes however, that can structural restoration actually harm other functionalities? Absolutely so. John Richardson, in his seminal essay Crimes Against Cubists talks about the trend of wax -resin relining of cubist paintings, which was in line with the views on conservation at the time. However, Richardson described the effect it had on the painted surface, with the colours altered, and the impasto flattened. More important was the artist's reaction on seeing a varnished and relined painting. Braque referred to the paintings state in horror, with its “ awful tautness… that stretched the canvas tight as a drum”[7] This case would be structural conservation that affects other functionalities, and should not be done.

            The next functionality we have to come to terms with is aesthetic. All objects have a certain aesthetic function that is associated with them, whether de facto or post facto. Thus a restoration has to take into the consideration the aesthetic values that were in vogue when the structure was constructed, with due deference to cultural associations made over time. The aesthetic sensibility to be restored is not the one that is preferred today, but was of the time. In this manner, repairs done should be unobtrusive, so as to not draw attention to them, but to the aesthetic whole. 

            Questions of aesthetics, of course, are subjective. Indeed, what might be a superior work of art in eyes of one, might be kitsch in the eyes of the other. However, it is expected that the restorer exhibit keen aesthetic sensitivity to a painting, for without it, the work will invariably be hindered. Imagine, as a restorer, that you are presented with large amounts discoloured varnish and later additions by restorers. The standard answer would be to remove the varnish, and add new varnish which would be in line with Brandi's philological approach, and would leave the painting as a fragment, in its supposed historical state. However, as Rothe suggests, that would not be the ideal course of action. 

            The topmost layer of the painting can be referred to as the epidermis of the painting. It is always ideal to leave it as intact as possible not only for conceptual reasons (removing the hand of the artist will not do), but also for aesthetic reasons, for it is common knowledge that in stripping varnishes, many a time, glazes can be lost. Rothe quotes Phillipot and Mora's dictum that The wear of the patina causes a discontinuity of the surface, which alters... the depth of tones and the spiritual unity of the image.[8]

            The final aspect of the functionality of the object is the hardest to put the finger down on, because it flits between many meanings. It is also the most challenging for the restorer, as the cultural value, an intangible concept, can-not be ‘worked on’ by the  restorer, but is altered  by the tangible functionalities mentioned earlier. The intangible nature of socio-cultural associations makes it so that many aspects of the object's very nature are valuable.           

            In this case, any restoration should aim at maintaining full expression of these intangible utilities. The aim thus is maximizing the utilities while doing least harm to the functionalities. It so becomes that every intervention becomes a cost benefit analysis, where the restorer has to evaluate the positive and negative externalities of an action. The aim, however, (and this is where even the greatest fall), is to give the pleasure of the three optimised functionalities to the maximum number of people.
            Lest we forget, as conservators and restorers, we are but stewards of cultural objects, and they truly do belong to the people. As such, the aim should not be handing down treatments like divine writs, but to have a collaborative discourse with all stakeholders in the object, and provide the maximum good. 

            It would serve us well to consider the object as a document, and our responsibility to maximize the legibility of this document. Thus the intent should be to provide all the nuances to the 'reader'. This is also pertinent in our role as preservationists. While we preserve the objects so that they can be of good to the maximum people in present, one eye should always be on the future.  As Pevsner presciently said

            “The Victorian restorers removed 'original' features, Perpendicular and later, and especially Gregorian, and we tell them they were vandals. What they put instead a hundred years ago, should not that now be as sacrosanct as the Gregorian pieces a hundred years ago when they removed them? Should we not watch that we don't become the incorrigible vandals a century from today[9]        

            While Pevsner makes a point about imposing our own aesthetic standards on things of the past, he also raises a point about the role of the future in restoration. The interventions should be such as to not deprive the future generations of objects that still retain maximal functional utility. Attitudes and tastes change, but interventions are absolute. Something like varnish removal or cleaning might increase the 'legibility' of the object now, but can't be undone later. As Muños Viñas states “in the negotiation that modern conservation theory calls for, future generation have to play a role, and most likely, it will be the experts who will have to speak for them[10]

            This is the responsibility that we have. To maximise the Functionalities of an object, not just for ourselves, but for the future generations. This requires a collaborative approach involving not just the 'experts', but all stakeholders in the object.
            So how does retouching and restoration , and the theory behind it come into practice in India? For this purpose, I visited Gigi Jacob and Nagamurthi Pareet, both conservators at INTACH Delhi. Over the span of conversation  it was evident that there is startling accord between the views about conservation painfully learned in the west, and the approach used by classically trained painters and restorers.

