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ASI restores 400-year old paintings



The majestic Thanjavur Big Temple. — Pics. by V. Suresh Kumar.

THE ARCHAEOLOGICAL Survey of India has, for the first time in the world, used its unique de-stucco process and restored 16 Nayak paintings, which were superimposed on 1000-year-old Chola frescoes at the Thanjavur Big Temple. These 400-year-old Nayak painting)s have been mounted on fibreglass boards and will be on display at a separate pavilion. Credit goes to the chemical branch of the ASI for this achievement.

The Thanjavur Big Temple, constructed by Raja Raja over 1,000 years ago, displays brilliant Chola frescoes on the walls around the sanctum sanctorum. These frescoes werediscovered by Prof. S. K. Govindasami of Annamalai University in the 1940s. The frescoes, brilliantly portraying the mythological episodes of the Journey of Saint Sundarar and the Chera King to heaven, the battle scene of Tripurantaka (Lord Siva) with Asuras, and the like captivate the viewer. Prof. C. Sivaramamurthy has described the Chola frescoes of the Thanjavur Big Temple as a masterpiece of Chola art, distinguished by power, grandeur, rhythm and composition, and unparalleled by any other contemporary painting.

The Chola artists have proved their mettle by portraying even the Asura women with a sense of beauty. The unearthing of the Chola frescoes has drawn appreciation from historians and archaeologists all over the world. Some of the paintings in the sanctum sanctorum and the walls in the passage had been damaged because of the soot that had deposited on them. Owing to the continuous exposure to smoke and soot from the lamps and burning of camphor in the sanctum sanctorum over a period of centuries certain parts of the Chola paintings on the circumambulatory passage walls had been badly damaged. The Nayak kings, therefore, decided to replace them with a few paintings of their own, about 400 years ago.

According to Dr. R. Kalaikovan of the Rajamanickanar Centre for Historical Studies, in retrospect, it was a blessing in disguise. The upper layer of the Nayak paintings had actually protected the Chola frescoes underneath from further damage.

In the 1980s, the chemical branch of the ASI came out with a unique `destucco' process to remove the upper layer of Nayak paintings and display the same on fibreglass boards.



The restored Tripurantaka figure on fibreglass board.

The chemists of the ASI, after a careful study of the Chola frescoes and the Nayak paintings, fixed chiffon cloth over the Nayak paintings, and applied polyvinyl acetate.

When the cloth had stuck firmly on the Nayak paintings, they delicately stripped it off, without causing much damage to the lower layer of frescoes. This time-consuming and painstaking work was carried out under the direct supervision of Mr. Madhav Sharma and Mr. Mukherjee of the Department, who visited the temple at regular intervals and studied the condition of the paintings. At times, the process went on for several months.

This arduous task was completed about 15 years ago. A couple of months back, the chemical branch of the ASI decided to mount them over fibreglass boards; and with the help of senior chemical experts in the field,the work has now been completed. The paintings include Tripuranthaka door Jambs and saints with fire pots on their head.

The ASI is now setting up a separate pavilion on the long corridor (prakaram) near its office, to display the 400-year-old Nayak paintings..

V. GANAPATHY

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