It reveals the greatness of jaded paintings

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S. Madhan, who has restored 21 paintings by Raja Ravi Varma, calls the process a combination of art and science

S. Madhan, who has restored 21 paintings by Raja Ravi Varma, calls the process a combination of art and science

The restoration and conservation of works of art is a difficult and painstaking process, especially when the work of art is damaged by time. S. Madhan, a Tamil Nadu-based art restorer, will attest to this, as he has restored 21 precious paintings – all over a century old – by legendary artist Raja Ravi Varma. Mr. Madhan had just restored a painting ‘Parumala Thirumeni’ drawn by Ravi Varma, now kept in Kottayam.

According to Madhan, techniques for restoring and conserving works of art have evolved over the years. There are two schools of thought in the industry: “integral restoration” and “purist restoration”. The former allows additions to artwork to restore a work’s aesthetic appeal, while the latter only advocates cleaning artwork and reattaching original pieces that many have peeled off. His 15-year stint with the late VN Selvarehai, former Senior Curator of the National Research Laboratory for the Conservation of Cultural Properties, brought him into the world of Ravi Varma’s paintings.

200 paintings in all

Mr Madhan, who has restored more than 200 paintings by renowned artists, including around 45 works by KCS Panicker, was recently honored by Kilimanoor Palace, birthplace of Ravi Varma, for his contribution to the restoration of the artist’s legacy. Mr. Madhan calls the delicate art of art restoration, which promises to bring back the glory of the original painting without losing its aesthetics, a combination of science and art.

Every inch examined

An art restorer must have a thorough knowledge of the science of restoration and a Midas touch to reinstate damaged parts of paintings. During restoration, every inch of the artwork must be examined and documented. “Although I do oil paintings and murals, I will not touch up the work done by the legends, I will only reinstate the damaged parts. In normal cases, the paint showing discoloration, whitening, moisture damage, deterioration caused by biological agents such as thick fungal growth, brittleness, cracks, etc. will be restored through scientific practices.

The biggest challenge

But the biggest challenge an art restorer faces is sloppy restoration done by amateurs. “We need to get rid of previously applied materials without touching the original pigment underneath. Everything we do in restoration, such as cleaning dirt and dust off the work, is now fully reversible. Once restored, it would last 30 to 40 years if kept in good condition,” Madhan said.

A man with several accolades, like Ovia Nunkalai Kuzhu Award (Lalitkala Academy, Chennai), Ministry of Culture Young Artist Award, Tamil Nadu ‘Kalai Sudarmani’ Award, Mr. Madhan has worked with several curatorial projects high level in the country, such as the Central Excise collections in Goa (Antiquities); Mysore Palace (large canvas paintings); Madurai temple (Tanjore paintings, murals); Suttur Mat Collections, Mysore (metal objects, paintings, manuscripts); conservation of wall paintings, Balussery Kotta, Kerala; Government Museum, Thiruvananthapuram; and conservation of wall paintings at Rashtrapati Bhavan.

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