Interview: Art Conservation Guru Preserves Sacred Paintings' Spiritual, Material Sides

Anupam Sah (R) is the Head of Art Conservation at Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya's Art Conservation Centre (L) in Mumbai. (Robert Cutts/Flickr)

Much of Anupam Sah's work happens behind the scenes at Mumbai's Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya (CSMVS), formerly the Prince of Wales Museum of Western India. Sah is a distinguished art conservation-restoration practitioner and Head of Art Conservation at the museum's acclaimed Art Conservation Centre who has received the Sanskriti Award for Social and Cultural Achievement in recognition of his community engagement efforts and work in heritage conservation.

Join Asia Society India Centre's AsiaLens programme this Saturday, July 13 as Sah gives an exclusive glimpse of his very own studio at the CSVMS Museum Art Conservation Centre. He will specifically focus on conservation treatments and techniques of Nepalese thangka paintings in the CSMVS permanent collection. The event is organized in partnership with CSMVS. RSVP is required; Asia Society members will be given seating priority.

How did you become interested in becoming an art conservation-restoration practitioner?

Since childhood I wanted to take up a profession that allowed me to study and strive to excel in multiple disciplines ranging across the sciences, humanities and including working with one's hands. Art conservation provided me this opportunity.

What are some of the greatest challenges you face on the job? Is your experience working at an art museum in Mumbai different from that of a colleague in, say, Paris or Tokyo?

Contemporary art conservation training and dissemination in India is essentially in the English language and thus even the sharing of this information skims a very small section of Indian society. There are very few structured training courses in India at the moment and few trainers.

The experience at the CSMVS museum is extremely positive. There is a lot of flexibility and room to implement innovative ideas. This museum is a great team place where the conservation, curatorial, logistic, security and other departments work in tandem, in a quite informal manner. Personal communication plays a greater and more effective role in India, I feel. This may or may not be different for a colleague in, say, Paris or Tokyo. :)

Thangka is a traditional form of Buddhist art with Tibetan, Indian, Chinese, and Nepalese influences. Does this imply that there are different schools within thangka painting?

Yes, there are different schools and styles. Various factors determine this — geography, availability of raw materials, socio-cultural influences, [the] schools of Buddhism they follow.

What kind of special considerations do you take in mind when conserving and restoring thangka paintings as opposed to other media in the CSMVS Museum's collection?

The thangka, first and foremost, are means for the Buddhists to achieve their aim of spiritual development, and are not just material works of art. As such they need to be treated at the conservation centre with that sense of respect, regard and that thought of sacredness.

How do you go about maximizing the "lifespan" of a thangka painting?

By first of all improving the structural stability of the thangka support and the paint layers.

About the Author

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Asia Blog contributor Paul Chung is a senior at Swarthmore College studying Economics and Chinese. He loves anything related to East Asia, news and media, arts and culture, and travel.