This former English prof now specialises in restoring heritage stained glass
It’s delicate, intricate work. Few know how to do it. Find out how Swati Chandgadkar and her team restore coloured glass over 100 years old, across Mumbai, Goa, Chennai and Singapore.Updated: Apr 28, 2019 16:39 IST
Swati Chandgadkar doesn’t just see the world through rose-tinted glass. She sees it through rose, turquoise, amber, emerald and violet-tinted glass, all delicately hand-tinted in England, shipped here more than 100 years ago and standing in Indian windows ever since.
The 62-year-old stained-glass restorer and her team make up The Glass Studio, which has been working for more than two decades but is virtually unknown outside heritage-management circles. Their handiwork, however, is hard to miss. You’ll find much of it in Mumbai — home to some of the country’s best stained-glass panels — and in Chennai and Goa. And no, not all of it is in churches.
Chandgadkar has helped restore 2,300 sq ft of stained glass at the University of Mumbai and the city’s JN Petit Library, which features glass portraits of the Petit family. She’s spruced up panels at Mumbai’s Keneseth Eliyahoo synagogue, Jama Masjid and Jivdani Mata temple. She counts a yacht club and a museum among her clients. And she’s worked on churches as far apart as Mumbai, Goa, Chennai and Singapore.
Not a bad haul for a woman who’d been teaching English Literature for 13 years before discovering, in 1995, at a course in stained-glass conservation in the US, that she’d rather work with classics of a different sort.
Chandgadkar’s switch could not have been better timed. By the mid-1990s, India was just waking up to the idea of specialised heritage conservation. There was a move away from painting over or replacing damaged architectural detail, and there was a need for experts who understood original materials and techniques.
“India’s major cities have an ensemble of Neo-Gothic architecture, to which stained-glass is intrinsic,” Chandgadkar says. So there was plenty for her to work on.
Restoration is hard enough with architecture; masons, sculptors and ironsmiths have to be re-trained. But with glass, it is even more difficult. Much of the glass for grand structures built between 1850 and 1947 had been ordered from renowned artists and reputed studios in England. No one here knew how to deal with a crack, a split, fading colours or panes that had mysteriously thinned.
Chandgadkar’s first assignment was to restore the mammoth windows at the Mumbai university. She set up The Glass Studio in 1996, training a team in how to handle stained glass.
HANDLE WITH CARE
The job requires a delicate hand in more ways than one. “It’s not just coloured glass patched together,” she says. Nor is it just slapped on with paint. The tints are created when the glass itself is fired into being. “Making stained glass is labour-intensive and the raw materials are expensive,” she says. “Conserving it is equally costly and requires a different skill-set.”
Keep in mind that stained glass wasn’t meant for the tropics. Most Western cathedral glass (even the Notre Dame’s famous rose panels, which survived last week’s fire) are exposed to little heat and humidity through the course of a normal year.
So she’s had to get creative. Tints and materials are kept refrigerated, and her team works quickly, while they’re still cool.
Conservation architect David Cardoz, who oversaw the restoration of Byculla’s Gloria church last year, recalls Chandgadkar’s meticulous but innovative approach. “The main panels, 25 ft tall, had bulged at the base from their own weight over the decades,” he says. “Swati used aluminium casing to create a robust frame an inch behind the glass, and reinforced it with a polycarbonate sheet. Anyone else would have just removed the original panes or fused the separating bits with slapdash copper foil.”
When it comes to stained glass, misconceptions persist.
First, there’s the traditional Indian belief that broken glass is inauspicious. We’d rather remove than repair, particularly for religious imagery. “When I started out, I had to convince owners and sometimes architects that their antique stained glass cannot be replicated and therefore needed to be preserved,” Chandgadkar says.
“Another misconception is that stained-glass windows are tall and meant for large spaces. I have enjoyed creating partitions, screens and window dressings in homes and stores.”
The large-format panes, however, have epic stories to tell. Look closely and several designs will reveal markers of their context. For her work at the Jama Masjid in Mumbai, a 220-year-old mosque, she had to study calligraphy and design to follow the style’s Islamic adaptations.
The stained glass in Mumbai’s old churches, meanwhile, feature people dressed in kurtas, chappals and jodhpurs in the Nativity scenes.
Chandgadkar especially likes the story behind one panel at the St Thomas Cathedral. The story goes that when the glass works arrived by ship to India, the face of St Thomas had been damaged. “The cathedral requested the studio [in England] to replace it,” she says. Henry Holiday, the designer who’d created the tableau, wasn’t thrilled about the extra work. “He painted his own face on instead. So what we see now is Henry Holiday’s face with a not-so-pleasant, rather disquieting expression for a saint!”