Chennai’s only Indo-Saracenic building is open for public after a decade of rigorous renovation

Flanked by the green minds eager to get a sneak peek, The National Art Gallery, a mysterious pink sandstone architectural marvel, has been refurbished to house some of the coveted arts associated with schools of Tanjore, Mysore, and Rajput paintings.

The newly plastered walls of  white hallway of the 115 year old building are caparisoned with a series of original works by Raja Ravi Varma, large British portraits,  and other artworks  from schools of Tanjore, Mysore, and Rajput paintings. 

The imposing architecture, tinged with pale pink palette of sandstones,  bulbous domes, pointed arches, jaali work, minarets, and stained glass is becoming a go to spot for architecture students and  locals having a sense of history.

Taking leaf from the grand ‘Buland Darwaja’ of Fatehpur Sikri,  the structure was designed by Henry Irwin, a regular contributor to the British-era Madras skyline  in the Jaipuri-Mughal style under the commission of  Namberumal Chetty in 1909.

Persian and Hindu elements that came to prominence in the 19th Century, is a deep hallway, sans pillars. Housed here are over 120 works of art moved from the adjacent Contemporary Art Gallery.

As per J Kalathy, Curator, National Art Gallery, “When cracks were identified on the roof, the building was no longer in a condition to house the paintings. The cement layering was disintegrating, after years of back and forth, the renovations were sanctioned for ₹12 crores.”

“Most of the paintings were cleaned by chemical conservation before displaying them again. The frames that have been found broken have also been repaired. Apart from that, we have erected panels for the 12 British portraits that were not in a good condition, now saved through chemical conservation.”  The upkeep of the facade is hinged on sourcing pink sandstone from Andhra Pradesh, N Sundararajan, Assistant Director-in charge, Technical, Department of Museums.

While some are recreations, specific canvases like that of the portrait of Rani Durgawati, or Jehangir atop an elephant are priceless originals. While the display lacks a narrative, and is sometimes ambiguous in its descriptors and attributions, this cross-section speaks volumes of the museum’s vast collection.

The grand balustrades and vintage hanging lights navigate the visitors into medieval brilliance. The noteworthy features which enhance the visual pleasure are the  sensible lighting design and the use of non-reflective glass in vitrines.

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