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Works of art under water' Bring on the breadcrumbs
- Rain & reckless rescue cause ruin

Nothing shakes Bharat Bhavan, not when there are enough breadcrumbs.

Days after rainwater swept into one of the country’s biggest treasure troves of contemporary and tribal art, an ugly collage of recklessness and nonchalance has come to light.

On July 11, after a heavy downpour, rainwater surged into the storerooms of Bhopal’s Bharat Bhavan. The water swamped prints laid out on the floor to be photographed. By the time rescue efforts were launched, five to six inches of water had accumulated.

On July 20, when a list of damaged paintings was drawn up, Chandan Singh Bhatti, the acting exhibition officer, said “300 paintings became wet”, down from the figure of 3,000 put out on the first day.

“There were 40 prints which came in contact with muddy water. But since they are on handmade paper they can be easily cleaned. Ten others are damaged, but it is possible to restore these. One of M.F. Husain’s Mother Teresa prints was damaged. Swaminathan’s charcoal drawing was sullied by mud. Manjit Bawa’s pen drawing and etching by Jyoti Bhatt and Seema Ghurahya have also been damaged,” Bhatti said.

A day earlier, director Pawan Kumar Jain had, however, claimed that the affected works were “not original”. Asked about the extent of the damage, he said: “They are only prints or lithographs. They were inside polythene. So they were not damaged.”

Three hundred is not a figure that can cause undue alarm at Bharat Bhavan, envisioned by Swaminathan as a haven for the marginalised artiste.

Equally stunning was the way “first aid” was administered.

It was evening, between 6.30 and 7, when the handful of students still present in the Charles Correa-designed multi-arts complex noticed the water. They recoiled in horror.

“We were getting ready to leave. The gallery gate was opened and we jumped out of our skin when we noticed water there. Soon, (deputy director) Yusuf arrived. Water was coming out of the store, too. The man in charge of the store had gone home at 5.30. So the lock was broken,” said Mohan Shingane, a senior graphic art student from Maharashtra.

The students removed the prints and mopped up the water. By the time they were done, it was after 1 in the morning.

The next day, employees joined the rescue effort. “All the artists and staff worked together. Breadcrumbs were used to soak up excess water. It was first aid. We did not have time to consult an expert yet,” said Yusuf.

Now workers are applying Dr Fixit ' the glue “for healthy construction”, as the label reads ' along the stone slabs that cover the graceful terraces of the Bhavan. But the damage has already been done.

The picture gradually emerging indicates that an important corpus of works was affected. It is reported that Swaminathan’s entire portfolio has been destroyed. But as those in charge of the Bhavan have resorted to stonewalling, it is impossible to find out how many works have been affected.

When this correspondent was taken by Yusuf to have a look at the damaged works stacked in a corner of a hall, the first ones to reveal themselves were two drawings by Jogen Choudhury and another work by Nasreen Mohammedi.

Another dusty storeroom inside was crammed with tribal works.

Choudhury was not surprised when told how the works are kept. “Proper scientific maintenance of works in museums is unheard of here. Godowns are dumps. No labs or personnel for preservation exist. Not even in Victoria Memorial. Things are going from bad to worse,” he said in Calcutta.

That bread was used to save the paintings on the first few days is also a dead give-away of the callousness. Leading restorer Rupika Chawla said as bread is organic, using it could lead to more problems.

“Paper itself is sensitive and attracts fungus, so paperworks should be left under the fan continuously, which prevents fungus attack. Since such high humidity is being dealt with, they can be gently dried with blotting paper, mulmul and cotton wool, followed by infrared lamps. The room in which they are stored should have mountains of silica gel. Each work should be treated individually and not collectively,” said Chawla over the phone from Delhi.

But the reverse is being done in Bharat Bhavan.

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