CONSERVATION OF THE ANVAR-I SUHAYLI AT CSMVS MUMBAI SUPPORTED BY BANK OF AMERICA ART CONSERVATION PROJECT
- Anupam Sah, Head, Art Conservation, Research and Training
A partnership of the CSMVS Museum Art Conservation Centre with the Bank of America Global Art Conservation Project resulted in the conservation of more than 200 illustrations of the 16th century Anvar-i Suhaily manuscript which was created by skilled draughtsmen, artists and scribes of the imperial atelier of the Mughal Emperor Akbar.
Almost three centuries later, during the 3rd Anglo Maratha war in 1818, this manuscript was damaged in a fire, and then in 1973 it was received as a gift by the CSMVS from the collection of Mr. Alma Latifi and kept in safe storage. It enjoys the status of an artwork of unique national value.
CONDITION OF THE MANUSCRIPT
These illustrations were received randomly cut up and stuck on pages of a scrapbook measuring 27.0 cm x 22.0 cm. This probably happened after the manuscript was damaged by fire and the charred areas cut away and the remaining parts of the folios salvaged and pasted. The adhesive on the edges caused cockling of the folios and deformed them. There were small tears accompanied by loss of paint. What was of concern was that some of the paint was flaking, losing its adhesion with the paper on which it was applied.
Folds and creases were evident on the pages. The white and red on some of the images had darkened. The calligraphic text was smudged at a number of places. The charred edges of the paper were brittle and they fragmented at the slightest touch. Random streaks of glue over the images had formed thin brown films. The continuity of the narration was disturbed and in that form the work seemed no more than a random collection of fragile bits and pieces of beautiful illustrations and disjointed text.
DOCUMENTATION AND TECHNICAL STUDIES
In the conservation centre, which is under 24 hour CC TV surveillance, the folios were handed over for treatment by the curatorial section following due diligence in the paperwork related to movement of art objects within the museum. In close cooperation with the curators, the conservation team carefully examined each folio, assessed and documented their condition and categorised the folios according to their respective priority of treatment. Each image was photographed and its treatment record prepared. Digital line drawings were made. The paintings examined under raking and transmitted light revealed areas where the supporting paper had worn off or the paint had flaked away. Ultraviolet fluorescence helped to identify glue streaks over some of the images. The darkened films that were removed from the folios were analysed using FTIR Spectroscopy and the spectra coincided with those of other animal glue samples. Spectra of materials that were used for conservation were also recorded for reference and as control data.
Examination with stereo microscopes revealed that there was a thin ground layer over the handmade paper support. Over this ground, the paint was applied with plant gum as a binder for the pigments. These gum tempera.paintings were examined with an infrared imaging system that revealed the sketch beneath the paint layers. The paintings were exactly like the drawings underneath and the details and the decorative features were applied directly by the painter without an underdrawing. The team took time to also enjoy the beauty of the painted images, the purity of the lines, the deliberate and varied representation of flora and fauna and the various colours and hues of the illustrations.
During a workshop conducted on X-Ray Fluorescence Physics, the paints on the images were analysed and results discussed.
Three types of red pigments were used - Red ochre, which is an earth pigment and an oxide of iron; cinnabar or mercuric sulphide; and red lead or lead trioxide. One of the types of white pigments was identified as white lead and the other was the one prepared from sea shells. Arsenic sulphide had been employed as the yellow pigment. Fine gold mixed with the binder was used for application as gold paint, while carbon black, collected as soot from the flame of oil lamps, was used for preparing black paint. The paint layer was of an extremely good quality, except for the verdigris coloured green in some of the folios which evidenced local fracturing and flaking.
ART HISTORICAL STUDIES
While the paintings were being treated at the Conservation Centre, in the curatorial section of the CSMVS a team was translating the Persian text, while another was comparatively studying various versions of the manuscript. A continuous narrative was being developed. Research associates compared art historical notes and interacted with the conservation team to understand the results of the technical studies.
