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NRI scientist gives George Washington a facelift

Anshuman Razdan will recreate three life-size figures of George Washington, reports Kanupriya Vashisht.
PTI | By Kanupriya Vashisht, Phoenix, Arizona
UPDATED ON AUG 23, 2005 11:41 PM IST

Americans see him everyday on their ubiquitous dollar bills, but the only physical features they recall of George Washington are his fake dentures, flaccid eyes and sombre wig.

An Indian-American scientist is now all set to relieve the father of the nation of his dollar-bill drabness and restore him to his redhead, 6`2``, 210 lb, strapping glory.

Anshuman Razdan, 40, director of the Arizona State University's Partnership for Research in Spatial Modelling (PRISM), is collaborating with anthropologist Jeffrey Schwartz, who has been commissioned by Mount Vernon Estate and Gardens, to virtually recreate three lifelike, life-size figures of George Washington.

The reconstruction is part of an $85 million facelift of Washington's Virginia estate. It will use computer imaging and some old-fashioned detective work to create three models of Washington. The statues will capture Washington as a surveyor at age 19, on horseback as commander in chief of the Continental Army at 45, and being sworn in as president at 57.

The goal is accuracy, from his earlobes and furrows on his brow to the size and shape of his hands and feet. "I'd love to say the finished likeness of George at 19, 45 and 57 will be 100 per cent accurate, but then I have nothing available to compare it with," says Razdan.

There are no known portraits or sculptures Washington as a young man.

Razdan is using cutting-edge, 3-D spatial-imaging technology to scrutinise moulds, sculptures, dentures, hair samples, clothing, painted portraits, and all available written descriptions of Washington's physique and personality to create the three models.

The figures will be moulded from high-density Styrofoam and clay but will look lifelike, complete with hair, eyes and garments.

"This "de-aging" project will be the first forensic venture of its kind, and will serve as the standard against which future similar projects will be judged," says Razdan.

Forensic science and imaging technology thus far have only been used to show the effects of aging on people. Razdan is faced with reversing the effects of age, and factoring out details like wrinkles, and tooth and bone loss.

The journey backward will pose a considerable challenge because Washington lost all his teeth by 53. To reconstruct him with his full set of natural teeth, his red hair, rounded mandibles and pinned back martial shoulders will be quite a task.

"The challenge and excitement of this project," says Razdan, "have been in trying to work with interdisciplinary experts. In trying to translate adjectives like austere, youthful, cheerful or pensive into exact scientific measurements."

"There are no known paintings or sculptures of Washington in his youth, when he had red hair and all his teeth," he adds.

The research will heavily lean on a terra-cotta bust made by French sculptor Jean-Antoine Houdon in 1785. To create it, Houdon spent weeks with Washington and used plaster to make a "life mask." Washington's family members claim it was the best likeness of him ever made.

Forensic investigators from the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the police department in Alexandria, Va, and the Centre for Missing and Exploited Children are advising the team. Also assisting are experts on Washington and colonial art, clothing and history from Fine Art Conservation of Virginia, the University of Virginia and the Smithsonian Institution. Even a plastic surgeon has been enlisted.

Once complete, Razdan's team will send forms, images and models milled from hardened foam to Studio EIS, a sculpture studio in New York City. The studio will apply paint, fake hair, clothing and glass eyes to complete the lifelike figures.

The project, to be completed in 2006, will be the most extensive addition ever to Mount Vernon, the most-visited US home and the longest running preservation project in History. The models will occupy a 67,000-square-foot addition to the estate that will include an orientation centre, a 23-gallery museum and a state-of-the-art education facility.

Once complete, Razdan's historic makeover of Washington might forever change public perception. There is some evidence George has lost favour with Americans. A Gallup poll in November 2003 found that Americans rated Washington the sixth-best president, down from a four-way tie for second place in 1999. John F Kennedy and Abraham Lincoln tied for No 1 in the latest poll, followed by Ronald Reagan, Franklin Roosevelt and Bill Clinton.

Razdan says he would love to do something similar with Nehru, Lincoln, and yes, Tantya Tope No, Razdan is not Maharashtrian. He is a Karnal-born Kashmiri who likes playing cricket and golf when he is not too busy being a scientist. As a matter of fact, this father of four would love to "virtually" play around with Gavaskar or Pataudi after he is finished with George Washington.

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