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Vol. XXXII No. 11, September 16-30, 2022

Physician to The Bronze Gods

-- by Vijaysree Venkatraman,

‘Archaeological Chemist, temporary … at cost of Rs. 1,500 for the year 1929–30 … required for work connected with the treatment of bronze images in the Museum,’ the advertisement read. The superintendent of the Madras Government Museum, F.H. Gravely, had written to the government, saying that hundreds of archaeological bronzes in his collection were ‘affected with a “disease” which went on spreading by degrees, destroying all the surface, and converting the interior of the bronze into amorphous whitish green powder.’ The museum, established in 1851, was an official showplace of Madras city by the turn of the century. Its bronze collection was highly prized – so this was no small matter.

The bronze images in question were religious deities. Many of them had originally been commissioned by the rulers of South India, notably the Cholas, from the 9th to the late-13th centuries. These idols, the utsavamurthis, were portable versions of the stone deities. A Shiva temple could feature its chief deity in various forms: The Bull Rider, The Destroyer of Three Cities, or The Mendicant, for instance. Bedecked in flowers and finery, the idols are taken outside the temple premises in ceremonial processions, to this day. There are also the bronze deities of egalitarian saints who wanted devotees of all castes to have access to temple deities. When the powerful kingdoms of the south disintegrated, many of the bronzes, were buried for safekeeping. Under the Indian Treasure Trove Act of 1878, the unearthed bronzes, found their way into museums.

Dr. S. Paramasivan (1903-1987) was the archaeological chemist who would go on to save many of the corroded idols from the ravages of time. Even though he had no experience in conservation science, Paramasivan, a young scientist who had trained under Nobel laureate C.V. Raman, was the man for the job because he had studied electrochemistry. “It is well known that corrosion is an electrochemical process, and a reversal of this process will restore the corroded object, back to its original state,” Paramasivan would write in a research paper. He would build and develop the Chemical Conservation Laboratory – one of the first attached to a museum in India. Fulbright scholar Sanchita Balachandran, who is now the conservator at the Johns Hopkins Archaeological Museum in the United States, has documented the work of this pioneer in a scholarly, but accessible paper, available online for free.

Before placing the ad for an archaeological chemist, Balachandran writes that the authorities had tried to hire a traditional Indian craftsman specializing in bronze casting to take care of the “diseased” idols. Traditional methods of care serve temple idols well in the normal course of affairs, but the interred bronzes were a different story altogether. Bronze idols, made largely of copper and tin, were corroded because of chemical reactions underground. They had developed crusts or an entire layer of patina. When the product of corrosion was copper carbonate, there was little cause for worry. But salts like copper chloride and copper sulphate ate into the idols, causing damage and disfigurement. “Some of the bronzes have malignant patina on them,” Paramasivan wrote. “A patch of it, not larger than a pin’s head, may remain passive for years and then, for no apparent reason, suddenly become active.” Bronze disease, caused by corrosion, suddenly sounds a lot like cancer of bronze icons.

Caring for Bronze Deities

So how could malignant patina be turned into something benign? To teach himself the museum practices of the day, Paramasivan sent for relevant books and journals from abroad. He favored a procedure known as electrolytic reduction. Its boast was that “it could restore the metallic element of an object to its original condition, decomposing the corrosive salts that caused ‘bronze disease,’ even when they were hidden within the pores of a corroded specimen.” The technique was in use in leading museums abroad, but there were significant challenges for its use in South India – the size of the bronzes for one. “The former is analogous to a laboratory scale of work and the latter to the industrial scale, which demands a technique of its own,” Paramasivan wrote.

The technique, ingeniously adapted to local conditions, worked wonders. Bronzes that appeared shapeless and unrecognizable, were restored to their original form, and many interesting details have been laid bare, Paramasivan wrote. The treatment was so effective that the museum decided to run it – ‘six hours a day, six days a week,’ on various bronze objects in their collection. As a result, the museum quickly exceeded its annual electricity allotment. The superintendent had to put in a request to double the funds for electricity.

Eager to embrace modern technology, Paramasivan would collaborate with the director Captain T.W. Barnard at the Barnard Institute of Radiology of the Madras Medical College to develop radiographs, or X-ray images, of idols, particularly the valuable and heavily corroded bronzes. The images indicated the extent of the damage and what results to expect at the end of the treatment.

Expert on Call

Paramasivan did not restrict himself to bronzes. He began treating stone sculpture and iron implements in the museum which were “in imminent danger of total decay.” Thanks to his quest for an optimal, insect-proof material to print exhibit labels, he became a resource person even for the botany and zoology departments. Research, exhibition, preservation, analysis, and study of the artifacts – all this seemed to go together for Paramasivan.

