This article is written by Harsh Mishra, pursuing a Diploma in Business Laws for In House Counsels from LawSikho.
“Without culture, and the relative freedom it implies, society, even when perfect, is but a jungle. This is why any authentic creation is a gift to the future.”
Mahadevan, J. of the Madras High Court included these words of Albert Camus in the opening statement of his judgment, [ASI v Government of Tamil Nadu, (2021)] delivered this month. The judgment was stimulated by the state’s failure in fulfilling its Constitutional mandate to preserve the ancient monuments of Tamil Nadu. This fundamental failure is in one way or another replicated in other parts of the country as well.
One extremely delicate and captivating part of these historical monuments is that of their mural/wall paintings. From Alchi Monastery in Ladakh to Brihadesvara Temple in Tamil Nadu, our country has a rich history of splendid mural paintings. Some of the famous ones are in the permanent protection of Archaeological Survey of India but there are some others which are less known and hence are left to the mercy of time. One example that stands out is that of Shekhawati, the mural capital of India, containing magnificent Havelis with some of the finest mural paintings of Indian history. However, most of these are privately-owned and now abandoned. The statutory agencies, though empowered by law to take steps to preserve them, have instead turned a blind eye.
1.1 Misuse of abandoned Shekhawati Havelis
The preservation laws of this country, entangled into the web of bureaucracy, are almost dead letters. It needs some revolutionary steps, like one taken by the Madras High Court, to move the system forward into the direction of saving our monuments, our heritage, our culture for future generations. This article deliberates upon the role of law in regulating the conservation of age-old murals; gaps in the existing legal framework and addressing those gaps in the light of the modern achievements of science.
The Science of Conservation
Conservation means a set of procedures aimed at stabilizing an object and prolonging its life to the maximum extent possible. The NATIONAL POLICY FOR CONSERVATION OF THE ANCIENT MONUMENTS, ARCHAEOLOGICAL SITES AND REMAINS, 2014 defines the term “conservation” under section 2.01 of the Policy:
Conservation means the processes through which material, design and integrity of the monument is safeguarded in terms of its archaeological and architectural value, its historic significance and its cultural or intangible associations.
The process of conservation involves –
(i) elimination of causes of deterioration;
(ii) reversing the deterioration process;
(iii) steps to prevent future deterioration.
This deterioration of mural paintings could be the result of many different factors-
Physical deterioration due to wind erosion; heat through sunlight or artificial light; vibrations of nearby traffic; moisture through rain, seeping roof or humid environment.
1.2 Pigment loss in wall paintings of Lepakshi Temple due to seepage of water
Chemical deterioration due to sunlight, dust, dirt, oily matters, atmospheric pollutants like carbon dioxide or sulphur dioxide. The CO2 exhaled by visitors of these paintings in confined spaces may react with the lime of the walls and form a white deposit over these paintings. A reason why there is strict restriction on number of visitors into the limestone caves of Lascaux containing famous pre-historic murals.
Bio-deterioration due to growth of micro-organisms like fungi and algae; droppings of bats and birds; insects nesting on these paintings.
The elimination of these deterioration factors is necessary before moving to the advanced stages of conservation.
Restoration not allowed
While West has a linear view of the world timeline, Indian view is that of a cyclical world where buildings live, die and are rebuilt once again. In India, site is more respected than the buildings. Indian approach is that of minimum intervention and of maintaining clear distinction between past and present. This is why the conservators are required to make detailed photographic documentations of the painting during various stages of its treatment. However, to realize the Indian approach, section 5.03 of the National Conservation Policy, 2014 prohibits restoration of these wall paintings. The losses occurred to these paintings during the course of time are a part of their history and making those losses good would amount to eliminating a certain part of its history. The line between conservation and restoration of a wall painting may get blurred at times and it requires a meticulously drafted conservation plan for a particular mural site before taking up the conservation work forward.
Need for Regulation
The first known attempt of conservation of the mural paintings in India was by Nizam of Hyderabad. He invited two Italian restorers- L. Cecconi and Count Orsini in 1920 to treat the decaying Ajanta paintings. They applied a coat of shellac solution to preserve these paintings but later the coat underwent alteration and turned yellow and even dark brown in some places, completely hiding and distorting the original colour scheme. Today, the conservation team faces hard time to remove those shellac coatings. All this damage could have been prevented with the use of a pertinent regulation at place.
