Conservation Report on Mukul Dey Archives

— C.B. Gupta

Artist Sir George Clausen’s letter to Mukul Dey, 1925
Photo: Mukul Dey Archives
Between 2000 and 2004, I had an opportunity to examine and work on the collection of Mukul Dey Archives, at “Chitralekha” in Santiniketan, West Bengal, India. Here one finds visual and textual information that throw a fresh light on early 20th century Indian art scenario.

Mukul Dey (1895-1989) was one of the leading artists of modern India, who was a pioneer graphic intaglio artist and a printmaker of repute. What struck me most was that apart from his own paintings and original prints, he had collected almost everything that come under the category of visual art, along with examples of other craft forms such as ancient terracotta, metal works, wood carvings and extremely fine antique Chinese porcelains. My work was focused mainly on the archival paper artifacts.

Mukul Dey Archives holds a varied nature of collection consisting of:

  1. Original water colour paintings and dry-pastel drawings.
  2. Oleographs by Raja Ravi Varma, Calcutta Art Studio, Chorbagan Art Studio and Kansaripara Art Studio.
  3. Rare graphic prints (etching, drypoint, mezzotint, aquatint, collotypes, woodblock and lithographs) by various Indian and foreign artists.
  4. Unpublished original letters of Rabindranath Tagore to Mukul Dey.
  5. Original letters of correspondence between eminent personalities and Mukul Dey such as E. B. Havell, Sir Muirhead Bone, Sir George Clausen, Henry Tonks, Sir Frank Short, Herbert Baker, Thomas Sturge-Moore, Selwyn Image, Bertha E. Jaques, James Blanding Sloan, Roi Partridge, Carl Zigrosser, Laurence Binyon, R. B. Cunninghame Graham, W. W. Pearson, Sir Patrick Geddes, Henry Clifford Maggs, Basil Gray, Prof. Tan Yun-Shan, Malcolm Osborne, Prof. Khordong Terchen Tulku Chhimed Rigdzin Rinpoche and others.
  6. Original William Griggs lithographs illustrating Tile-mosaics of The Lahore Fort by J. Ph. Vogel (Archeological Survey of India, 1920).
  7. Manuscript scrolls on Japanese kozo-shi (handmade mulberry paper) written-on with sumi, or carbon based Indian ink.
  8. Original old Kalighat paintings.
  9. Original pencil, pen & ink and colour sketches by Mukul Dey and his contemporaries. (Jyotirindranath Tagore, Abanindranath Tagore , Gagonendranath Tagore, Rabindranath Tagore , Henry Tonks, Nandalal Bose, Surendranath Kar, Sarada Ukil, W. W. Pearson, Kampo Arai, Shokin Katsuta, Kosetsu Nosu, Tomimaro Higuchi, Manishi Dey , Suhas Dey, Rani Chanda, Gopal Ghose, Kanwal Krishna, Samar Ghosh, Upendra Maharathi, Abdul Moin, Zainul Abedin, Shantanu Ukil, Purnendu Bose, Nagen Bhattacharya, B. N. Jijja and scores of others).
    Original Sir Emery Walker collotype prints from the pencil drawings by Jyotirindranath Tagore (Hammersmith, London, 1914). Indeed, these are very rare and throw adequate light on the revival of fine printing in England in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when Emery Walker, William Morris and Thomas James Cobden-Sanderson had played a leading role.
  10. Collotype prints of Tagore family members (illustrations).
  11. Emery Walker prints for Ajanta Frescoes edited by Christiana J. Herringham (India Society, 1915). This is a large folio containing illustration… colour/monochrome, and text.
  12. Old newspaper and periodical clippings highlighting Indian art during the early years of 20th century.
  13. Rare books on Indian and oriental art by E. B. Havell, George Watt, J. Ph. Vogel, Laurence Binyon, Ananda K. Coomaraswamy, Abanindranath Tagore, Stella Kramrisch, Asit Kumar Haldar, O. C. Gangooly, W. G. Archer, Gurusaday Dutt, Carl Zimmermann, Benjamin Rowland and Mukul Dey etc.
  14. Kokka woodblock prints of Abanindranath Tagore and early neo-Bengal School students…such as Nandalal Bose, Surendranath Ganguly and Kshitindranath Mazumdar.
  15. Sets of chromolithographs and sepia platinotypes issued by the Indian Society of Oriental Art, Calcutta.
  16. Sets of colour reproductions from Chatterjee’s Picture Album, printed at U. Ray & Sons, 100, Gurpar Road, Calcutta.
  17. One manuscript literary magazine issued by the ladies of a zamindar family of Moluti, Santhal Parganas, India in 1924.
  18. Original catalogues of Exhibition of Drawings, Paintings, Engravings, Pottery and Leather work by Sir Rabindranath Tagore at Government School of Art at 28, Chowringhee Road, Calcutta, 1932.
  19. Old photographs depicting various Kalighat paintings, Rabindranath Tagore’s early art works and Bengal terracotta temples.
  20. Rare cartoons of Gagonendranath Tagore titled ‘Reform Screams’ (Naba Hullor) printed at Thacker, Spink & Company, Calcutta, 1921.
  21. One cabinet-size photograph of Albert Einstein autographed and presented to Mukul Dey in Berlin, 1926.
  22. A set of about 1000 b/w photographic negatives, both in 120 format and glass-plates, depicting Birbhum terracotta temples.
  23. A set of rare chromolithographic book illustrations by Abanindranath Tagore.