CONSOLIDATION OF THE PAINT LAYERS
The first priority of the conservation assignment was to arrest any deterioration that could develop further and exacerbate the fragile condition of the manuscript, especially its paint layers. Some of the flaking paint layers were consolidated by introducing a low viscosity adhesive between the paint and ground layers using the natural capillarity at their junction. At times, a nebuliser was used to apply a cold fog to treat powdery paint on the surface. This fog or aerosol had a very mild adhesive dispersed in it for securing consolidation.
FREEING THE FOLIOS
After the technical studies and the consolidation, the first step was to remove the fragments of the folios stuck on the album pages. The conservation team sat down to discuss the various treatment processes and weighed the efficacy, usefulness, practicality, and adherence to conservation principles before choosing the materials, tools and method of application of the treatment. Using both physical and solvent based processes, the folios were safely separated from the support. Extreme care was taken that the ink from the rubber stamp marks did not bleed onto the image. Once the folios came off the album pages, the curators were informed that many of the folios had exquisite illustrations on the other side too, which until now were hidden from view. A fresh list was drawn up that increased the recorded number of illustrations to more than 200, an augmentation of about 40 images.
REMOVAL OF DEFORMITIES
Most of the images were cockled due to unequal strain on the folios due to the adhesive applied to fix the paintings on the album. Fortunately this adhesive was present only on the edges, and it was conscientiously removed from each folio to enable them to regain their flat form. Some folios that had accentuated folds were treated to minimise these deformities which could otherwise have caused damage to the paint layers. Polyester films were employed to manipulate the paintings that had been moistened during treatment.
PLANNED AND VISUALIZED IMPLEMENTION
It is correct practice to handle fragile objects only as much as is necessary. The entire treatment process was visualized in great detail, and armed with that experience and knowledge we planned our conservation interventions in order to minimise the interventions on the folios. All treatments that could run parallel were arranged to be implemented in sequence in the same stage of the conservation process. For instance, for acidity to be removed from a folio that had browned, the separation of the folio, minimisation of deformities, deacidification and removal of extraneous glue films were implemented in the same stage.
The minor tears on the folios were repaired with wheat starch paste adhesive and long fiber papers. The edges of the miniature paintings that had been damaged were provided with support and physical continuity using paper specially prepared to be of the same or marginally lesser thickness. The charred areas of the paintings, around the margins, were reinforced to prevent them from fragmenting. The smallest of fragments of paint or paper that had been retrieved from the album were meticulously fixed back. Repairs were implemented on tables with a light transmitting surface so that even minute misalignments could be avoided. In areas where the paint layer had been lost, keeping in mind the neutral colour of the underlying surface and the authenticity of the work, it was decided not to 'touch up', in-paint or chromatically integrate any such loss.
SHARING AND MONITORING
While we worked towards our aim, regularly monitoring the quality, progress, and financials of the project, we thoroughly enjoyed sharing our project with the media, with members of the public, school children, colleagues and our sponsors. The project generated enthusiasm and evoked admiration in those who saw this manuscript being conserved. We now plan to share the project as one of the case studies for our training programs in art conservation.
The folios were of irregular sizes and shapes from the snipping they underwent after the 1818 fire. Many of the folios were illustrated on both sides. Keeping this in mind, it was decided to inlay the folios on a mount so that both surfaces could be studied or displayed when required. An appropriate colour and thickness of the mount was decided. This mount was then specially prepared by pasting two sheets of archival kraft paper so that warping could be avoided. A window that followed the contour of the folio was cut in the mount, and the painting was inserted in place, affixed by a fine continuous strip of Japanese paper overlapping a few millimeters of the mount and the painting.
Now that the conservation and restoration is concluded, guidelines have been drawn for its storage, display, and care. A digital version of the manuscript has been prepared for purposes of reference. A preventive conservation plan has been prepared for this and other manuscripts in the collection.
At the CSMVS this has been the first time that a sponsor has partnered to specifically support the conservation of a historic and artistic work. This project has been a good exercise in collaboration between conservators, art historians, scientists and related institutions. If sensitively advocated, this project may lead to the conservation of other important artworks in other institutions in India through similar public-private partnerships.