            For the longest time in the west there was a constant to and fro between approaches to retouching that verged on completion, often acting like the restorer extrapolating and imposing his own views on the art , as could be seen in the work of most pre-19th century restorers; to restoration of the mid 20th century, which was so obsessed with the 'truthfulness' of the painting that all prior restorations were removed, leaving the objects bare and denuded.  Obviously, extremes in either are not optimal, and the current happy medium  reached is retouching and restoration, where the painting has a completeness visually, yet an reversibility that can only be achieved using high-tech materials developed in the last half of the 20th century.

            This approach  mirrors what was told to me by Jacob and Pareet, both of which were originally painters before they became conservators. This education as a painter is important, according to Jacob, as it gives a conception of artistic completeness witin an artist's style. As Jacobs says, talking about the restoring the work of Raja Ravi Varma, who's style he has studied in depth "When I look at the damaged Ravi Varma painting, I don't even have to think, because the work emerges in front of me. It is instinctive."
            The question of artistic instinct is important when looking at the creative role of the conservator. As I have said before, the maximisation of functionalities is dependent on the actions the restorer takes. The process is not mechanical, but instead is based on the dialogue between the restorer and the painting, and the possibilities are endless on the various permutations of cleaning, repair and retouching that can be done on the painting. Creative insight is a valuable resource to have for a art restorer, especially when backed by scientific data and tests done on the painting.  It is with the combination of the above that Jacob can  so confidently say that his work comes from instinct, but it is instinct born from training and experience

            This statement is intriguing, because in this day and age, we finally have the ability and resources to have a conservator- restorer who is actually a man of both the past and present. Pareet and Jacob's classical training as painters means that given the need, they are perfectly capable of making their own paints and painting in the same technique as Ravi Varma or Souza. At the same time, they are comfortable with science, and frequently refer to technology to aid their work, whether it be using teas charts to find the best solvent mixture for cleaning, or using IR and UV photography for investigation in photographs. This means that not only is the arsenal of their techniques full of tricks of the trade learned in the academy of arts, passed down from teacher to student over time, but also the algorithmic approach of the sciences.

            Being over dependent on the science however, is not the optimal solution, according to both Jacob and Pareet. What the scientific tools provide is valuable information, that compounds what they can intuit by sight, feel and touch. The role of the arts in the work of  a practicing conservator is major, and a major part of their work is based on an keenly developed aesthetic sensitivity, which invariably results when you work with paintings day in and day out. Take the case of retouching in oil paintings. Both Pareet and Jacob insist that the retouching is done according to what the client demands, ranging from complete retouching, which is almost invisible, to retouching done according to the old museum standards of philological truth, such as trattegio, astrazone chromatica, and integrazione chromatica[11], however they prefer complete retouching, as in their opinion, artistic completion is paramount.

            Indeed, as Pareet states "no matter what we do, in the end, it is the perception of the viewer that makes the painting as they see it. Whether you do trattegio or invisible retouching, the painting is still the same painting". While this might sound flippant, this is surprisingly similar to what Muñoz Viñas says about preferred states previously in this paper. A major part of contemporary restoration theories, not only in restoration of oil paintings, but also in conservation in general talks about the necessity of including all the stakeholders, be it owners, researchers, historians and art lovers, into the collaborative decision making.

