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Restoration of Wall Frescoes at the Tomb of I’timad-ud-Daulah: Challenges and a Way Forward

The Tomb of I’timad-ud-Daulah, a white marble edifice built between 1622 and 1628 by order of Empress Nur Jahan, is one of the few surviving buildings from among what was once a series of 44 Mughal-era riverfront gardens along the River Yamuna in Agra. The structure is notable as the earliest example of a predominantly white marble construction in the Mughal period, representative of a transition out of the red sandstone phase of Mughal architecture and predating its more famous counterpart, the Taj Mahal.

The mausoleum itself is a low, square building supported on a stone base, approximately a meter high, and flanked at each corner by minarets crowned by domed pavilions. Sunlight filters through the lattice-work on the marble screens, casting mosaic shadows on the marble mausoleum floor. The floor is covered with multicolored inlay work in the traditional pietra dura style, which continues halfway up the walls in delicate floral and mosaic patterns similar to those on the external walls of the structure.

The upper walls of the mausoleum are divided into plastered recesses, each niche intricately painted with floral bouquets, vases, trees, and decanters. The paintings continue along the now-yellowing marble walls to the roof: gilded, painted embellishments culminating at the center of the vaulted dome in perfect symmetry.

Over the years, the tomb has suffered deterioration and has been exposed to environmental weathering, vandals, and the inevitable decay architecture succumbs to over time.

The earliest documented attempt at an authentic restoration of the paintings within the mausoleum dates back to 1901–02 when the then British viceroy declared the previous restoration work, done some seven or eight years prior by the Public Works Department, as unsatisfactory. The earlier attempt had neglected to stay true to the original form and style of the art. Under the viceroy’s decree, the whole of the modern work was to be removed and, where the original work was faded or obliterated beyond recognition, repainting efforts were to be undertaken to create as close an approximation to the original designs and to those in the neighboring panels.

In later years, documented work on the inner vestibule of the mausoleum was restricted to a limited amount of filling work, preservation, and cleaning.

The preliminary report prepared by Art Conservation Solutions, as part of the Mughal Riverfront Gardens of Agra (MRGA) project undertaken by the Archaeological Survey of India and World Monuments Fund, provides a methodology by which the wall paintings and other gilded or painted surfaces in the I’timad-ud-Daulah tomb might be restored. These surfaces extend from midway up the walls of the inner chamber of the mausoleum to the roof. The roof itself is an aesthetically brilliant mosaic of painting and gilding work. The intention of the MRGA project is to address the decay that has set in, commensurate with the four hundred odd years that the monument has been standing. Although the majority of the painted surfaces appear stable in their current state, the consultants recommended a detailed study to investigate the true extent of existing damage so as to recommend suitable measures for amelioration.

For this purpose, a detailed assessment of the wall paintings and other painted surfaces in the tomb was prepared following a closer examination of the surfaces in question. Damage to the edifice was documented and classified according to type, cause, and attention required. Cracks, paint loss, separation and loss of plaster, inaccuracy of filling work in earlier restoration attempts, flaking paint, loss of stucco work, deposits, stains, and graffiti were among the types of damage observed at the site.

Cracks and fissures in the walls are generally a result of structural inadequacies displaying themselves over time. Thinner cracks, however, are known as craquelure and occur in finished layers, primarily due to exposure to the elements or because of certain inherent properties of the materials originally used.

The complete or partial loss of layers of paint as a result of surface wear, cyclical salt activity, moisture, improper cleaning methods, or the loss of adhesion of the paint layer is also frequently encountered. In some cases the fine plaster layers on the inner walls of the mausoleum separate from the layer beneath them. A similar problem is experienced regarding course plasterwork as well, usually as a result of the movement of structural elements, water ingress, loss of cohesion, or adhesion of the plaster. The crumbling of the plaster layer exposes the masonry beneath, destroying the aesthetic appeal of the artwork and making it more susceptible to further damage.

Earlier attempts at retouching, restoring, cleaning, and preserving the painted surfaces of the inner vestibule have not always been successful, either being left incomplete or having been carried out without proper prior research, documentation, and an understanding of the original work. This often damaged the paintings in the long term or disrupted the contiguity between the restored portions and the original work, especially in cases where the retouching was of relatively inferior workmanship. Natural elements can also be seen as having marred the internal structure of the chamber: superficial deposits of dust and dirt, bird droppings, soot, grime, and insect nests dirty the artwork and can result in staining.

Vandalism remains the culprit behind a significant amount of damage to the walls of the mausoleum with visiting guests chipping at the plaster, etching graffiti onto the walls, and dirtying the interiors.

The identification of the aforementioned types of damage occurring in the monument allows for a detailed study of each and enables rectifying the problem through restorative intervention.

The intent of the Mughal Riverfront Gardens of Agra (MRGA) project is to “restore the original experience,” a goal that has led to work on the water systems and restoration of the gardens. This same objective, when applied to the restoration of the painted surfaces in the interior of the Tomb of I’timad-ud-Daulah, encourages an in-depth study of the original art so as to remove aesthetically detracting elements and to enable minimal restoration wherever necessary that is in keeping with the style and form of the original work. Now that the paintings that adorn the walls of the tomb have been documented in detail through photogrammetry, the course of conservation and preservation can be determined.

In addition to compiling and studying available historical records about the tomb, the sample pigments were studied to provide a better understanding of the painting techniques and constituent materials of the work through visual and scientific investigations. This will help shed light on their technique of execution and corroborate their purported antiquity.

Two trial areas were then identified, on which sample treatment—including stabilizing, cleaning, restoration, and aesthetic presentation— has been carried out to allow for a significant evaluation of the final result of the treatment. On the suggestion of Mr. Werner Schmid, an international conservation expert, the size of the trial area was selected to be large enough to ensure results of usable quality and to include a significant portion of the coarsely done dark brown plastering repairs that mar the aesthetic value of the painted walls.

With regard to the presentation of losses, it was suggested that the traditional conservation approach of "minimal interference" be adopted to enhance what remains of the work and removing or replacing aesthetically detracting elements from the area under consideration. The plaster fills in the losses thus imitate one of the preparatory layers below the original work, and are kept slightly below the surface of the original so as to simulate the loss. Small or large scale pictorial reconstructions will be discussed after reviewing the results of these minimal intervention trials.

Once the trial areas are examined thoroughly, a more detailed plan of action will be developed and the actual process of restoration and preservation can begin.