A new documentary offers a deep dive into the preservation and restoration of Raja Ravi Varma's artworks

FP Staff
·4-min read

Owning a Raja Ravi Varma painting is not just a matter of pride, it is like owning a slice of history that must be preserved for posterity. Commemorating the 173rd birth anniversary of the legendary artist, a documentary, that released on 29 April 2021, throws light on the entire procedure of conservation and restoration of his artworks.

Featuring Rupika Chawla, art restorer, conservator and historian, the documentary, titled Raja Ravi Varma: Restoring A Master's Glory has been made by Fulbright filmmaker Dr Anandana Kapur, an award-winning director and educationist.

An authority on Ravi Varma's art with a deep understanding of his works, Chawla explains in the documentary the need for preservation, the ethics of restoration and the delicate nature of conservation of these classic paintings.

Chawla estimates that Raja Ravi Varma painted more than 2000 works during his lifetime. Many of these works are part of royal collections and are now housed in palaces and museums in Vadodara, Mysore, Thiruvananthapuram, Kochi, Aundh, Chennai, New Delhi, Mumbai and Bangalore.

Also read: Raja Ravi Varma's descendant authors book on the legendary painter's life beyond the easel

A lot of Ravi Varma's works are owned by private collectors. Some of them are known, while some are still unlisted and undocumented. The Raja Ravi Varma Heritage Foundation, a not-for-profit institution that has been working towards preserving and promoting the artistic legacy of the legendary artist, undertakes restoration of these private collections on a pro bono basis. Their main aim behind these services is to build an authentic archive of Ravi Varma's works and document as many of them as possible.

The entire restoration is done by Rupika Chawla in Delhi, who restores the artworks of many other artists as well. Depending on her availability, the restoration of a single piece could take 6-8 months or as quick as 3-4 months. While for the more intricate and trickier pieces, it sometimes takes a good year-and-a-half.

"A lot of factors come into play. Chawla accounts for factors such as how badly a painting is damaged, how poor the condition of the work is, and also how much work is already there on her plate," says a spokesperson from the Foundation to Firstpost.

One of the most primary objectives behind the restoration is to ensure that the originality of the painting is maintained to the maximum level. The spokesperson adds: "If there is an area of a painting that is torn or damaged, then the intention is to repair only that part of the painting; it is not to overpaint or make your own changes to the painting as you deem fit. You only touch up or repair the parts which have some damage in the first place."

There are also other procedures that are implemented during the restoration. For instance, reinforcement of the back of the canvas because it is very fragile; each of these canvases is around 130-150 years old. Hence during the restoration, it is ensured that the back of the canvas doesn't crumble. Then the front of the painting is also sealed properly to make sure it doesn't get damaged any further due to moisture and dirt. "The idea is to clean up the work nicely and put it up back into its original frame or the new frame (depending on the condition) and then hand it over to the owner. The point in restoration is always to touch up what needs to be touched up, and not to touch anything that is already in a good condition," the spokesperson points out.

An important thing here to note is the fact that these restoration services offered by the Raja Ravi Varma Heritage Foundation are applicable only to private owners who reach out to the foundation independently asking for some help or advice on their Ravi Varma works. The services are not offered to any art gallery or museum for that matter. "Some of these works come to us in a damaged condition which the owner wants us to restore and hand over to them. In that case, we also register them at the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI)," says the spokesperson.

Ravi Varma's works are non-exportable antiquities, they are national treasures and cannot be exported out of India. All his works are supposed to stay within Indian shores. The ASI thus makes it a point to document as many of Ravi Varma's works as possible and issues a registration number and a certificate for each of them. So people who own his works usually go through this as part of the entire process of owning an expensive artwork.

"We always advise private owners to get the restoration done by skilled and experienced professionals only who ethically restore artworks and do them correctly. That's why we choose to work with Ms Chawla, hence all the artworks one sees in this documentary are restored by her only," concludes the spokesperson.

Watch the documentary, Raja Ravi Varma: Restoring A Master's Glory here €"

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