            This might seem like a call for restoring with wild abandon, however, that is not the case. Instead, the conservator acts as a mediator between the voices. It is a reality of the time that a conservator spends more time with a painting than any other person in the art world, and has a greater insight into the make-up of the images. Thus the conservator is places in a unique position where he can effect a role as not only a bridge between disparate sources, but also an amanuensis, speaking for the artist and for the history in the middle.

            Much like David Bomford said in his seminar, The Conservator as a Narrator,  today, conservation is about not only bringing back the painting to its best appeal and function, but also about creating new dialogues and narratives that encompass the previous history and social role that the object of art has created around it. To quote Bomford "The difference with our younger selves is that we are more and more conscious of the complex historical narratives of these paintings we care for. It is both inevitable and understood that everything we do,... or everything we do not do... is, to quote Brandi again, an act of critical interpretation." [12] I am sure Pareet and Jacob would agree wholeheartedly.

[1]     Rule, Sheila. “Restoring a Leonardo Drawing That Was Hit by a Shotgun Blast.”The New York Times, 8 Nov. 1988,
[2]     Kimmelman, Michael. “Restoration of a Painting Worries Dutch Art Experts.”The New York Times, 16 Dec. 1991,
[3]     For a greater insight into this topic, Jukka Jokilehto's doctoral thesis A history of Architectural Conservation is a valuable read, as is Allessandro Conti's History of Restoration and Conservation of Works of Art.    
[4]     Rothe, Andrea. "Corce E Delizia." Ed. Mark Leonard. Personal Viewpoints: Thoughts about Paintings Conservation: A Seminar Organized by the J. Paul Getty Museum, the Getty Conservation Institute, and the Getty Research Institute at the Getty Center, Los Angeles, June 21-22, 2001. Los Angeles: Getty Conservation Institute, 2003. 13-26. Print.
[5]     Meraz, Fidel A.  2008 , Conservation Philosophy: Cesare Brandi and the Place and Time of Human Existence. Term Paper. School of Arts and Humanities; University Campus Suffolk, Suffolk.
[6]     Viñas, Salvador Muñoz. 2005 Contemporary Theory of Conservation. Oxford: Elsevier Butterworth-Heinemann,  Print.
[7]     Richardson, John. "Crimes Against the Cubists." Editorial. New York Review of Books 16 June 1983: The New York Review of Books. Web.
[8]     Rothe, Andrea. "Corce E Delizia." Ed. Mark Leonard. Personal Viewpoints: Thoughts about Paintings Conservation: A Seminar Organized by the J. Paul Getty Museum, the Getty Conservation Institute, and the Getty Research Institute at the Getty Center, Los Angeles, June 21-22, 2001. Los Angeles: Getty Conservation Institute, 2003. 13-26. Print.
[9]     Pevsner, Nikolaus, and Jane Fawcett. 1976.The Future of the Past: Attitudes to Conservation, 1174-1974. New York: Whitney Library of Design, Web
[10]   Viñas, Salvador Muñoz. 2005 Contemporary Theory of Conservation. Oxford: Elsevier Butterworth-Heinemann,  Print.
[11]   Trattegio  is a technique where vertical colour matching brush strokes are used to fill losses. Astrazione cromatica fills in losses with abstract combinations of colour, and Integrazione chromatica fills in losses by following the dynamics of the brushstrokes
[12]   Bomford, David. "The Conservator as Narrator: Changed Perspectives in the Conservation of Paintings." Ed. Mark Leonard. Personal Viewpoints: Thoughts about Paintings Conservation: A Seminar Organized by the J. Paul Getty Museum, the Getty Conservation Institute, and the Getty Research Institute at the Getty Center, Los Angeles, June 21-22, 2001. Los Angeles: Getty Conservation Institute, 2003. 1-13. Print.

Thursday, June 9, 2016

On The Ruination of Ruins: How We Destroy our Future by Proxy.

Originally published in Kafila in May 2016.

Why do we, if at all we do, really care about our material cultural heritage? Is it because it reminds us of what was, and is, good and great in humanity? Or is it the case that we look at a cultural objet and recognise that it is the Ozymandias complex materialized, that even the great and the mighty fail? Or is it that we may never attain the great heights in purity, simplicity, or other qualities we idolize and project on the remnants of the times past?