Recognition for his work arrived swiftly. In 1935, a survey of 105 Indian museums and art galleries, funded by the Carnegie Corporation of New York, assessed museum practices in India and compared it with museums elsewhere in the British territories. The Madras Museum won special mention for well-presented exhibits and was singled out as one of the few institutions where they carried out research related to the treatment and preservation of museum exhibits. As an upshot, the museum’s laboratory, which was housed in a temporary three-roomed structure, was allotted new space. In 1937, Paramasivan outfitted and developed the Chemical Conservation Laboratory. A host of artifacts – made of stone, marble, textiles, leather, and metals – came up to this lab for treatment, preservation, and systematic research.

The archaeological chemist’s post, however, remained temporary. Gravely’s letters to Government of Madras emphasized Paramasivan’s scientific knowledge and reminded the authorities of the chemist’s crucial role in maintaining the financial and cultural value of the museum collection, Balachandran writes. In response, one officer had commented: “Since 1930 he [Paramasivan] has not been able to get a better paid job and he is not likely to get one hereafter. Even if he leaves it should be quite easy to get an equally competent man.” Due to a technicality, which limits the length of time a government position could remain temporary, Paramasivan became permanent staff nearly eight years after his arrival in Madras.

Meanwhile, to get the bigger story behind the bronzes, and other metal artifacts, in the museum, Paramasivan started external collaborations. “There are many metallic antiquities, whose exact methods of fabrication have to be worked out experimentally to reconstruct the technical skill and technical achievements of the ancients in the field of metallurgy,” he wrote. To do some of these experiments, he collaborated with modern-day metallurgists from the railway company. (One such metallurgist was Balachandran’s grandfather. She writes about this unexpected personal connection to the subject of her research in a long lyrical essay – Malignant Patina: A Love Story.)

Working with religious leaders, who were unhappy about the transfer of bronze deities into museums, become part of Paramasivan’s job. For instance, the trustees of the Srirangam Temple Devasthanam wrote to the Government Museum saying that photographing bronze images is not permitted by the religious texts and the museum could depute a caste Hindu to personally see the images and write a report. So, pausing his work at the lab, Paramasivan attended to these matters.

In 1936, the Director General of the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) requested Gravely to send the museum chemist to report on the condition of the wall paintings in the Brihadisvara temple at Tanjore. The senior-most chemist at the time at ASI was a Muslim and did not have access to Hindu scared spaces. So, Paramasivan went to the site. This, he writes, was the starting point for a general scientific survey of ancient wall paintings, which were disintegrating in many parts of India. In 1946, Paramasivan left the museum’s services to join the ASI, where he had a distinguished career. He got the chance to travel abroad and interact with his peers. He also visited archaeological sites, such as Egypt, and prominent European museums. His reputation had preceded him, thanks, in part, to his publication record in international journals such as Nature.

After he retired, the indefatigable Paramasivan would still advocate for a “mobile laboratory” to document and conserve the approximately 32,000 bronzes in religious use in the Hindu temples of Tamil Nadu. If this idea had come to fruition, it would have made state-of-the-art conservation accessible to remote temples. Antique idols even in remote places would, in turn, be part of a digital database. This would have made authentication easy in case of idol thefts, which we read about in the papers to this day.

A Portrait emerges

In the centenary souvenir of the Government Museum, there is but a blurry photograph of a turbaned Paramasivan, but thanks to Balachandran’s work we have a clear sketch of the pioneer’s tenure at the museum. She also tried to track down his family, but to no avail. It would have been interesting to know more about this individual who worked so hard to preserve our cultural patrimony. He must have been armored in self-confidence or imbued with a sense of greater purpose to do the kind of work he did. Early in his tenure at the museum, he corresponded with the American Rutherford John Gettens, a conservation scientist of renown, who was based at Harvard University’s Fogg Art Museum. The two scientists exchanged information on technical aspects of their work, but they also spoke as kindred spirits of the “peculiar problems” of preservation.

Paramasivan was a man of science, but like his priestly ancestors, he cared for religious idols. He saw the bronzes at their most vulnerable. It was his job to try and restore afflicted deities to some semblance of their former glory. Did he seek the deities’ blessings before he set out to cure them? Did he thank them for helping him return them to a wholesome form? How did he feel about the petitions from the people of Madras Presidency entreating the museum authorities to return their gods to them? We can only imagine what went through this scientist’s mind as he went about his work in the place where he got his start as a conservationist.

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