Thursday, January 26, 2023 | 4:00 – 6:00 pm | Online session
The study and conservation of the Pahari Collection of Drawings and Paintings of the Museum Volkenkunde in the Netherlands
The Museum Volkenkunde (Museum of the World Cultures) in Leiden has around 140 drawings and paintings from the Punjab and the Pahari hills (today Himachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand) commonly referred to as “Pahari miniature painting”. The word "Pahar", which means ‘from the hills’, refers to the western foothills of the Himalayas. The collection covers a wide variety of themes (Hindu stories, vernacular poetry, portraits of rulers and historical figures) and echoes the interactions between indigenous traditions and Mughal culture. In addition, some of the works reflect Western influences, whether in themes and depictions or in the production of so-called "corporate paintings" made for Europeans. The collection as a whole is a considerable visual resource that illustrates the history and traditions of the region and showcases Indian craftsmanship. The project, which began in 2020, has three components. First, research is being conducted on the provenance of the collection and how Jean-Philippe Vogel, a Dutch epigraphist and archaeologist, built up his collection while serving as Superintendent of the Archaeological Survey of India between 1900 and 1913. Next, a study is made of the materials and techniques used by the Pahari artists, with particular attention paid to the types of handmade paper used. Finally, conservation treatments are carried out to make the works available for future exhibitions and research. The presentation is intended to provide an overview of all three aspects of the project and to provide the public with a vivid presentation of the visual culture of the Pahari region.
On the 26th of January 2023, the Gurmani Centre for Languages and Literature organized an online conversation about the “Pahari Collection of Drawings & Paintings" presented by guest speaker Ms. Amélie Couvrat Desvergnes. Ms Desvergnes is an independent paper and book conservator and researcher currently based in the Netherlands. She specializes in Islamic and Indian manuscripts and works on paper. She has served at the Qatar Museum of Islamic Art and at museums in Amsterdam as a conservator and taught as Master of conservation in Paris and Amsterdam. She is currently conducting a conservation and research project on the 140 or so Pahari drawings and miniature paintings at the Museum Volkenkunde in Leiden, the Netherlands. This collection was built by Jean Philippe Vogel, a Dutch epigraphist and archaeologist who served as the Superintendent of the Archaeological Survey of India between 1900 and 1913.
Ms Desvergnes shared various images of the collection, mostly depicting scenes from the epic Ramayana (since many of the artists in the Pahari region were Vaishnavas), but also details of individual figures and objects. Sharing details on the visuality, contextual breakdown, materials and techniques used by the Pahari artists, she spotlighted the working documents such as artist testimonies, techniques and workshop practices in her primary studies. She delved into stimulating minutiae about primary and secondary outlines, composition and methodology used to enhance color and achieve a characteristic burnished finish. Different types of sketches drawings, and paintings, some of which were unfinished, were highlighted in the talk. The speaker also reviewed the kind of paper this art was created upon and explored fascinating features underlining the variances of vasli, Jahangiri and Sialkoti paper. Elaborating upon her distinctive research in this domain, she elucidated the processes of pulp preparation, sheet making, and finishing techniques of the paper. In the same vein, she also expounded on the limitations and challenges a conservationist faces while working with such delicate charge, evoking mechanical damage, tears, deformations, creases, and stains due to poor handling in the past.
The moderator of the talk was Fakir Syed Aijazuddin, internationally recognized art historian and author of more than a dozen books including a catalogue of miniature paintings from the Pahari or the Punjab hills. He thanked Ms Desvergnes for a reasoned, articulate and detailed presentation. He correspondingly highlighted the connection between Chamba (where such drawings were initially curated) and Lahore. Chamba was one of the 35 hill states constituting the Punjab Hills States, the Paharis. All these states shared a distinctive culture, history and artistic legacy. Mr Aijazuddin underlined the significance of this conversation, since it not only underscored the paintings in the Vogel collection but also put forth a meticulous scientific analysis of the paper and pigments used. He spoke in detail about Vogel’s connection to Lahore where he was based, and described how touring the Pahari states, he encouraged locals to find objects of historical or artistic significance. Persuaded that it was important to have a collection of such paragons in one place, he convinced Raja Bhuri Singh of Chamba to establish a museum there. Since Lahore was the center and capital of the Punjab, various Pahari paintings gradually also found their way to the local museum and are still part of the Lahore Museum collection. Vogel’s own collection of Pahari art lay undiscovered in his native Netherlands until Ms. Desvergnes’ seminal and vital research highlighted this hitherto unknown assemblage.
The paintings are significant not only because of the cultural, literary, lyrical and religious contexts they evoke but also since they demonstrate a unique painting technique where the paper was prepared, then primed and reprimed once the initial drawing was completed. Several priming layers and color applications later, the paper itself was burnished with stone to give it a glossy sheen that is so admired today. Vogel also represents one of the earliest collectors who didn't collect only for personal indulgence but for altruistic motive: to ensure that institutionalized art would be on display for entire communities. The moderator thanked the Gurmani Center and Dr. Nadhra S. Khan for organizing the session and stressed upon the importance of lectures like these which sensitize even an audience unfamiliar with Pahari paintings and conservation techniques to the necessity of preserving such beauty for posterity.