Or maybe we just want the tourism dollars and euros. Be that as it may, only someone obtuse, or with exaggerated tendency towards the behavior philistine, would say that our cultural heritage, our miniature paintings, our ruins, our tombs, forts, wall paintings, temples, mosques , books, manuscripts, and other things this essay is too short to quantify, are not worth preserving. Also note here that I said we, because we might be a bunch of separate kingdoms and separate principalities earlier, but deep down, we were one people, separated by religion and language, but united (willingly or unwillingly), by the plain and simple fact that you can’t chose your neighbor.
In that situation, the monuments and paintings and what have you are powerful reminders of our many histories and the identities that spring from them.(here I might interject what might seem like a contentious statement in the current political climate, and say that we have evolved sufficient to realise that a larger “national” historical narrative still leaves space for local, personal, and regional histories that diverge from the grand narrative we learn in our schools). And we are hell bent on destroying all traces of them and imposing on ourselves a new, creative history.
In some cases, we may plain and simple demolish all traces of them and build other symbols of an imagined and politicized history on the remains, as happened in the case of Babri Masjid. In other cases, we may keep them “pure” but make them look as if they were made yesterday. And often, we might just indulge in willful anachronism, as seen in the case of the Somnath Temple, and the Akshardham Temple. As a citizen of this country, I get aggravated at this, and this piece is an argument for why everyone should get aggravated anytime the powers that be decide to molest our history to suit their own agendas. Or to put it plain and simply, you should get really pissed off that someone high up decides that ruin a piece of history up in Delhi, even if you were born, and never left the Andamans, and should harbor the same sentiments if something goes wrong with a trace of history in The Andamans, while you are in Delhi.
Let’s start from the beginning. The prescribed party chatter in the academic history and art world is that we were not a culture of a material history. The past was a narrative from which we could weave a million stories, but the buildings never mattered. That may or may not be true. Indology is not my cup of tea. I do know however from a cursory browse of the Archeological Survey of India’s website, that it was founded in 1871, and it has over 3600 monuments, 100,000 rare books, plates, manuscripts and original drawings. Simply put, the ASI is huge and all encompassing. It’s activities are also benignly negligent, and outdated. I don’t have to say anything, because the Comptroller and Auditor General of India says it all.
            “No mandatory requirements for inspection by Superintending Archaeologist were prescribed, Non preparation of inspection notes after site inspection, Absence of complete documentation of the works estimates, Faulty budgeting of the conservation works resulting in inclusion of extra items, Delays in completion of works and Non preparation of completion reports along with photographs after conservation.”
What would also be entertaining, if it was not so serious, was that that in the same audit report of 2013, the CAG also mentioned that in the 1538 monuments out of over the 3600 monuments under the ASI that the CAG surveyed, 81 were missing. That factoid made headlines, mostly because monuments are hard to lose unless you are have P.C. Sorcar nearby. It is not as if the ASI is doing a bang up job on the monuments it has not managed to lose. The Taj Mahal’s white marble looks more like smoker’s teeth, than the alabaster skin on Mumtaz Mahal, and the Ajanta murals are yellowed, flaking off, and in such a state of disrepair that they might be in their last decades. This is the ASI, an organization that still follows rules of Conservation set down in a manual in the 1920’s. Perhaps it is fitting that the organisation dabbling in ruins and relics is itself one.
In ASI’s defense (which is a rarely heard statement in cultural heritage circles), one can of course say that they have good intentions. Nobody would get into the field of cultural heritage if there wasn’t a deep abiding respect for culture, or at-least a modicum of it present. The question that really needs to be asked is that what are we doing wrong with our heritage? In some cases, as in the Babri Masjid, it is blatantly obvious. In other cases, the problem is a lot more subtle. To illustrate this, the textbook case is the Humayun’s tomb and the surrounding complex in Delhi. In the last decade the complex has undergone a massive restoration, alongside a community renewal project. Now the tomb of Abdul Rahim Khan-i-Khana is undergoing a similar restoration.