One more challenge has been faced in the modern times – that of making an appropriate balance between conserving these heritage places and continuing development of rural and urban areas. Though regulation cannot necessarily restore a heritage building to its original glory but it can prevent the biggest physical threat to them which is demolition. Some of the recent sacrifices to urban development have been – Kenilworth Hotel in Kolkata, Senate Hall of Calcutta University and Nazarbaug Palace near Baroda. Perhaps, Shekhawati Havelis could be next.
Article 49 of the Constitution of India makes it obligatory for the State Governments to protect the monuments and heritage sites of national importance. Article 51A (f) imposes a fundamental duty on the citizens of India to protect and preserve the rich heritage of this country. In due course, many PILs and writ petitions have been filed in the Supreme Court and the High Courts to safeguard these historical monuments. One such case was Taj Trapezium Case (M.C. Mehta v Union of India) in 1986. The petition was filed to save the degradation of Taj Mahal marble due to air pollution caused by surrounding industries. The Supreme Court took a strict action and ordered these industries to be shifted from the area in a phased manner.
The primary legislation for preservation of these wall paintings is the Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Sites and Remains Act, 1958. Under this Act, the central government has power to declare any ancient monument or site to be of national importance. The monuments and sites of national importance are directly protected by Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) and are approximately numbered at 3,691.
The Act suggests various ways through which ASI can assume guardianship, or lease or gift of such monuments by the actual owner. Section 6 of the Act also provides for an agreement to be entered into by the owner and the government to maintain these protected monuments. An endowment may be created to fund the maintenance of such monument. The central government may also acquire the protected monument under the Land Acquisition Act, 1894 to give proper maintenance to its decaying state. The National Policy for Conservation, 2014 has filled up some of the major gaps in the Act and is elaborative and complete on the subject of conservation.
But this number is quite small in comparison to the vast number of historical monuments in the country which are, to be honest, countless. NITI Aayog in its report suggests that there are around 5000 plus monuments protected under the Archaeology Departments of various State Governments and a significant number of temples, mosques, gurudwaras, churches (around 4,50,000 plus) under the custody of religious endowments and trusts. These State departments, engrossed with red tapeism, have proved incompetent in preserving these cultural heritages.
The number of mural sites ASI covers is yet smaller since it ignores the sites which it considers less famous which are in turn less famous because of lack of attention paid to their maintenance. Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (INTACH) has recently documented some of these ignored sites which have had a glorious past of mural paintings.
1.3 Documentation of wall paintings in India by INTACH
It is a well-known principle of heritage law that the heritage sites cannot be preserved until and unless they are properly listed and notified. This is indeed the first step towards preservation of these sites.
India is a signatory to the World Convention on Protection of the World’s Cultural and Natural Heritage, 1972. In 2009, Central Government had proposed National Commission for Heritage Sites Bill, 2009 to comply with the provisions of this convention. Unfortunately, the bill was never introduced in Parliament and was finally withdrawn in 2015 even after obtaining recommendations from various stakeholders and commissions.
The Central Public Works Department has recently, while undertaking the mural conservation work in the President’s estate with the help of INTACH, has recognized and followed the standards set in the Venice Charter (1964) of Internation Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS).
The ICOMOS also has a document of “Principles for the Preservation and Conservation/Restoration of Wall Paintings” that lays down deeper and more elaborate points on mural conservation.
Gaps and Challenges
Apart from the challenges stated under the above sub-headings, there are some other challenges specifically dealing with conservation of wall paintings in the historical monuments:
- Lack of Database – The first and the foremost problem is that of documentation of all the wall painting monuments and getting them notified in the Government Gazette. It is impossible to conserve them without their listing. The CAG report 2013 had pointed out of the lack of efforts for a new survey to bring more monuments and sites under the protection of central government. It is good that INTACH is taking this step forward and compensating for the neglect of statutory agencies responsible.
- Non-observance of Conservation Policy – Though National Conservation Policy, 2014 is a well-drafted policy for the conservation of these heritage monuments, lack of its implementation on the ground has kept the situation status quo. The NITI Aayog observes in its 2020 report on Improving Heritage Management in India that the ASI itself with all the State Archaeological Departments has failed to observe the provisions of the Policy.