Pencil portrait of a village lady by Mukul Dey, 1917
Photo: Mukul Dey Archives
The major collection of the Archives is on paper. Hence a brief description of paper may not be out of place here:

Paper and its Preservation

The word paper is used to describe a felted sheet of fibres formed by introducing a water suspension of the fibers onto a fine screen. The water drains through a screen leaving a wet sheet of paper, which is removed and dried. Additive of one or several kinds (Loading and Sizing) are usually introduced before or after the sheet is formed to contribute desired properties to the paper.

The invention of paper making technique has been credited to a monk named T. Sai Lun in China in 105 AD. However, paper sheet had been in use before the Christian era and the art of paper making is certainly a very old one.

Before the invention of paper machine in 1800 AD, paper was made by a tedious process. Fibrous materials such as cotton, linen rags and hemp were stamped or pounded in stone vats in the presence of water until a pulp was made. A screen made of bamboo strips was dipped into the water suspension of pulp and lifted out. The wet pulp was allowed to dry in air on the wall made of lime. The surface of paper designed for writing was sized with animal glue or starch and loaded with inert material to prevent feathering of ink.

China kept the secret of paper making technique for five hundred years. Centuries later the art of papermaking traveled to Korea and Japan and in 750 AD to Arab countries. In India paper was made in the 12th and 13th century.

Einstein’s photograph presented to Mukul Dey in Berlin, 1926
Photo: Mukul Dey Archives
Before the 18th Century AD paper was made by cotton rag, grass and seed hair. Since 1800 AD pulped forest tree trunks are the major sources of paper. Old handmade paper is more durable then the present paper made by machines using wood pulp.

At the Archives collection, works on variety of old Chinese and Japanese handmade papers could be seen. Also it is interesting to note that in many of Rabindranath Tagore letters the poet had essentially used handmade paper.

Deterioration of Paper Artifacts

Scientific research has shown that deterioration is brought out in paper artifacts by any of the following factors, which can be physical, chemical or biological, or a combination of these. Few of these are listed below:

  1. Heat – The durability of paper is decreased in high ambient temperature.
  2. Moisture - Relative Humidity above 70% favour the growth of mould and bacteria. (This collection being located in Bengal, a high humidity zone, had suffered from moisture).
  3. Frequent changes in temperature and relative humidity cause stress and strain in the paper.
  4. Exposure to light and in general radiations those of high frequency are the most dangerous. For example – UV Rays below 340nm causes rapture of the cellulose chain.
  5. Acidic compounds such as those contained in the atmosphere of industrial areas or during manufacturing are highly injurious.
  6. Oxidising agents which often occur in paper bleaching compounds.
  7. Presence of heavy metals – they catalyze the oxidative causing degradation and formation of sulphuric acid from the sulphur dioxide of the atmosphere.
  8. Presence of acidic sizes such as alum and rosin, which turn into yellow color on exposure to light.
  9. Presence of non-cellulose materials of the lignin type. They are often acidic in nature or yield acidic derivatives upon decomposition and are particularly sensitive to deteriorating agent such a light.
  10. Lack of proper storage.
  11. Presence of Acidic ink such as Ferro Gallic ink, iron gall ink that makes the paper perforated in the spaces in which there is written material and ink is applied on it.
  12. Verdigris – a basic copper acetate, that is often used for coloring is very corrosive to paper. It eats the paper and produces a charring effect.

Rare book illustration by Abanindranath Tagore, 1915.
Photo: Mukul Dey Archives
For the conservation of documents which are written on different types of materials such as birch bark, palm leaf, wooden tablets, cloth and paper, constant efforts are required for their preservation. The efforts should be in their preventive conservation, curative conservation and maintenance including storage.

However, before taking any action, it is necessary to analyze the problem fully. Restoration is not always either necessary or desirable – the extent of intervention should always be decided beforehand.

Prints, Drawings and Watercolors

The deterioration of these materials is also in the same way but the following factors are more responsible for causing deterioration:

  1. Fading of pigments, certain dyes and inks caused by exposure of light.
  2. Discoloration of paper support by exposure to light as in the case of paper object.
  3. Discoloration and disintegration caused by mould growth. Bengal being a place of high humidity during the monsoon months encourages mould growth on paper surface.
  4. Faulty or fugitive pigments.
  5. Flaking of paint.
  6. Change in the tonal value of certain pigments e.g. lead carbonate into lead sulphide in the presence of hydrogen sulphide – red lead changes into dark brown.
  7. Fungi and bacteria. They eat the sizing material of paper. The old paper is heavily sized with starch or gelatin before 19th century. These materials used for sizing provides excellent nourishment. Some fungi consume glue. The effect of these causes embrittlement in paper.

Woodcut print by Ramendranath Chakravorty, 1932
Photo: Mukul Dey Archives
A large portion of watercolors has been executed on low-grade papers, which oxidize and become yellow on exposure to strong illumination, high temperature, high relative humidity and atmospheric pollutions. These factors often hasten the deterioration.

Problems seen in various artifacts:

In certain cases the following deteriorations were noticed on Mukul Dey Archives materials.

  1. Paper becomes yellow in newspaper clippings or in paper made of wood pulp. It also becomes weak and brittle due to age. The Archives has a very large collection of such material. On the other hand, The Court Painters of the Grand Moguls, a fabulous work by Laurence Binyon (Oxford University Press, 1921) was an example of the degeneration seen in the wood pulp paper…the whole book was laminated with special Japanese tissue made of breathing material. The excellent illustrations were kept intact. In this book a large part of the monochrome illustrations are in collotype, which produces extremely fine reproductions.
  2. In most cases due to presence of acidity, even in low concentration, deterioration was seen. Acidity develops mainly because of the incomplete removal of chemicals used in the possessing of paper at the time of its manufacture or because of sulphuric gases in the atmosphere. The sizing materials such as alum and rosin, likewise develop acidity and weakens the paper. The presence of acidity in these papers is detected with litmus paper and pH indicators. In the first instance, paper, in the portions where such inks and pigments are used, becomes charred and brittle and pieces fall out gradually. Naturally, the strength of such paper is greatly reduced. The methods available for preservation having acidic inks or acidic pigments unfortunately is not satisfactory and the research to find out better methods is continuing. An important point to remember is that it is not only the acidity in the paper itself, which is harmful, but direct contact of the manuscript with acidic paper, cheap cardboards is equally injurious. Therefore, the sheets used for covering illustrations in manuscripts, or the paper used for repair of manuscripts, should always be acid-free.
  3. Some of the paper manuscripts had developed stains, which, in most cases are caused by bad storage. Water stains are most common. Stains were also caused by oil, resin, dirt etc. Oily or greasy hands should never touch a manuscript.
  4. Stains were also noticed from the use of faulty adhesives, gum tapes or cello tapes. Cello tape is most dangerous for paper as it not only leaves stains but also is difficult to remove without injuring the paper.
  5. Brown or white spots were also found in the surface, or on the back of the paper prints, etchings, engravings and lithographs referred as foxing marks. This particular defect is mostly due to the excreta of microorganisms on iron in paper, which was noticed in the folios of Ajanta prints and texts stored in steel boxes. A whole set of original William Griggs chromolithographic prints, about eighty in number, which formed the illustrations of J. Ph. Vogel’s magnum opus ‘Tile-Mosaics of the Lahore Fort’ were restored in this manner. In a similar manner original prints by Abanindranath Tagore, Mukul Dey, Muirhead Bone, Malcolm Osborne, James Blanding Sloan, Bertha E. Jaques, James Swann, Nandalal Bose, Surendranath Kar, Manishi Dey , Suhas Dey, Upendra Maharathi, Samar Ghosh, Eve Maggs and others were restored as well.
  6. Deep and long cracks in the paper were seen due to mishandling.
  7. Scratches on the surface of prints were noticed.
  8. Fading of ink from black to brown (iron-gall ink) was noticed in letters, especially, letters of Rabindranath Tagore, E. B. Havell, George Clausen, Henry Tonks, Herbert Baker and others.
  9. In the case of pastel works – loss of pigment adhesion
    was seen between the layers of board or in the wasli, producing folds.
  10. Damages caused by insects and biological effects were also seen.

Village ladies collecting water from dry river bed near Santiniketan
Photo: Mukul Dey Archives
Some problems those are specific to this collection:

  1. Water color paintings are very sensitive to moisture and the colors tend to spread. For this reason, the preservation of these artifacts is little difficult. To perform any conservation or restoration treatment on these – it is important to fix the colors so that they don’t bleed. And then looking at the condition of the painting or prints, a procedure is followed.
  2. In the oleographs and the various prints and drawings a number of tears, holes, scratches, discoloration of the surface because of old varnish were seen. These were mended where necessary.
  3. Etchings, drypoints and engravings have the main problem of foxing marks which are due to the presence of iron or fungus attack. It is tough to remove the foxing marks if they go inside the fibres. They are lightened by use of mild bleaching agents.
  4. Letters that were written at the time of Rabindranath Tagore had different compositions. These were no permanent inks and with no specific standards and thus, it is very tough to determine which inks would bleed and which would stay on. Some inks have pigments that lead to acidity in the paper and thus a charring effect and perforation in the letters is seen, while some induce acidity in the paper. All such paper documents and manuscripts were deacidified and mounted on acid-free hand made paper with edges made of acid-free handmade paper added to facilitate handling. This problem also occurs sometimes in lithographs as well as graphic prints.
  5. The original ancient Kalighat Paintings are usually made on paper made from wood pulp which in due course of time causes problems in the paper which are irreparable. These were then bleached, deacidified and mounted for a longer life.
  6. The Ajanta prints by Emery Walker of Hammersmith along with the texts (India Society, 1915) were seen to have heavy fungus. The pages were stuck to each other and were inseparable. Even the steel box containing these folios had fungus over it. The main problem encountered here was how to separate the folios and removal of fungus stains which by now had penetrated deep into the fibers. Very mild bleaching was done here and then the prints were mounted. The ink in the texts also proved to be a tedious task to maintain as it had to be checked if the inks bleed or not.
  7. Newspaper is made from wood pulp plus lignin and thus they tend to yellow if we keep it in the sun or even in storage due to the natural process of aging. These clippings were first bleached and then due to the loss of sizing material they are mounted on thin paper.
  8. Pencil sketches are usually made of graphite and the binding of graphite to the paper is loose and thus it is lost. Some PVA is applied over it to fix it and then conservation and restoration is done.

View of Gangta, 1917
Photo: Mukul Dey Archives
Nature of colors and Pigments

  1. Generally mixed colors had been used in these paintings, which were from different sources. Such as vegetable colours, mineral colours, coloured inks (water soluble and water proof), opaque gouache colours and dyes.
  2. Some colours were very sensitive to moisture and therefore their fixation was a little difficult.
  3. Some of the colours tended to bleed even with organic solvents, which was another problem.
  4. With the passage of time some of the colour had pulverized and often came off.
  5. The reverse impressions of the colours were visible in some cases due to which the paper was weak and fragile.
  6. The presence of acidic dyes and coloured inks.



  • Photography: Photography is an aid in conservation science. Minute details are recorded. UV Photography and Infra-red photography record details which are not visible to the human eye. Writings which are illegible due to chemical bleach or mechanical procedures or by application of ink over it can also be studied.
  • Preparation of History sheet: The aim of this is to collect information of the object. Each object is examined under a hand lens and every kind of detail is recorded. The physical conditions of the object, missing portions, any damages, or change of colour are recorded.


The objects found affected by bio-deteriogens were subjected to fumigation. This process involves the use of insecticide and fungicide in gaseous form. Fumigation is done in the following processes.

  • Fumigation in air tight chamber
  • Fumigation under vacuum

The insect affected documents were fumigated with Paradichlorobenzene and Thymol. In certain cases 2% Thymol is also applied at the back of the document having affected with fungus growth.


The dust, which had accumulated, was removed by soft brushes from the surface or from the junction of layers. If possible vacuum cleaning or cleaning under air pressure be adopted depending upon the condition of the objects like heavy bound books etc. Surface cleaning is adopted using alcohol.

Testing of Acidity:

Acidity in the paper can be tested with moist blue litmus paper. In contact with the object if blue litmus paper turns brown, then acidity is present, if it doesn’t change there is no acidity. pH test is done with pH paper. A pH meter gives the range of pH value. This is defined as the concentration of hydrogen and hydroxyl ion. Higher the pH, lower the acidity while lower the pH, higher the acidity. Paper is neutral at 6.7-6.9pH while it starts getting brittle at 4pH.

Examination of ink:

Testing of present ink, dye, colours, and pigments is an important aspect of conservation. To see that they are not soluble in water or in solvent mixtures, the test of solubility is done by placing a drop of water and soaking it with filter paper or cotton wool. Same test is done to check for solubility in alcohol. The traces of color are an evidence of solubility.

Fixing of ink:

The pigments or dyes susceptible to moisture should be fixed prior to any treatment. For this a 2% PVA in toluene is applied on the letter with a fine brush. This process can be repeated till the ink does not show the tendency of staining with moist cotton wool. A coating of Amyl Acetate (50%), Acetone (50%) with celluloid film (5gm.) can also be applied with soft brush.


The permanence of book is more important than durability. The acid deterioration of paper must be restrained preferably by control exercised at manufacturing process and also on the premises of libraries for those books being embrittled in storage. Acids mostly H2SO4 break the links of cellulose polymer chain reducing the strength of paper fibre. Strongly alkaline paper is also dangerous because hydrolysis takes place in the presence of (OH) ions as well as acids.

Deacidification is probably the most important process for preservation of paper but it does not decrease the probability of biological attacks because some fungi thrive in alkaline conditions. Deacidification does not prevent oxidative decay or photochemical reactions and it doesn’t strengthen the paper, which is already brittle due to acid hydrolysis. On the other hand Deacidification does arrest the further deterioration and embrittlement of paper by introducing a strong base to form neutral salts with sulphuric acid. The excess neutralizer must also be easily convertible to neutral substance so that paper will not be subject to subsequent alkaline hydrolysis. The same neutral salt will act as buffering agent.