This restoration project, done under the Aga Khan trust for Culture, with funding from Sir Dorabji Tata Trust and in partnership with the ASI started in 2007, and finished in 2013. The aim of this project was ambitious: to prove that heritage sites can become not only self sustaining, but also act as catalysts of revitalization of surrounding areas and historic districts. In keeping with the grandiose ambitions of the project, a conservation plan was also formulated that was “a major departure from a “preserve as found approach””. This project was to be “a model conservation process for the Indian context”, wherein a mixture of hi-tech methodology was to be used in addition to the traditional crafts based approach to restoration.
A semantic analysis to see how problematic the statements made in the literature published by the Aga Khan Trust about the restoration would be a tiresome process. However, one can look at the ethical questions behind the entire act of restoration, in an attempt to see where the restoration falls on the ethical continuum. In the case of Humayun’s Tomb, the question is also muddled because of the aim to use architectural restoration as a tool for social change, and urban revitalization. For the time being, in the interest of brevity, let us concentrate solely on the ethics of restoration of the tomb.
To restore, is to return to an earlier state of functionality and purpose. The important part here is the question of function, and how to bring an object to a state of optimal functionality. Thus, when you go out to get your shoe mended, you are getting it restored, because it helps you walk better. Similarly, when classic cars are restored, they are brought back to the state they were when they rolled out of the factory; i.e. when they were as fresh and efficient as they were going to be. A similar aim comes in when we look at the restoration of art and built heritage. The aim is to regain optimal functionality.
The optimal functionality of cultural objects, however, is not as easily gauged as the optimal functionality of a mass produced good, such as a car. For one, the object is usually not mass produced. In addition, there is a cultural and historical meaning that the object has gained over time. Thus to restore functionality, the aim would not only to make the object visually and aesthetically functional again, but to also become culturally and historically functional. Herein lies the problem for the restorer; how to restore in a manner that the object regains original function, while also keeping in aspects that help the object retain the cultural and historical meanings it has gained over time.
We can divide the various functions that the object, in this case, Humayun’s Tomb into three large categories -Structural, Aesthetic, and Cultural. Going through them one by one, I can hopefully expose the nuance that is necessary in the world of art restoration. The structural function of the tomb is the easiest to deal with. It is a built structure, and to retain its structural function, it has to keep on standing up. Any damage to its structural integrity has to be repaired in such a manner that it does not decrease the other functionalities. This is in many ways, the easiest task, which any competent civil engineer can undertake. That does not mean that the restoration cannot be botched here. Consider the case of the restoration of Matrera Castle in Spain, where an architecture firm decided to restore the Castle in Cadiz by what appears like a solid poured block of concrete. The castle, over a thousand years old will certainly stand for a thousand more now, but will look like a Brutalist masterpiece, rather than an example of 9thcentury Spanish castle architecture. And herein lies the first hazard that strikes the restorer; doing something that fulfills a condition, but causes harm in another manner. The Castle is structurally stable, but the remaining two functionalities are neglected.
The next functionality we have to come to terms with is aesthetic. All objects have a certain aesthetic function that is associated with them, whether de facto or post facto. Humayun’s tomb, aesthetically is important not only because of its own appearance, already a product of a syncretic style of architecture, but also as a precursor to the Taj Mahal. Thus a restoration has to take into the consideration the aesthetic values that were in vogue when the structure was constructed. The aesthetic sensibility to be restored is not the one that is preferred today, but was of the time. In this manner, repairs done should be unobtrusive, so as to not draw attention to them, but to the aesthetic whole. This aspect of a restoration needs the input of a person who is not only proficient in civil engineering, as needed with the structural restoration, but also in art history and aesthetics. The restorer now becomes a person inhabiting the world of both art and science.