- Lack of Conservation Planning – The Policy requires drafting of elaborate conservation plans for a particular monument and site but the same requirement is not being observed and the conservation has been done in an ad hoc manner. This could lead to permanent damage to some parts of these delicate paintings.
- Lack of Monitoring – The Archaeological Survey of India does not monitor the conservation work being conducted on the monuments and sites protected under its umbrella. This has led to poor documentation of the conservation works already conducted. As already pointed out, these documentations are extremely necessary not just to keep a record but for future research and conservation works. There is no way the other unprotected sites could be managed by it in any way. Moreover, it would be harmful to burden one institution with the monitoring of all these sites.
- Lack of Dialogue between ASI and State Departments – This aspect was also highlighted in the 2013 CAG report. This lack of co-ordination is one of the reasons why many of these sites are in dilapidated condition.
- Lack of expertise among Temple Trusts – A number of such religious trusts do not have the resources or know-how to take up conservation works despite the inclination to do so. Sometimes, conservation works undertaken by these organizations can damage the structures substantially.
- Rift between Temple Administration and Conservators – At times, a rift occurs between the conservators and the temple administration upon how the conservation work must be carried out.
- Lack of knowledge of ancient methods – The sheer lack of knowledge of the methods and techniques used by our ancestors in making these paintings can lead to a bad conservation work. Therefore, it requires a wholesome research to be conducted into the techniques of a particular style of painting before any conservation could be conducted. For instance, Vishnudharmottaram is the most important ancient text with respect to the making and preserving these paintings.
- Lack of funding – The collection of proper funds is a big issue. The governments are generally unwilling to grant any funds specially if the conservation work is done in such an unremarkable way by the state agencies.
- Delay in framing Heritage by-laws – The Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Sites and Remains (Amendment and Validation) Act, 2010 mandated National Monument Authority under section 20E (1) to frame by-laws for each of the protected monuments but the organization has failed to frame sufficient number of by-laws even after ten years of its establishment.
Therefore, witnessing the lethargy of these state agencies, the role of voluntary organizations becomes extremely crucial in conserving the tokens of our precious past.
Role of Voluntary Organizations and Community Participation
Undoubtedly, Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (INTACH) is the voluntary organization, pioneering in the preservation of mural paintings in India. It has even helped CPWD in the conservation work of the murals of President’s estate. It is conducting conservation work in the monasteries of Ladakh as well. Its wing of Art and Material Heritage specializes in the preservation of the decaying mural paintings in India. It conducts meticulous research, uses advanced technology, and proper planning in preservation of these paintings. Recently it also undertook and completed the conservation of mural paintings at Bethany Chapel, St. Aloysius Chapel and Mysore Palace. It also conducts programmes for public awareness, capacity building and expert training and is a shine of hope in the dark days of decaying and neglected paintings.
There are some voluntary organizations who are also encouraging greater community participation for saving the cultural heritage from deterioration. The Calcutta Architectural Legacies started a campaign to prevent the demolition of Art Deco Buildings in South Calcutta. It conducted heritage walk with artists and other members of the community and succeeded in its campaign. Similarly, there are Art festivals conducted by many such organizations to celebrate the cultural heritage, art and craft work of the community and to make the public aware of the issues of preserving the heritage buildings and sites of the local areas.
Facing the Challenges
With these multiple stories of enthusiasm, we can definitely face the challenges but we also need a perfect balance of law and science to help us in this journey.
- Building the Database – The National Mission on Monuments and Antiquities is the nodal agency for creating heritage database. It can join hands with INTACH to help it in its endeavour to build a proper database of the mural paintings throughout India. They can also take the help of Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) for creating satellite images of their locations and maintaining a proper mapping system. Archiving of the images of these wall paintings is also a necessary step that needs to be taken. NITI Aayog in its latest report has also recommended for 3D photography of objects, murals and images which would facilitate the expansion of virtual museums.
- Virtual Museums – It is a unique way to showcase all these mural paintings to the people sitting in the comforts of their home. It is also useful for art researchers that they can visit and witness the beauty and techniques of these paintings from any corner of the world. These would also help reduce the crowd at these places so that unhampered conservation work can be carried out at these places while also reducing the chances of damage by outsiders.
- Laser Technology – New technology such as Photogrammetry and 3D Laser scanning can provide extremely accurate documentation in a fraction of time required with methods available till only a decade ago. These and similar technologies have also become routine and are available commercially or through institutions such as the IITs. This could be really helpful in knowing the past and studying each layer of these wall paintings before moving to the conservation work as these painting cannot be documented using traditional tools such as manual architectural drawings.
