Priya Khanna at her studio in New Delhi. Image Credit: Supplied

Priya Khanna is not an artist or art historian but she knows more about the styles and techniques of famous Indian artists than many art experts. As the founder of the Art Life Restoration Studio, the largest privately-owned art restoration studio in India, she has delved deep into important artworks, painstakingly cleaning, repairing, retouching and restoring them to their original beauty.

She looks after the conservation of the art collections of major museums, auction houses and private collections in India; and she was the one entrusted with restoring the art collection of the Taj Mahal Palace and Towers in Mumbai after most of the artworks were damaged in the terrorist attack of 2006.

Khanna was in Dubai to present a talk and demonstration of her work at d.Academy in Alserkal Avenue and spoke to Weekend Review about the art and science of restoration. Excerpts:

Restoration of an old painting by repairing physical and environmental damage, cleaning of dirt buildup and varnish discoloration. Supplied

What is art restoration and conservation?
An artwork starts deteriorating from the moment it is created and this process cannot be stopped. It can only be retarded. The deterioration is caused by environmental, biological, chemical and physical factors as well as by human negligence. Protecting artworks from these elements is termed as preservation. When a damaged artwork is repaired or retrieved to its original state, it is termed as restoration. Preservation and restoration together lead to the conservation of artworks.

How did you get interested in this profession and how did you train for it?
After graduating in commerce, I worked in my aunt’s restoration studio for a few months and really enjoyed it. So I decided to do a masters in Conservation of Works of Art at the National Museum Institute in Delhi and graduated with a gold medal.

I went to London for specialised training in conservation and restoration of oil paintings at the Courtauld Institute of Art and honed my skills by working at the Restoration Studio of the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich — the Conservation Studio of English Heritage responsible for the restoration of portraits for the House of Lords in London and some private studios. I opened my studio in Delhi in 1999 and now have 25 employees, apprentices and interns working with me.

Does your studio specialise in restoring certain types of art and specific artists?
We specialise in the restoration of oil and acrylic paintings; works on paper such as miniatures, watercolours, prints and charcoal and ink drawings; traditional Indian paintings such as Thanjavur, Thangka and Madhubani; as well as murals, stone, metal, terracotta, wood, ceramic, ivory and glass works.

We do not work with photographs or textiles. We are not restricted to specific artists and have restored works by many modern and contemporary Indian artists as well as international artists. We are committed to restoring all the artworks that we receive back to their original brilliance, preserving them and enhancing their life and value.

Does a conservator have to be a good artist?
Conservation is not about creating your own work of art or using the imagination. A conservator’s job is to preserve every bit of whatever is left of the original artwork, clean overlayers, put back only what is lost to make it look complete, and ensure that the artwork can withstand the vagaries of the environment, display, transportation and storage.

A conservator needs to have a lot of patience, technical skills, an understanding of the materials and techniques originally used by each artist, a steady hand, and a passion and dedication for the job.

What kinds of damage have you seen in the artworks brought to your studio?
In oil paintings there can be physical deterioration such as weakening of the canvas, tears, holes, losses in the ground layer, cracking, cupping, flaking and shrinking of the paint layer; chemical damage such as darkening of the varnish and colour changes; biological factors such as attacks by fungus, silverfish, termites, cockroaches or rats; and human factors such as negligent storage, packaging, transportation, display, or vandalism.

In paper works the support can shrink, separate, tear, become brittle and yellow due to acidity and get stained by rust, water, fungus or greasy hands. Common problems with metal, wood, glass, terracotta, ivory and pottery pieces include chemical reactions, encrustations and breakage due to human negligence.

We have also put together paintings that had been cut in half; and retrieved paintings that were stuck to the frame or board due to improper framing or packing. Sometimes the damage is caused by improper previous restoration such as use of inferior or non-reversible materials, painting over the original surface, and incorrect techniques used by untrained or inexperienced people.

How can this damage be repaired?
For paintings, the restoration process starts with a detailed documentation of the condition of the artwork. We then do fumigation and deacidification if required and then clean the dust, dirt, varnish and stains inch by inch. The next step is to consolidate areas of losses, repair tears and holes, add a new lining if needed and fill indentations with putty and texturing.

Finally, we fill in the colours and strokes in areas that need retouching. The important thing is to understand what materials, layers and techniques were originally used by the artist and try to match them. Damaged sculptures and pottery are repaired by cleaning, rejoining the broken pieces and filling and retouching to cover the cracks. With proper conservation materials and techniques, we can make the artwork look just as it did when it was created by the artist while also prolonging its life.

How long does a restoration take and what is the cost?
It is a slow, painstaking process and the chemical and physical processes cannot be hurried. Depending on the damage and the size of the work restoration can take from a few days to several months, and the cost varies from Rs1000 [Dh53] to several lakhs. Our charges are not based on the value of the artwork, only on the time, effort and materials required.

What has been your most challenging project?
The restoration of the art collection of the Taj Mahal Palace and Towers, Mumbai, which has important works by top artists, many of which were severely damaged during the terrorist attack. It was our first project outside Delhi and our team worked onsite in collaboration with the hotel’s interior decorators. Due to the fires the paintings were covered with soot and drenched with water.

There were bullet holes, cuts, blood stains, and pieces of shrapnel on them. We had to devise ways to handle these different problems while working to a deadline of one year. It was a traumatic and challenging project, but we beat our deadline by restoring 400 works in just nine months. I am proud to say that the hotel now does an art tour of its collection every morning.

What are some of the other interesting projects you enjoyed working on?
We worked on a Raja Ravi Verma painting that had been eaten by rats and improperly repaired by someone who painted over it. We did X-ray, UV and IR examinations and realised that the face of the woman, her girth, the way her sari was draped, her accessories and the background in the original painting were different from what was depicted on the overlayer.

We had to remove the entire overlayer of paint and repair the damage underneath to retrieve the original painting. In another case, a member of a royal family brought a 100-year-old portrait of his grandparents for restoration. The portrait by Ravi Verma was obscured by layers of dirt and the darkening of the varnish and other damage.

It took us months to clean and restore, but as soon as his wife saw it she wanted to know where the beautiful jewellery his grandmother was wearing in the portrait was. Thanks to the restoration they sold it for a good price, which hopefully made up for the missing jewels.

What are the ethical practices a restorer should follow?
Speaking for myself I avoid restoring a work if I know it is not genuine because I do not want it to be authenticated by my involvement. We can usually tell whether a work is genuine because we go so deep into the artworks that we recognise the strokes and techniques of the artists.

Secondly, we ensure that all the restoration materials, procedures and treatments we use are of superior quality, compatible with the original and totally reversible. This is important because when new and better materials and technologies come to the market or when the piece needs restoration again after about 40 years the restorers should be able to remove what we have put.

I also avoid restoring works that have more than 50 per cent damage because then most of the restored work is mine and it would not be fair for it to be sold at the high prices commanded by the artist.

With the UAE becoming an art hub do you have any plans to open a studio here?
We have worked with the new museums in Abu Dhabi and with auction houses here to prepare condition reports for works coming from India. We are in touch with museums, institutions and private collections in the UAE and would like to start by bringing our team here for one month every year. I think there is scope for us here because we have the expertise and we are closer and more easily accessible than Western restorers.

Jyoti Kalsi is an arts-enthusiast based in Dubai.