The final aspect of the functionality of the object is the hardest to put the finger down on, because it flits between many meanings, but in the interest of brevity, we can reduce it down to a simple statement “the object is a document”. In the case of Humayun’s Tomb, the document contains information that everyone interprets differently. A historian might look at the historical role of Humayun’s tomb in the various goings on in Delhi. A sociologist might look at roles it plays in the areas surrounding it and how life is affected there because of it. A folklorist might study the stories involving the tomb to gauge a greater understanding of it in time and place, and so on and so forth. The onus then falls on the restorer to maintain the maximum “legibility” of the various aspects of this document, which not only is a moment crystallised in time, but is constantly evolving.
This aspect of restoration is the most challenging, for it requires the most nuance and sensitivity to the object, and here the wheat is separated from the chaff. Your average restorer will do a competent job in the structural and aesthetic restoration, but a cultural restoration requires a astute mind with not only sensitivity but also empathy. And this aspect of restoration truly brings about the social role of an art restorer, for the restorer becomes not only a guardian of materiel culture, but also of the intangible culture that constantly evolves and gains greater meanings. Sadly, we have been let down in this very aspect by the team at Aga Khan.
When you come to Humayun’s tomb these days, the walls are white, and the paint is fresh, and the plasterwork crisp. It feels like the building was made yesterday, and the gap of centuries, and the history that filled them, just disappeared. What happened to the time when the entire complex was a refugee camp for the migrants from the partition? What about the time the British caught the last of the Mughals, Bahadur Shah Zafar, hiding in the tomb of his ancestor after the failed mutiny of 1857? What about the English style landscaped garden that surrounded the Tomb? What about the feeling of entering the tomb of the Grand Mughal, a man who ruled over large parts of the subcontinent? It is all erased under the whitewash and plaster and paint of contemporary restoration. How can we as a nation have a sense of history when we just whitewash and plaster over it?
People might rise to the defense of the restoration, by saying that it served as a valuable “catalyst for urban revival”, and was “a departure from the preserve as found approach”. This is true. When I walk down Nizzamudin Basti, I do see the difference the restoration has done to the fortunes of the area. Tourist dollars and influx of visitors has done the place well. The question I want to raise is, at what cost? In keeping the structure stable, and aesthetically pleasing, and divorcing it of all context and history, has the restoration not left us with a caricature of what was? As someone involved with cultural heritage, I often ask myself that is the collective blame not on us who are tasked with being the stewards of our heritage? Or is it on us as a people who only care about our history when it fulfills political aspirations?
It isn’t just about Humayun’s tomb. All over the country, traces of our heritage are decaying and disappearing. Sometimes, they are under the stewardship of the ASI, sometimes under private trusts. Often, they just lay forgotten by the roadside. In the case of Fatehpuri mosque in Old Delhi’s famous Chandni Chowk, and the Bada Imambara in Lucknow, both are in multiple states of decay and well-intentioned but mangled upkeep. They are not under the ASI, but are wakf property, which allows the trust carte blanche to do what they see fit. Which they do. Both are still used by the congregation for prayers. The same with many temples in my home town of Jammu, which are decaying, but still under trusts, which allows them to decay. We can say that the mosques and the temples and the churches are in use, so they can fulfill their role, and are not infested by bats and pigeons, which is the general fate of ASI properties. But that is akin to taking the typical Indian stance of “chalta hai”. What is interesting, however is that the chalta hai is only in the structural and aesthetic function. We are still ready, willing, and able to rise to arms when the temporal aspect of the structure is called into question. Babri Masjid is a chilling reminder to that. The question invariably comes back to our attitude towards history, where we it seems we are more willing to transact in symbols then tangibles. Of course, leads to gradual and imperceptible decay until we suddenly find out that we lost our materiel history somewhere down the line, and all we have left is stories. Stories proliferate in this country. Maybe there is something to the Indologist chatter of us Indians not being a materiel culture.
