Coming back to life

Last Updated: Sun, Jul 08, 2012 05:50 hrs

The Taj Mahal Palace has repainted the bad memories away. Paintings in the hotel damaged in the 26/11 Mumbai attack have been given a second life by the Art Life Restoration Trust in Delhi. It took about 10 months for Priya Khanna and her team to restore some of these masterpieces by Indian artists. Now, like the rest of the Taj hotel, these paintings look as if the devil had never laid eyes on them.

A few days after the attack, Khanna, a specialist in the conservation of art, was summoned from Delhi. She found herself in the Taj ballroom, where the pillars are made of the same kind of iron that was used to build the Eiffel Tower in Paris. The hotel administration had stacked its large art collection in the ballroom for Khanna to examine. Based on her report, the company decided to restore only those paintings which wouldn’t be costlier to repair than their original price, and which wouldn’t remind them of the nightmare. “Some of the paintings had something like 50 bullet holes in them,” says Khanna. “Those works, unfortunately, had breathed their last.”

For the “high-value” paintings, Khanna’s conservationists stationed themselves at the hotel, where they built a makeshift restoration studio. “Low-value” paintings were taken to Khanna’s studio in Defence Colony, Delhi, for repair.

The Taj’s collection was built between 1965 and 1969 by two young women. Elizabeth Kerkar, the hotel’s executive housekeeper, and J R D Tata’s sister Soni together went on a shopping spree which helped the hotel amass over 400 paintings. The Taj claims that 200 of these are of good quality and 100 are museum-quality.

In 2008, each work of art on display in the hotel was shielded by a thick sheet of glass. This saved many of the paintings. But others were damaged by shrapnel, bullets, smoke and even fungus that ate into the paintings and caused tears in the canvas.

“There were extremes of climate, a new ecosystem that was created during the days when the Taj was burning,” says Mortimer Chatterjee, art consultant of the Taj since 2002 and owner of Chatterjee & Lal Gallery in Colaba. Chatterjee was hired to oversee the restoration of artworks that had lain for years in the Taj’s archives.

Art is everywhere at the Taj. When you approach the reception, a molecular formula, a faceless woman, and scrawny horses fight for your attention from the wall behind the receptionist. This is one of M F Husain’s longest paintings. The artist stayed at the hotel in 1999-2000, and used to stare at the blank wall behind the reception desk, and paint. The painting he did to fill that space is the only work at the Taj gifted for a particular space.

After 26/11, Husain announced that if any of his paintings were damaged he would come down himself to restore them. Fortunately none was.

Other large paintings have been placed in the ballroom. In the early 2000s, many other works were placed in various guest suites. But when the Indian art market experienced a “renaissance” in 2003-2005, according to Chatterjee, the Taj decided to move paintings out of suites to give them a better display.

At the Palace Lounge, eight restored pieces of art hang on the walls. To the left on entering the lounge hangs a Jehangir Sabavala painting, which purports to show a scene of Bombay Harbour, as seen from the hotel. Sabavala painted this when he stayed on the fifth floor of the hotel in the 1950s, at the height of one summer. At first glance, the painting appears as if Sabavala was distracted by thoughts of the Mediterranean Sea, because the boats have bright, fruity-coloured sails. Perhaps he was. But the same painting also contains three symbols of India: two women draped in saris, a boy who looks as if he is just about to jump into the sea for a swim, and a man with a turban on his head standing with hands on hips.

But the belle of this room is V S Gaitonde’s abstract representation of the world. For this painting, Gaitonde sprinkled cutouts from newspapers and rolled paint over them. When he peeled off the paper cutouts, beautiful shapes were left behind.

This is what the exercise of restoration was about at the Taj: roll paint over bad memories to bring back the lost beauty.

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