Rupika Chawla – The Impressionist

Rupika Chawla
Rupika Chawla Photo: Ishan Tankha

ELBOW-DEEP IN chemicals, Rupika Chawla is peering through a special thick lens at the micro-grains in paintings at her art restoration studio in South Delhi. Scattered around are some beautiful pieces of art along with some family memorabilia that clients request her to restore. Today, Chawla is one of India’s strongest voices on the preservation and restoration of art. Her book, Raja Ravi Varma: Painter of Colonial India, is said to have revived interest in the legendary artist’s works. But alongside writing the book and curating an exhibition of his works, Chawla actually restored many of his paintings. Hers is a decidedly hands-on approach where writing, curating and restoring are the roles she frequently takes on with equal ease. Her retrospective on the artist A Ramachandran went along with two books on his work — Art of The Muralist and Icons of the Raw Earth. If all this wasn’t enough, Chawla also curated ‘Symbolism and Geometry In Indian Art’ and recently ‘Art Celebrates’ exhibitions during the 2010 Commonwealth Games. She has been adviser to the Crafts Museum in Delhi, the National Museum and the National Gallery of Modern Art. As an academic, art historian and restorer, she believes that caring about art and culture isn’t just an aesthetic fixation; it’s the DNA of who we are. A reason why in her conversation with Revati Laul, there is a deep anguish at the loss of some of India’s most precious art and a great lament at a system that has as yet remained elusively unfixable.

Losing heritage A fungus-infested painting in the Ajanta caves
Losing heritage A fungus-infested painting in the Ajanta caves Photo Courtesy: Rupika Chawla

Why is restoration important?
Even before you can come to restoration, there are other basic things that need to be addressed. We are not taught cleanliness and hygiene in most schools and grow up not being sensitised to our environment. We do not see the disorder in our environment, nor do we have the discipline to do anything about it. Our disrespect is total when we scratch graffiti on an ancient wall, hit it hard with cricket balls or inscribe ‘Anil loves Ritu’, or some such thing on it. There is an attitude that says, “Who cares a damn about ruining some prehistoric wall!”

Secondly, we don’t mind filth around us and are unaware that we should trade it for a clean and pleasing surrounding, essential for our health as well as well as for our sense of well-being. Lastly, we don’t have a sense of history. But that doesn’t mean it can’t be inculcated. Because we don’t have a sense of history and our sense of aesthetics is non-existent, we do not regret the destruction of things that connect us to our remote beginnings, for we did not suddenly spring forth today. It’s not just culture that is at stake, it is also the environment and our lack of respect for both. As people, we are diminished, for we miss out on the joys of being in a harmonious atmosphere. Conservation helps bring back something of what has been destroyed; it restores, respects, preserves and unites the past with the present for the future.

People blame our lack of history on imperialism, on the fact that we were colonised for so long. Is that fair?
That is not correct. Imperialism ended a long time ago. Several generations have come out of school since then. I don’t think this trajectory of blaming everything on colonisation works because some of the best museums in this country — like the Egmore Museum in Chennai or the Indian Museum in Kolkata — were started by the British. There is a delightful little museum in Pudukkottai in Tamil Nadu that very few have perhaps heard of, which was also started by the British and where ethnographic, anthropological and classical objects are displayed in one smooth continuum. Besides, the British were masters in cataloguing and documentation and we certainly are rather apathetic about these essential aspects; in fact, they quite escape us.

‘Because we neither have a sense of history nor aesthetics, we don’t regret the destruction of our heritage’

So where do we start setting things right. Isn’t it a minefield?
Yes it is. The right moves have to be made by the government for the right things to happen. Not only do correct policies have to be agreed upon, but they also have to be properly implemented. Take the museums of India, for example. The rot is too deep. If a change has to happen, it has to start from the fundamentals, from the very bowels of the museums so to speak. No superficial job, no outward beautification will do. It is too late for that. We cannot risk an implosion. Conservation is a hands-on activity, which combines theoretical and scientific knowledge with history, art history and other disciplines when required.

Can you outline some of the scary scenarios unfolding in the world of art and culture heritage?
Ajanta is one. I revisited Ajanta some months ago and was again struck by the dreadful condition of these exquisite paintings. Some years ago, the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) had decided to stop the entry of visitors to these caves as there was too much human breath, too much footfall. It was decided that Ajanta will be recreated by taking photographs and simulate it in a dome. The idea was that visitors would go there and not to the original. The Japanese helped with that and the government spent a lot of money but the project is abandoned as far as I know. It is fortunate that this experiment was discarded. Once the original paintings are removed from public view, there is no way of knowing their fate. It is difficult to get information on the kind of conservation being done at Ajanta as the whole operation is clouded in obscurity. Conservation the world over is a clear and precise activity, and information is always shared. It is a profession that demands transparency. But that is not the case with the ASI. Bagh rock caves, made roughly between the 5th and 7th century, have literally disappeared. I have also seen what’s been happening at the 8th century Buddhist caves at Sittanavasal in Tamil Nadu. When I saw them in 1985, they were beautiful. I know there were losses in the paintings even then — but really, it was not much. I went back again after two years because the beauty of those paintings haunted me. But within that time there was substantial paint loss because of water-logging after the monsoons. I informed the ASI about it. Obviously, nothing got done. It is almost as if a nasty, magic broom has swept away all the flaking paint tenaciously holding on to the walls. There is more deterioration between 1985 and today than between the 8th century and 1985.

‘Conservation is a profession that demands transparency. But that is not the case with the ASI’

Where is constructive work happening to change things?
The Indian National Trust For Art and Cultural Heritage is trying hard to preserve the French colonial buildings in Puducherry. But in terms of reforming the system, I’m very cynical because of what I’ve seen. So, now I restore art at an individual level for those who are interested. At a systemic level, it’s something that the government has to fix. There is so much talent but what can it do? It is only the government that can carry the work into a larger domain.

How should the government work to preserve our heritage?
First, they have to be ready and wanting to do it — ready to pull out the innards of the deterioration that has smothered our cultural landscape. They have to realise that it is a slow, painstaking undertaking and that no quick job or easy miracle is possible. The approach needs to be holistic, combining the disciplines of conservation, science, art, history, art history, archaeology, geology, photography, a massive database and much more. I think change has to start with small things. Take, for example, what you can do to the National Museum by turning it around and making it the marvellous thing it deserves to be and not the stagnant place it is now. We are people of immense talent and sensibility; it is only a question of becoming aware and moving in the right direction!

Revati Laul is a Special Correspondent with Tehelka.


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