This problem in its own raises questions for people working in the field of heritage preservation, and the arts in general. Everything decays in the end, and the heritage preservationists are in the business of slowing, not stopping the decay. So what does the preservationist do with monuments and objects like the Humayun’s tomb, which on the exterior now appears as if it was made less than a decade ago? An argument, first promulgated by Ruskin, could be made that it should have been kept in the state it was in, and just stabilized. That would be the standard museum conservator response. On the other hand, it could also be argued that (to quote Aga Khan publications) “The Splendor” of the tomb deserved to be restored to the heights of its greatness.
Of course, this debate has been going on for a long time in the trade of heritage management, whereby the aims of preservers, conservators, and restorers are not in sync. The question is, where do these internal debates end and come out to be discussed in the open public forums?
These, and many others, are questions for the people in the heritage management business to answer. As an art lover, I can say that drastic interventions such as in the case of Humayun’s tomb, made it more palatable to tourists and the uninformed. Clean manicured parks, and running fountains and streams make the place an ideal picnic spot, and the clean monument makes it appear grand; but to people who appreciate history as a living thing, and as monuments not only as tangible traces of the past, but also reminders that even the great and good fall, the restoration was not a restoration, but the death of the monument.
No longer can one go inside the monument and feel frail and human under the main dome, because the white paint job inside makes it so well lit that it feels like an auditorium rather than an overwhelming expanse of dim light that envelops you and draws you to the cenotaph of The Grand Mughal. The tiles that abound everywhere in their mosaic perfection are garish, and look like they were purchased from a sanitary-ware supplier, not made by master craftsmen who practiced their trade from here to Samarkand and Bokhara. The restored plaster on the walls keeps on falling off in large gouts, unlike the original plaster, which remained on the walls for much over 500 years, only to fall to the chisels of the supposedly well meaning craftsmen of the restoration project. These little things add up to create a feeling of cognitive dissonance, where you see traces of the original architects work, surrounded by, and competing with an overly garish and eye-catching restoration. Hardly the experience one looks for when searching for the sublime in our past.
The Humayun’s tomb complex today, is like a classical marble sculpture, painted over in gaudy colours “because that is how they were when they were made”, disregarding all the time and cultural associations made in the middle. This, and other acts of historical recreation are worse than the plain and simple destruction of monuments, and theft; because the monument remains, only mangled and fooling the unknowing and leaving a caricature of what was, for the generations to come . By taking a chalta haistance at all these acts, we as a people are doing gross disservice not only to our past, but also to our present, and our future. By lack of knowledge, or willful disregard, if we let our cultural heritage be destroyed, then we are dooming our selves and the coming generations to a rootless existence, full of no culture except television, movies, and pulp novels.
It is all fine and dandy to get aggravated at ISIS destroying Palmyra, the artefacts in Mosul Museum, and other sites of history in the Middle East. But it is a higher responsibility to get even more aggravated when we let our heritage slide into a downward spiral for tourist dollars and foreign grants; and if we don’t, then that smacks of the highest grade of doublethink. Not knowing is not an excuse, for the only defense of democracy and vibrant culture is a well informed citizenry. So I urge you to visit the nearest museum, the nearest monument, and see for yourself the state of things to come. For how we treat our past is how we are going to be treated ourselves. Get angry. Write letters. Sit down in front of offices of ASI and trusts and gherao them. For only if we act, can we make a difference. And hurry, because as the fire at the National Museum of Natural History showed, the past isn’t as safe as we like to think it is.
Me these days, I rarely go Humayun’s Tomb, and then only to enjoy the char bagh with its running channels of water and fountains. I don’t go inside the tomb, even though I would like nothing better than to feel small in front of the massive double dome, and be near the cenotaph of Humayun. Being in such places puts one’s life in perspective, and I think feeling small in front of something is an important feeling. But then, I would rather commune with the creation of a medieval architect, even though it was vandalised by the British and the refugees of the Partition, and amorous couples willing to etch their initials on the walls as a sign of eternal love; than with a gussied-up building that reflects a committee’s view of what Mughal architecture felt like. I just take a metro to Munirka these days, and amble in the ruins still unmolested by overeager restorers.