More than 50 panels of 17th-century ceiling paintings at a Tamil Nadu temple that were in the danger of being lost for ever have been restored by an INTACH (Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage) team. Experts have described these paintings as masterpieces of Indian art.
The paintings in Devasiraya mandapam of the Tyagarajaswami temple at Tiruvarur, about 40km east of Thanjavur, tell the story of how the image of Lord Tyagarajaswami was brought to Tiruvarur by a monkey-faced Chola king, Muchukunda. Because of decades of neglect and damage from water leakage, smoke, fungus, insects, dust, bird nesting, and other factors, nearly half of the panels had been severely damaged, and the other half were in acute danger of similar deterioration.
Following the sustained efforts of Ranvir Shah, founder trustee of Prakriti Foundation, an INTACH team led by KP Madhu Rani was allowed to clean and preserve the paintings, to waterproof the roof of the mandapam, and thus to save these priceless works for future generations.
Prakriti Foundation in Chennai has now published a comprehensive photographic and scholarly documentation of the Tiruvarur paintings, with the exquisite photographs of VK Rajamani, the doyen of art photographers in south India, and a scholarly introduction and annotation by Professor David Shulman of the Hebrew University, Jerusalem. The book, "The Mucukunda Murals in the Tyagarajasvami Temple, Tiruvarur", by VK Rajamani and David Shulman, makes the paintings accessible to art lovers throughout the world. It is being released in the Devasiraya mandapam on January 26. The book includes a detailed description by Madhu Rani of the entire process of conservation, an essay that may be a model for all similar work on surviving medieval murals.
The release will open the mandapam to all visitors. Lectures by Professors Davesh Sonaji, Rajeswari Ghosh, Saskia Kersenboom, and David Shulman, among others, will illuminate the meaning of the Tyagaraja story and provide context to the paintings on the newly conserved ceiling directly above the audience.
The work is, however, not complete. Although 90% of the professional stabilizing of the mandapam and its ceiling has been accomplished by the INTACH team, side-waterproofing and other final touches are yet to be given. There is hope that a model of shared private-public engagement will assure the future of these paintings and completion of the work.
Experts are worried at recent speculation that plans are afoot to retouch or repaint these great paintings, thereby ruining them for ever, as has, in fact, happened at many Tamil temple sites. Experts say such retouching would be an unmitigated catastrophe now that the INTACH team has completed its scientific cleaning and conservation. The difference between retouching or repainting and careful conservation is vital: the former destroys; the latter keeps such works alive as close as we can get to their original forms. This difference has not yet been sufficiently internalized by the bodies responsible at many temples and surviving palaces, they point out.