Restoring the Taj Mahal Palace hotel’s famed art collection after the 2008 terrorist attack was an important part of reviving its identity in the fabric of contemporary Indian art.
If Mumbai’s humid and clammy environment had not prompted the management at the hotel to encase some of its priceless works with glass, the entire collection could have been damaged in the hail of bullets and flames that engulfed the hotel when terrorists struck on November 26, 2008.
The siege, which started four years ago this week, lasted five days, with battles raging in the rooms and hallways that left 31 guests dead. Elsewhere in the city, in attacks against the Oberoi hotel and other sites, 137 people were killed.
Caught between terrorists and the police exchanging gunfire, not to mention the fire brigade directing fire hoses into the hotel, the art works in the hotel’s famed collection of contemporary Indian art would not have stood a chance without the glass protection.
“In 2003 we decided that [the effects of] Bombay’s tropical climate, which is enough to induce fungus, had to be minimised by glass,” says Parveen Chander, the deputy general manager at the Taj Mahal Palace hotel. “It’s not the best way to view oil paintings, but we had to protect them and thank goodness we did.”
Fortunately, the three large M F Hussain panels commissioned for the main lobby, which stood behind the reception area, were among those left unscathed.
Hundreds of others, however, were not. They were disfigured by soot, smoke, water from the water hoses which first expands and then shrinks canvases, slashes from knives and holes from bullets are reminders of the events that shook India’s financial and entertainment capital.
And, of course, in the aftermath of the attack there were much more pressing concerns to attend to and, neglected, the paintings suffered more damage.
“Because everyone was so busy for several months after the attack trying to restore order, the paintings were hurriedly stacked in a room and there, because some were wet, fungus erupted, eating away the pigment,” says Priya Khanna, who heads the Delhi-based Art Life Restoration studio.
Khanna and her team led the restoration efforts of the collection, which is the single largest private collection in India. This meant masterpieces by names such as S H Raza, Jamini Roy, Tyeb Mehta, N S Bendre, Jehangir Sabavala, B Vithal, B Prabha, Bose Krishnamachari and Krishen Khanna, collected over the years for display in the 109-year-old hotel, had to be restored.
Though in recent years galleries have sprung up in Mumbai and New Delhi, there was a time when the Taj was the showcase for Indian art.
“Upcoming artists used to stay here and paint, leaving a painting or two as payment for the room,” says Chander. There is abundant folklore around the Taj that covers its origins, its famous guests and its central role in the city’s social life – and it extends to the art. As one story goes, the flamboyant and aristocratic mother of the leading Indian artist Jehangir Sabavala once rode a horse up the staircase to perform in the Crystal Ballroom.
It was in the same ballroom – where staff and guests had sought refuge during the attack – that Khanna and her team started their work by stacking about 4,000 paintings on the banquet tables. They separated those that could be restored from those where the cost of restoration would be higher than their value.
A team of five specialists camped in the hotel for a year, with Khanna coming every weekend, while they restored around 300 paintings.
“We had to fumigate the fungus-riddled ones, which involves drying and killing the fungus and if it’s eaten away the pigment, replacing it,” says Khanna, who trained at the Courtauld Institute of Art in London. “The shrinkage of some canvases also had to be tackled.”
Paintings by modern masters like Vasudeo S Gaitonde and Sabavala were covered in thick soot, layers of dust and damp, which flourished in the humid air after the air conditioning system failed (the Taj was the first hotel in Asia to install air-conditioning) and fire trucks doused the hotel with water.
The bigger job of restoring the destroyed sections of the hotel took two years and cost US$50 million (Dh183.7m) and involved armies of consultants from Milan, London, Singapore, the US and India.
The hotel now runs a special tour of the collection for guests.