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Buddhist murals in Ladakh

The Buddha smiles again


Two conservators recount their experiences restoring Buddhist murals in the remote parts of Ladakh.

Long before Deepika Padukone made art conservation fashionable in Love Aaj Kal, Sanjay Dhar had chosen it as a career. Dhar grew up in Srinagar and began life as a medical representative. But in 1986, he threw up his job and enrolled in an art conservation course at New Delhi's National Gallery of Modern Art (NGMA). The NGMA ran the only such programme in the country at the time.

Those were early days and conservation as a profession did not exist. The government recruited art conservators only from its existing pool of employees. "When I appeared for my interview at NGMA, " says Dhar, "one panelist asked whether I knew there were no job prospects in the government for art conservators. "

Dhar's family didn't know how to respond either. When he broke the news to them, his folks were casual. "Most of them did not really have a view. I was looked upon as some sort of an activist-pioneer. I guess they thought that since I was doing something so unusual, I must actually be right. "

Today, Dhar is among a handful of people in the country who specialise in wall painting conservation. With around eight major projects to his credit, he is also one of the most experienced. He has worked in Ladakh, Orchha and Tonk, spending months every year restoring wall paintings by Buddhist artists, Bundela and Rajasthani kings.

While a career in art conservation is more accepted now, there is still a dearth of people who specialise in restoring wall paintings. "There are many who focus on easel painting conservation, which is an advanced field in the country, but not wall paintings, " says Sreekumar Menon, a Noida-based conservator. "There are no universities in India that teach wall-painting conservation as a specialised subject. "

Menon is currently restoring Buddhist wall paintings in the temples and monasteries of Ladakh. It is a demanding job that requires him to trek for three or four days at a stretch just to reach a worksite. "You have to plan the trek a month in advance, " he says. "You can't afford to forget anything because it will be very difficult to go back and fetch it. "

Once there, he camps at the site for a few months, working all by himself. "There is no disturbance and no cell phones. It allows me to focus on my work. Every two or three days, when somebody goes to the town, we ask him to call up our families and tell them everything is alright, " he says.

The earliest Buddhist paintings in Ladakh date back to the 10th century AD. "But they are a continuing tradition which goes on till today, " says Dhar, who has also worked extensively in Ladakh. "There are different processes we follow for different paintings, but the thumb rule is that the materials we use must be sympathetic to the original medium. " The original medium consists of vegetable dyes or earth colours - yellow, brown and red ochre - found in their natural state in the earth.

Conservation in Buddhist temples and monasteries can be an elaborate exercise. These "living temples", as Menon describes them, need to be deconsecrated before conservators begin their work. This needs the presence of a high lama or a rinpoche, who arrives with an entourage of over 200 people and ritually transfers the spirits into mirrors in structures built outside. Worship continues in those structures until the restoration work is complete.

Conservation may entail a lot of hard work, but it is only a small part of the whole process of restoration. "It is only 25 per cent, " says Menon. "The rest has to be done by the local people whom we train to look after the paintings. After all, conservators like us finish their work and leave. It is the locals who have to live with the paintings. "

The lack of skilled conservators in the country has meant that the services of people like Dhar and Menon are much sought after. The money is good for those who have earned a reputation. "Starters in the profession often get paid better than starters from many engineering courses, " says Dhar.

Apart from being financially rewarding, the work is emotionally fulfilling too. Dhar has a photograph of a villager in Ladakh's Shey village looking reverentially at a wall with folded hands. "This room had been given up, it was being used as an animal yard, " he says. "Now that the paintings have been restored, it's like people have rediscovered their roots. This is one of my favourite pictures. "

Sanjay Dhar and Sreekumar Menon will receive funding from AkzoNobel for a PhD in wall painting conservation from the Courtauld Institute Of Art, London

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