Young preservers of the ageless Golden Temple
At the holiest Sikh shrine, in Amritsar, a team of restorers and conservators is working on artwork damaged by time and neglect. HT meets them to know about their work, motivation and the blessing of working in a shrine that has history and religion in every crevice. Report by Usmeet Kaur and photos by Sameer Sehgalchandigarh Updated: Jul 13, 2014 15:58 IST
Age-old religion, timeless art and irrepressible young artists are in perfect harmony for restoration work at the Golden Temple. These artists are breathing new life into many artforms that find a place at the Sikh shrine.
Since the shrine is known as the Golden temple, the first and more prominent is gold-embossed work, found on all domes, the inner walls of Harmandar Sahib, and the door panels. Special designs have been given to copper sheets that are further covered by gold leaves. The other type is inlay work — beautiful designs depicting birds, animals, flowers engraved in marble, coloured and studded with colorful, semi-precious stones.
The art is part of a centuries-old tradition. Architectural prototype of the Golden Temple came into being as an idea combining a dharamshala and tank envisaged by the fifth Sikh guru, Arjan Dev. Instead of building the temple on a high plinth, he had it built in a depression so that worshipper had to go down to pray at the Lord’s House.
The 16th-century building was later repaired by Maharaja Ranjit Singh in 1802, an act commemorated by an inscription over the entrance to the central shrine. It was he who donated five lakh rupees for sheets of gilded copper on the roof. With time, devotees contributed too.
For the latest work, it was in December 2013 that the Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee (SGPC) hired a firm that tasked Chandigarh-based conservator Namita Jaspal, director and chief conservator at Heritage Preservation Atelier Private Limited, and her team with the project.
Narrating the process, she said, "We have actually worked on the uppermost layer of the paintings — work done in 1960 by Atma Singh. First, some pre-consolidation work was carried out, and then came the cleansing process, which was done by dry and wet methods that were very mild and safe for the paintings."
She also shared with HT her assessment of damage and the team’s approach. “Conservation work for wall paintings and murals was started in December by my team members, who are from Leh, Delhi, Haryana, Assam, Chandigarh, Pune and Punjab. Initially, they worked on three broad categories of damage — first, the paintings that are hidden under stubborn layers of dark grime; then those that are varnished and hence yellowed; and also on paintings that are covered by glass.”
About the consolidation process, she explained, “It’s done to fix loose layers of paintings. Material used for consolidation is compatible with the original material used, and this is also reversible. That means it can be taken out wherever required in future without damaging the original paintings.”
All the processes and materials are in accordance with the international code of ethics of conservation, according to Namita.
Talking about the team, Namita asserted, “First, we need to understand that restoration and conservation work is not only artwork but a blend of science and art. My team includes expert conservators as well as artists. And the most important thing is that they haven’t overlapped the original work. Rather, besides preserving the art, even the gaps are being in-painted while restoring the beauty.”
MANY LAYERS, MANY TYPESFrom keeping the golden layers intact to bringing back the pristine beauty of intricate wall paintings
and murals, the work includes delicate handling of the paintbrush and also bodily effort as the restorers have to work neck-up, quite literally,
for hours sometimes. Since many of the works need refilling of paint, some of it is done with the use of injections too.
Currently the in-painting process is being carried by a young team of students and lecturers, majority of them from Punjab. “We are purposely training young artists from Punjab so that in coming 5-10 years, if the restoration of art is needed again, these youngsters are readily available,” Namita said.
Among the artists is Manveer Singh, 27, a lecturer in fine arts from Ludhiana, who explained the routine: “Earlier, we used to work from 10am to 5pm, but, because of the extreme heat and light, we now work 7.30am to 2.30pm.”
“Our main work is to retouch the art in a way that the old form remains intact. The biggest challenge is matching the color,” he said, adding, “See, basically these walls already carry art; they are not like a white canvas on which we can use free brushstrokes. The other challenge is creating a natural earthen colour to look like the 200-year-old colour.”‘A blessing’
Supreet Kaur, a 23-year-old fine arts student from Amritsar, shared, “It is my first job and I couldn’t have asked for more. I feel I am blessed I was chosen for this work. Actually, even if I wasn’t paid for it, I would have opted for it. Anyway, we are being paid well for the hard detailing we do all day.”
Manjot and Mandeep Kaur added, “Working in the arches definitely gives us shoulder pain, cervical problems, as we have to keep are neck at a 90-degree upwards.
Miniature work also affects our eyesight, but we don’t care about that as this is the biggest project we have. Plus, listening to soulful Gurbani the whole day and working here is a delight!”
About the response from visitors, they are thrilled, “People come and give us blessings. They are proud to see that our team is mostly comprised of girls. Now that only around two months’ work is left, everyone’s looking forward to seeing the final product of our team’s hard work.”
KNOW THE INTRICATE DETAILS
The Idea: Restoration of artwork at Golden Temple was necessitated as visitors started pointing out flaking. Before 2013, too, it was done, but random painters or artists were called for it. Even some Rajasthani artists were invited but they tried to make new paintings and were stopped. Finally, SGPC planned to rope in professionals to basically work on the uppermost layer that was restored in 1960.
The People: When tender was floated, a Gurgaon-based company, Drona, won it and outsourced the work to Namita Jaspal and her firm. Namita has experience of such work since 1995. They started with a team of seven: six conservators and an archaeologist. Now, in-painting process is going on which includes a team of four conservators and six artists.
The Tools: About the paints and brushes used. Namita Jaspal told HT: “We have used very fine brushes, and paints have been made by us by mixing mineral pigments or earth pigments. Material used for consolidation is compatible with original material used; this is also reversible, so that it can be taken out wherever required in future without damaging the original paintings.”
The Target: “When we started, we knew how to stop the damage. Under ethics of conservation, within six months we have been able to do that,” said Namita. Talking about areas of focus, she listed the first floor specifically, “as it is all painted and was going through different types of damage”. The two main problems observed were: In the glass-covered areas, the paint was coming off and flaking was seen since dust was trapped inside the glass; in the varnished areas, brown patches had developed and cracks were spotted, according to Namita.