Mumbai: At first, they were meant to be only generic islands— four crescents of ridged gold foil, rising in three dimensions out of a chocolate-brown sea. But as Rajesh Pullarwar crafted his foil, the tip of one of the islands, in one corner of his large, four-panelled work, began to take on the shape of peninsular Mumbai, a thick finger pointing downwards. “It wasn’t entirely intentional,” Pullarwar says, “but it turned out to be very appropriate.”
Golden Islands, an acrylic-on-wood creation, will be the central piece of art in the Harbour Bar when it reopens in early December after being ravaged—along with the rest of the Taj Mahal Palace and Tower—in last November’s terrorist attacks. The attacks, or their memory, were in no way a part of the brief given to Pullarwar, a 34-year-old artist from Mumbai. But they intruded nevertheless. “This is a peaceful painting,” he says. “And I wanted to emphasize that while we shouldn’t forget the attacks, we should forget our fears.”
As with one work, so with the collection. “There isn’t any overarching theme to what we’re doing this year, any more than there was last year or the year before,” insists Mortimer Chatterjee, a partner at the Mumbai gallery Chatterjee and Lal, who helps curate the art on display at the Taj. But there is, he admits, a desire to celebrate Mumbai—not only by awarding commissions to the city’s promising young artists, but also via the subject matter the artists then choose. “The number of new commissioned works that we’ve added this year,” Chatterjee says, “is in the dozens.”
Chatterjee has been curating the Taj’s art since 2002, when he was hired to appraise the collection in time for the hotel’s centenary, and when he famously found masterpieces squirrelled away in dusty storerooms and at least two abstract paintings suspended upside down in hallways. Chatterjee, who worked at the time for Bowrings Fine Art Auctioneers, had called it “by far the best collection of contemporary Indian Art in India”.
Since then, the collection has expanded, and today Chatterjee can choose for display from a trove of nearly 4,000 pieces of art. Many of these are the prints or etchings that hang in the hotel’s rooms, but there is a significant number of masterpieces; asked to pose for a photograph, Chatterjee picks up a framed Jehangir Sabavala canvas, titled Still Life with Vegetables, which is conveniently at hand.
The rotations of art and the normal schedules of restoration and conservation mean that Chatterjee’s is, in any case, an assignment in constant flux. “What we’ve been doing since 26/11 is an extension of what we’ve always been doing,” he says. “Renovations are always happening at the Taj. But obviously this time it’s much bigger in scale.”
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The massive redesign of large sections of the Taj—regrettable, but necessary—has provided distinct opportunities for Chatterjee to deploy art differently. Apart from Pullarwar’s Harbour Bar commission, for instance, there are other exciting new additions, such as Sadanand Shirke’s minimalist, five-panel vinyl of clean lines and red spaces for Wasabi, the Japanese restaurant. (“The horizontal straight lines resemble the Bandra skywalk,” Shirke says. “But they are also symbolic of Mumbai—that life here goes on just as the lines go on.”) There is also a chance now to restore and display at the same time nearly all the great works in the Taj’s collection, particularly those from the severely wrecked heritage wing of the hotel.
A couple of years ago, thanks to a fortuitous and far-sighted decision, every exposed painting in the hotel was covered with a plate of glass. In the hurly-burly of 26/11, therefore, very few works were irreparably torn or bruised. Instead, the art in the heritage wing suffered two other kinds of harm. When parts of the hotel were set on fire, smoke curled into the paintings, behind the glass, to coat their surfaces with soot. Then, after firemen doused the wing with water to put the fires out, fungus began to grow on the damp canvas or paper. “Paper is especially vulnerable. Even today, we keep seeing more prints being brought in to us from somewhere or the other in the hotel,” says Priya Khanna, a New Delhi-based art restorer who is working on the Taj collection. Earlier this year, Khanna set up a restoration studio on the premises of the Taj and posted four members of her 15-person staff on deputation there. Using an archive of photographs as a reference, her team has resurrected at least 140 paintings. “Some of these we had planned to restore even before the attacks,” Khanna says. “Then it became even more important to do so after last November.”
Restoration art: Curator Mortimer Chatterjee says renovations are always happening at the Taj Mahal hotel, but this time it’s much bigger in scale. Ashesh Shah/Mint
Fungus is, in this case, the restorer’s arch foe. Khanna’s team fumigates each work in an airtight chamber and, after the fungus has been killed, carefully cleans its dried remains off the surface. “Some fungi leave secondary damage. They eat away at the oil, which binds the pigments together, or they leave a stain,” she says. “So we have to get rid of the stain, and colour-match sections again. Or if it’s an oil painting, we have to reintroduce a binding medium between the pigments.”
With paintings that have been partially or even completely covered by a film of soot, the team cleans a square inch at a time, using chemicals that don’t affect the oils beneath. Rips are patched from the rear, to blend into the weave of the canvas; bold impasto strokes are redone painstakingly; colours are matched with a finicky eye. “Ultimately,” Khanna says, “we want the damage to not be visible at all.”
Khanna remembers one M.F. Husain canvas vividly for its particularly grievous injury. Water had dripped right from the top of the painting to the bottom, paving a pale 2-inch-wide strip in its wake. “The water had loosened the ground on which the paint film was sitting,” she says. “The entire strip had flaked off. We had to clean and consolidate, and we had to fill in the strip and match its texture to the rest of the painting. Really, we just have to hold on to every bit of what is left, and work with that.”