“An art restorer is like a doctor, who diagnoses the illness plaguing a work of art and helps it overcome the condition and live a healthy life.” Narayanan Namboodiri thus sums up his niche area of expertise - conservation and restoration of art. In a career spanning nearly three decades, the former art restorer at the Eastern Regional Centre for Restoration of Paintings and Other Objects of Arts, Victoria Memorial, Kolkata has breathed life into several works of art that covet historical significance.
Namboodiri, who now works as a freelance art conservator, consultant and subject expert, was recently in the city as part of a restoration project. “Curative restoration is the last resort and is only done if the art work will not survive otherwise. The thrust is always on conservation; preserving the art work in its original form,” says Namboodiri.
The work can be laborious and prolonged as the art conservator is to avoid steps that cannot be reversed. “The methods adopted should always be reversible and the intervention as minimal as possible. There should not be any new addition to the painting or object from the side of the conservator,” he adds.
Namboodiri had his initial training in art at MS University of Baroda. When he realised that college education was beyond the means of his poor father, he decided to follow his heart. Fervently mastering brush strokes and working to fund his studies at Baroda, he found out that passion could fuel perseverance. Eventually, he was selected for an art restoration course in 1985 at the National Museum, Delhi, which also brought along a memorable experience. A young Sonia Gandhi, wife of the newly sworn-in PM, had taken charge of the restoration work at the Museum. A trained restorer, she initiated a project to collect and restore the paintings from the colonial period.
Namboodiri remembers the quite authority of Gandhi when it came to helming the Museum. “She was never bossy and the instructions were always minimal, more to set direction than to impose. But, her knowledge of the subject was evident which motivated us to perfect our work,” he says. He gives credit to her for bringing restoration into the ambit of activities that merit cultural and national significance in India.
The stint at the National Museum also gave him the opportunity to work at Victoria Memorial, where he was part of many important conservation and restoration projects. One of the major paintings he restored was ‘Lord Curzon Visiting Burdwan’, by Dutch painter H V Pederson.
“The painting was stored away in the archives of Burdwan University and was in a very poor state. Only when it was finished and the figure of Lord Curzon emerged did the historical value of the painting dawn on us,” he says.
The paintings salvaged by Namboodiri today adorn important public spaces in the country, including the Raj Bhavan and the High Court. He has also helped restore and conserve palm leaf engravings in Kerala.
“Paintings and art objects mirror the times in which they were created. It is important to preserve them for posterity. The work of a restorer or conservator is to pass on these fragments of history in the best shape possible,” he says.