Restoration and Preservation Under Arc Lamps

(first published in Nov 2008 for Art Concerns e-Mag)

I always talk a lot about how well the camera captures an art work but this week I want to pay art restorers my long-due respect. They have an ‘eye’ that even my camera fails to match up!! While shooting with Priya Khanna on a special story on art restoration, she pointed out patches in a painting that I obviously couldn’t see but even my shots failed to show the ‘real picture’. We only managed to show a proper ‘before’ and ‘after’ version of the restored painting by using UV light. Sometimes light as we know isn’t good enough. Art restoration is a fascinating process. One could say that the affected works are given a dressing down and then re-dressed in fresh clothing, one that is identical to the old one. Be it oils, water colours, sculptures or tender paper works - everything can be and is restored.

Braggart that I am, I will now switch back to how the camera manages to offer certain details of an art work that the eye misses and that’s why when I was recently shooting Pakistani artist Jamil Naqsh’s works, I realized that some of those attending the opening night didn’t notice the vigorous brush dabs across his canvas. It’s unlikely to miss out the texture but I guess one must always looks at a large painting both from a distance and up close. Being the recluse that he is, I will always miss not being able to interview a great master like him. His first solo show in India brought in by Nitanjali Gallery was not just a smashing hit but a very satisfying show in a long time.
Talking about Pakistani masters reminds me of the late Ismail Gulgee. I shot with him at his home in Karachi about two years ago and something very interesting happened. TV makes you a master multi-tasker. I can now hear, talk, instruct, give unrelated facial expressions at the same time!! That sounds so demented but I’m afraid it's true. Specially in the studio, when we’re getting instructions on one report but we are actually reading out or putting questions to our reporters on some other report. But outside the studio, such multi-tasking can come across as rude. Gulgee was talking to me about his magnificent mosaic portraits made with lapis lazuli chips. As he spoke to me, I perfectly understood what he was saying but I was also instructing my cameraperson for certain shots at the same time. That’s when dear old Gulgee lost it, "You can either hear me or talk to him, you can't do both at the same time!!" Phew......but I'm really glad that one day of shoot was a lovely day spent with him and his wife. I remember hearing about their brutal murder days before it was out in the headlines. Pakistan's national news channel, Geo TV, had called me to transfer some shots of my report on Gulgee to their Karachi headquarters to use it for his obit. This December will mark a year of that horrifying incident. And I will always cherish a book on his art that he signed for me with much affection.

Talking of books reminds of a recent shoot that I did for a book reco. MARG publications is out with “Portraits in Princely India, 1700-1947”. In television, the challenge always is to say all that you want to in a minimum of 2 minutes. So as we say just about enough on the book, the visuals should strike the right image of the book’s contents. Since this particular book deals with princely portraits, the effort was to give it a royal treatment. The book was first made to stand and then decked up with some jewelry in the background of a rich gold and orange painting. With Raag Darbari in the audio, the mehfil was set… a perfect mood to talk history and history of portraiture in, yes, just a minute and a half!

Ornamentation almost always pleases the eye. Maybe that’s why Damien Hirst, of the grotesque formaldehyde art works fame, also does pretty kaleidoscope like butterflies works. So as the world invests in his butterflies instead of international falling banks at the landmark Sotheby’s auction, our original ‘mould breaking’ artist, Vivan Sundaram, makes pretty pictures of trash or that stuff that goes in our dustbins.

I told Vivan my shoot of his latest trash show was disappointing because the show was essentially a photography show of his planned city model made from trash. I would have personally liked to capture the process of Vivan having all those truck loads of trash fumigated, then sorted and finally built into a model of a city at his studio. The photographs of the ‘city of trash’ do keep you engaged but the effect is flat. The show is like a tease. It gives you the sense that you’ve missed out on something better, grander. ‘Missed out’ is the operative phrase here… because my TV reports are also what we in the studio call ‘teasers’ for an actual art show… but not (I hope) with a sense of missing out.


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