“Archaeological Chemist, temporary … at[a] cost of Rs 1,500 for the year 1929–’30 … required for work connected with the treatment of bronze images in the Museum,” read the job description in an advertisement in the columns of newspapers printed in the Madras Presidency in the 1920s.

The ad was an attempt to solve concerns that the superintendent of the Government Museum Madras FH Gravely had expressed to the colonial administration about a “disease” that had afflicted hundreds of archaeological bronze idols in his collection: “...[It] went on spreading by degrees, destroying all the surface, and converting the interior of the bronze into amorphous whitish green powder”, he wrote in a letter.

The museum, established in 1851, had become an official showpiece of Madras – as Chennai was then known – by the turn of the century. Its bronze collection was highly prized, so this disease was no small matter.

Many of these bronze idols had been commissioned by South Indian rulers, notably the Cholas, from the 9th century to the late 13th century.

These idols, the utsavamurthis, were portable versions of the stone deities found in temples. A temple dedicated to Shiva, for instance, could feature its chief deity in various forms: the bull rider, the destroyer of three cities, or the mendicant, for instance.

When the powerful kingdoms of the South disintegrated, many of these bronze idols were buried for safekeeping. Under the Indian Treasure Trove Act of 1878, the unearthed bronze idols had found their way into museums.

The Madras Government Museum eventually picked S Paramasivan a young scientist born in 1903, for the position of archaeological chemist. He would go on to save many of these corroding idols from the ravages of time.

Though Paramasivan, had no experience in conservation science, he was the man for the job as 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 later write in a research paper.

Fulbright scholar Sanchita Balachandran, now a conservator at the Johns Hopkins Archaeological Museum in the United States, has documented Paramasivan’s work in detail.

Before the authorities at the Chennai museum placed advertisement for an archaeological chemist, they had tried to hire a traditional Indian craftsman specialising in bronze casting to take care of the “diseased” idols, Balachandran wrote.

But while traditional methods of care serve temple idols well in the normal course of affairs, the long-interred bronzes posed a far more serious problem. The bronze idols, made largely of copper and tin, had corroded because of chemical reactions when they were buried underground. They had developed crusts as a result of the oxidation.

When the product of corrosion was copper carbonate, there was little cause for worry. But salts such as copper chloride and copper sulphate ate into the idols, causing 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.”

A bronze statue from the 10th century of the Chola dynasty, on display at the Government Museum Chennai. Credit: Richard Mortel from Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Caring for bronze statues

The challenge for Paramasivan was this: how to turn the malignant patina into something benign. To learn about museum practices of the day, Paramasivan sent for books and journals from abroad. He favoured a procedure known as electrolytic reduction that could decompose the corrosive salts and restore the idols to their original condition.

The technique was in use in major museums abroad, but there were significant challenges for its use in South India – the size of the bronze idols being one. Paramasivan wrote that the bronze statues at the Government Museum Madras were four-and-a-half-feet tall, requiring the exercise to be carried out at an “industrial scale which demands a technique of its own”.

A machine for electrolytic reduction was designed to meet the museum’s requirements. The technique worked wonders. The bronze idols that appeared unrecognisable 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 on other bronze objects in their collection – “six hours a day, six days a week”, Balachandran says in her research. The museum quickly exceeded its annual electricity budget. The superintendent had to put in a request to double the funds for power.

Eager to embrace modern technology, Paramasivan collaborated with Captain TW 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 bronze ones. The images indicated the extent of the damage and what results could be expected at the end of the treatment.

Bronze idols from the 11th century, on display at the Government Museum, Chennai. Credit: Richard Mortel from Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

An expert conservationist

Paramasivan did not restrict himself to bronzes. Using appropriate techniques, he began treating stone sculptures and iron implements in the museum that also faced the danger of decaying. In his quest for an optimal, insect-proof material to print exhibit labels, he also became a resource person for the botany and zoology departments. Research, exhibition, preservation, analysis and the study of artifacts 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 research related to the treatment and preservation of exhibits had been carried out.

As an upshot, the museum’s laboratory, which was housed in a temporary three-room structure, was allotted new space. Paramasivan outfitted and developed the Chemical Conservation Laboratory. A host of artifacts made of stone, marble, textiles, leather and various metal came up to this lab for treatment, preservation and systematic research.

The archaeological chemist’s post, however, remained temporary. Gravely’s letters to the government of Madras emphasised 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, wrote Balachandran.

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.” It was only eight years after his arrival in Madras that Paramasivan became a permanent staff member, thanks to a technicality that limited the length of time a government position could stay classified as temporary.

Much before he became a permanent staff member, though, Paramasivan initiated external collaborations to understand how the ancients had created the bronze idols and some of the other metal artifacts in the museum. “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.

For some of these experiments, Paramasivan 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 an essay titled “Malignant Patina: A Love Story”.

Working with religious leaders who were unhappy about the transfer of bronze statues to museums also became part of Paramasivan’s job. For instance, the trustees of the Srirangam Temple Devasthanam wrote to the Government Museum Madras saying that photographing bronze images was not permitted by the religious texts and asked the museum to depute a “high-caste” Hindu to personally see the images and write a report.

In 1936, the Director General of the Archaeological Survey of India requested Gravely to send the museum chemist to report on the condition of the wall paintings in the Brihadisvara temple at Tanjore (now called Thanjavur).

A wall painting at the Brihadisvara temple. Credit: Junykwilfred, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The senior-most chemist at the time at the Archaeological Survey of India was a Muslim and would not be allowed into Hindu sacred spaces. As a result, Paramasivan went to the site. This, he writes, was the starting point for a general scientific survey of ancient wall paintings that were disintegrating in many parts of India.

Finally, in 1946, Paramasivan left the museum to join the Archaeological Survey of India where he had a distinguished career. He travelled abroad to interact with his peers and also visited archaeological sites, such as Egypt, and prominent European museums. His reputation preceded him, thanks, in part, to his publication record in international journals such as Nature.

The Brihadisvara temple at Thanjavur. Credit: Jean-Pierre Dalbéra from Paris, France, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

After he retired, the indefatigable Paramasivan would still advocate for a “mobile laboratory” to document and conserve the approximately 32,000 bronze idols in religious use in Tamil Nadu’s temples.

Had this idea come to fruition, it would have made state-of-the-art conservation accessible to remote temples. Antique idols, even in remote places, would have been a part of a digital database. This would have made authentication easy in case of idol thefts, which are increasingly being reported.

An enigma

In the centenary souvenir of the Government Museum Madras, there is only a blurry photograph of a turbaned Paramasivan, who died in 1987 but thanks to Balachandran’s work, there is a clear sketch of his tenure at the museum.

She also tried to track down his family, but to no avail. As a result, not much is known about the man who worked so hard to preserve priceless historical and cultural treasures. Was it self-confidence or was he imbued with a sense of greater purpose to undertake the work he did?

Early in Paramasivan’s tenure at the museum, he corresponded with Rutherford John Gettens, a renowned conservation scientist who was based at Harvard University’s Fogg Art Museum. The two exchanged information on technical aspects of their work but also spoke as kindred spirits of the “peculiar problems” of preservation.

Paramasivan was a man of science, but he also cared for religious idols. He saw the bronze statues 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 residents of the Madras Presidency entreating the museum authorities to return their gods to them? One can only wonder.

V Vijaysree is a Boston-based journalist.