- Formulating Site-specific Regulations – It is widely believed among the restorers that no new legislation is required to conserve these wall paintings. We need new regulations to be formulated by the State Governments under the existing Towns and Country Planning Acts of the respective States. There is provision in each of these Acts for creating special zones within a city or town and draft regulations for its preservation. The governments can use these provisions to ensure and regulate the conservation of these places. A model regulation is Heritage Regulations for Greater Bombay, 1995 formulated in Mumbai to preserve the special architectures and sites of the city. It gives a wide scope to the government to draft the special regulations as per the requirement of the sites. Another example could be Hampi World Heritage Area Management Authority Act, 2002
- Strict Adherence to National Conservation Policy – Since mural conservation is a delicate subject, strict adherence to the provisions of National Conservation Policy is necessary both by ASI and State Departments. A well-researched Conservation Plan should be drawn before undertaking conservation work of any site. No conservation-funding should be granted for any site unless a proper conservation plan is drawn on the standards of the Policy. The monitoring arrangement should be in place and audit of the conservation work should also be properly done.
- Partnership with pioneer institutions – As we have seen already, there are many voluntary organizations much more willing to take the conservation work of these sites than the government agencies. Therefore, ASI and other State departments should join hands with the expert institutions like INTACH for preserving these heritage sites. It requires a multidisciplinary approach with expertise of historians, artists, engineers, architects and scientists to solve the issues faced in conservation of these paintings.
- Funds through Tourism and Tax – Innovative tax incentives should be adopted to support conservation. The funds can also be collected through promoting tourism at these places. It will create a cycle – the tourism campaign will bring more tourists that will help in collecting funds for conservation and that will in turn attract more tourists to the place. An attractive brochure, information panels, adequate information on websites, lectures and guided tours can definitely attract more tourists. One such initiative by the local community is that of Muziris Tourism in Kerala.
These are some innovative ways that can be adopted to help conserve our millennia-old heritage of beautiful wall paintings.
In 2019, the Minister of Culture, while answering a question in the Parliament, had acknowledged the work conducted by ASI and INGCA in the direction of preserving the mural paintings in the monasteries of Ladakh and capacity building of the locals and monks so that they can preserve their heritage with their own hands. It is an undeniable fact that these agencies are making efforts to conserve the heritage but there are some lacunae which need to be addressed. The measures listed above seem to get reflected in the Madras High Court judgment- whether it is constitution of heritage committee on the model of one created in Mumbai or proper documentation of the compositions of each monument. The Court, based on some reports, prohibited the whitewashing of the ancient murals in temples which is a general practice in South India. The temple trusts are suggested to take help of the restorers to help restore these murals and frescoes. It has ordered to constitute State and District level committees for the preservation and renovation work comprising the expertise of all necessary kind including that of murals. No renovation can be done without the sanction of these committees. These guidelines by the Court were long awaited and eye-opening for the State government and can serve as modal guidelines for other parts of the country as well.
- Improving-HeritageManagement-in-India.pdf (niti.gov.in)
- Microsoft Word – (national conservation policy) – final April 2014.doc (asi.nic.in)
- Conservation of mural paintings on JSTOR
- Annual-Report-2018-19.pdf (intach.org)
- Murals – VIRASAT – E – HIND FOUNDATION (wordpress.com)
- Art conservation and restoration – Role of law | Britannica
- Conservation & Preservation « Archaeological Survey of India (asi.nic.in)
- ICOMOS Principles for the Preservation and Conservation/Restoration of Wall Paintings – International Council on Monuments and Sites
- (DOC) CAG Performance Audit of the ASI | DilipK Chakrabarti – Academia.edu
- Handbook of Conservation of Heritage Buildings – PDF Free Download (docplayer.net)
Sources of Figures
1.1 The Painted Havelis of Shekhawati | HW English (hwnews.in)
1.2 Conservation of mural paintings on JSTOR
1.3 Annual-Report-2018-19.pdf (intach.org)
Students of Lawsikho courses regularly produce writing assignments and work on practical exercises as a part of their coursework and develop themselves in real-life practical skill.
LawSikho has created a telegram group for exchanging legal knowledge, referrals, and various opportunities. You can click on this link and join: