Seeking The Essence

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Re-Opening the Windows to the Spiritual World

Below is an article written by Madhava Smullen and posted on the Friends of the BBT website about Shakuntala Zakhiem’s art restoration service.


Re-Opening the Windows to the Spiritual World

By Madhava Smullen

In a few years, the windows to the spiritual world could be closed forever. Unless something is done now.

That’s what veteran BBT artist Dhriti Dasi realized when she saw several of her original paintings lying neglected in temples or private homes around the world. “It’s an awful feeling, after Srila Prabhupada, the BBT and I put in so many years of work and so much money to produce them,” she says.

Dhriti began meeting with temple presidents and other leaders to try to draw attention to the situation. She finally struck gold last year when she spoke to North European BBT trustee Brahma Muhurta Dasa at her BBT art seminar in Vrindavana, India. An art lover himself, Brahma Muhurta decided it was time to make a difference.

His mission led him to Shakuntala Zakheim, a second generation devotee and professional art conservator who had worked on restoration projects for various churches, private collectors and even the city of LA since the age of sixteen, before forming Zakheim Art Conservation with her brother Kuvaleshaya.

Shakuntala’s father Nara-Narayana had been head of the BBT art department in the early days, and she had grown up in its LA studios. Every day, she watched Bharadaraja, Dhriti, Pariksit, and Jadurani paint, and in time their work inspired her to study art conservation. Today, she is probably the lead art conservator in ISKCON, having already restored paintings in Los Angeles, Laguna Beach, and Vrindavana.

“For me, as an art doctor, seeing a valuable painting in terrible condition is like seeing a patient moaning in pain,” Shakuntala says.

And she’s seen many. One in particular—Jadurani’s painting of Draupadi raising her arms to Krishna as He saves her from being disrobed—Shakuntala had always looked to for inspiration. And when she saw it lying in the New York temple with a hole in it, she felt a sharp pang that was almost physical. “So when Brahma Muhurta Prabhu approached me to work on the BBT Art Conservation Project, I jumped at the chance,” she says.

An online conference of people who wanted to help soon emerged. As well as Brahma Muhurta, Dhriti and Shakuntala, it consisted of BBT trustee Jayadvaita Swami, veteran artist Pushkara Dasa, and Puspavan Dasa, an art lover who has restored many early ISKCON paintings using precious savings from his day job.

Today, individuals and communities around the world are using the conference to help the BBT Art Conservation Project locate and catalog all the original BBT paintings and document what condition they’re in. Next, damaged paintings will be restored, properly stored, and eventually displayed and promoted.

“There’s a lot of work to do,” says Shakuntala, who is starting off at her local temple in LA and will be progressing to other locations from there.

“Temples are a terrible environment for delicate oil paintings—most are covered in soot and grime after years of incense, lamps and sacrificial fires. Some have holes and slashes in them. Others are just overly manhandled—people have touched the feet of the Lord Nrsimhadeva painting in LA so much that now they’re wearing off.”

Many paintings have been all but abandoned, stored under boxes of books in a warehouse. Often, however, the problem is not neglect but ignorant helpfulness. One well-meaning devotee cleaned a painting with chemicals he’d read about in an art conservation book, and melted a character’s face off. Another vacuumed the back of a painting until the suction cracked all the paint, which flaked off in big chunks.

Shakuntala advises that art restoration and care is a delicate process and should only be done by professionally trained art conservators. “Proper cleaning can revive original colors and reveal all sorts of details,” she says.

“For instance, the Sistine chapel had been the subject of many art history books on its dark color scheme, but when restorers revealed the original bright colors, all those theories went out the window.”

Restoring ISKCON paintings has delivered similar results. Cleaning a painting of Krishna and Arjuna on the battlefield revealed conchshells that hadn’t been visible before.

And an unusal-looking Laguna Beach painting of Lord Cai-tanya that had bothered Shakuntala for years turned out to have been painted over in a completely different style from the original. “When I cleaned it I saw the original face, perfectly in keeping with all the other paintings,” she says.

You can help out by reporting damaged paintings to, or by giving donations towards restoration or archiving to the BBT Art Conservation Committee.


October 24, 2008 - Posted by | Gurukula, Gurukuli, Hare Krishna, ISKCON, Vaishnava Youth

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