Stain removal and Bleaching:

The removal of stains from prints and drawings was a difficult task. Mild bleaching agents were used to bleach the stains, the printed folios, black and white prints, etchings, wood cuts, engravings etc. The fine Emery Walker collotypes from the delicate Jyotirindranath Tagore pencil drawings could be a case in point.

Water colours, gouaches, pastels, drawing on coloured, tinted or grounded paper, coloured etchings, coloured wood cuts, colour lithographs and manuscripts were not bleached but simply washed in water. Wherever bleaching was applied the paper is thoroughly washed in water after and finally deacidified and then resized with a solution of carboxy methyl cellulose or by mounting on another acid free handmade paper of approximately the same thickness. Some of the main chemicals used for stain removals are as follows :

  1. Oil, Grease & Tar – chloroform, ether, carbon tetrachloride
  2. Ink – dimethyl formamide, oxalic acid, citric acid
  3. Rust – potassium permanganate, oxalic acid, borax
  4. Coffee – potassium perborate, hydrogen peroxide
  5. Foxing marks – potassium permanganate and oxalic acid
  6. Water Stains – alcohol and water

Resizing, Gap Filling and Mounting:

These were done in the end to strengthen the works of art and make them last longer. Resizing is done because during bleaching the sizing material is lost. To give the strength back to the paper sizing is done using CMC or carboxy methyl cellulose.

Gap Filling is done where the losses are repaired so that no further decay is caused by the tears or holes in the prints.

Mounting - if the document is written only on one side then it is subjected to mounting with paper-to-paper or paper to chiffon. The paper used to mounting depends on the print and how thick the original paper is and what content is it made of. Paper when very fragile is subjected to lamination with breathing material and by that procedure the original is preserved in a good state.

Suggestions for Preventive Conservation:

  1. The prints, drawings, and paintings should be cleaned and fumigated regularly to avoid fungal & the growth of insect colony.
  2. Maintenance of Relative Humidity: Light at 100 lux & temperature at 22-25 degrees Celsius.
  3. A dust - free environment should be there in the storage areas.
  4. Artifacts shouldn’t be touched with bare hands.
  5. The use of pens and pencils should not be allowed near the artifacts.
  6. Sulphur-free naphthalene balls or Paradichlorobenzene bricks should be used to keep away insects from the storage areas.
  7. Books should not be kept in tight areas. They should be kept in places where there is circulation of air.
  8. There should be a gap between the prints and the glass so as to avoid moisture accumulation. Prints should be mounted in a double cut mount.
  9. No fevicol or gum tapes or cello tapes should be used on prints, drawings or paintings.
  10. Use of acidic cardboard, cheap paper and masonite boards should be avoided as it is injurious to the paper if in direct contact.
  11. Acidic paper has a tendency to migrate and thus can cause problems to the archival materials.
  12. Eatables should not be allowed in the display or storage areas.
  13. It is ideal to wrap a manuscript or paintings in a cloth which maybe of red colour for storage purposes. This is because it prevents dust from settling on the original archival material. In fact it also prevents fluctuations in temperature, humidity and light effect.
  14. Archival materials should be respected.

Mukul Dey Archives being an entirely private funded affair by his family members - the effort is positively commendable.

C. B. Gupta had worked at N. R. L. C, Lucknow and National Museum, New Delhi on different positions. He retired from National Museum as Senior Technical Restorer.

He received his training at:

  1. Instituto di Pathologia del Libro, Rome.
  2. Imperial College of Science and Technology Paper Research Group, London.
  3. At the lab of Mr. S. Cockerell in Cambridge.
  4. Her Majesty’s Stationery Office Laboratory, India Office Library, London.
  5. National Library, Florence.
  6. Soviet State Library V. I. Lenin, Moscow.
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