Monday, 4 March 2013

The Last Supper of India

Hundreds of Indians go to Italy to see Leonardo da Vinci’s “The Last Supper”.
The Last Supper, also called Il Cenacolo or L'Ultima Cena in Italian, is a late 15th century mural painting in the refectory of the Convent of Sante Maria della Grazie in Milan, Italy.
It represents the scene of  the last supper of Jesus Christ with his disciples. The painting measures 460 cm by 880 cm (180 in × 350 in) and covers an end wall of the dining hall at the monastery.
This is among the great paintings of the world and millions of people, including Indians, make a beeline to Milan to view it. But what many do not know is that we too have a painting of The Last Supper in India.  
The Indian Supper is a much smaller painting an unlike the original it is located in the premises of a church.  The Indian painting is much smaller-10x12 feet of canvas.
This is the painting that the German artist Johann Zoffany worked on for six weeks. A neoclassical painter, Zoffany gifted the painting of his version of the Last Supper to the St John Parish in Calcutta on June 24, 1787.
Though this is not a patch on the original, artists acknowledges that the Zoffany canvas is perhaps the best Biblical representation in India.
Zoffany had gifted the painting on the eve of the consecration of the first ever church built in Calcutta by the British. The painting, however, drew mixed response as some of the faces of the apostles closely resembled members of the Calcutta aristocracy.   
Zoffany (1733-1810) spent six years in India. Some of his other paintings can still be seen in Victoria Memorial. Born in Frankfurt, he is considered to be one of the founding artists of the British School of the 18th century.
The painting first served as an altar piece. Over the years, it slowly deteriorated and was severely damaged. It had to be restored in a big way.
This is not to say that the painting was damaged only recently. As long back as in 1888, the canvas was torn and there was a large hole near the nose of  Judas.
The painting is not an exact replica of  Leonardo’s Supper. The Calcutta canvas has an Indian touch. The top left hand corner of the painting shows a sword, which represents a common peon’s talwar. A Water ewer near a table on which the supper is placed is a copy of an Indian spittoon and next to it lies a water filled goat bag.
Perhaps the most unique feature of  the  Indian Supper is in the selection of model used by Zoffany to represent Jesus and his twelve disciples. Father Parthenio, a Greek priest, became Jesus. Auctioneer William Tulloh became Judas, while John is  represented by W.C.Blacquiere the police magistrate of Calcutta during 1780s.
Tulloh reportedly was so offended that he is said to have attempted to destroy the painting. This could be the earliest attempt to destroy or deface the painting. The several decades after the painting was gifted, saw the slow deterioration of the painting.   
It was only a few years ago, that Kolkatta woke up to the massive damage and undertook extensive restoration work. If Zoffany took six weeks to paint it, a team of six conservators took more than five months to repair 47 tears and holes the Supper had suffered in the 223 years. The cost of the restoration: Rs.15 lakhs.
What is not known is that two previous attempts to restore the painting had only gone to affect it. In one such attempt, putty was used to fill the gashes, up to 47 cm in length, and large sections of overpaint and tinted varnishes were applied.
The conservators were from the Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage. They brought in some of the material and equipment from Europe, including reversible paints and consolidation media.
The team was headed by Renate Kant, a German painting conservator based in Singapore.
The original frame of the painting has been retained. The gilt was cleaned. The restored painting is today’s Kolkata’s pride. It still hangs in St. John’s Church.
John’s Church, originally a Cathedral, was among the first public buildings by the East India Company after Kolkata became the capital of British India. It is located at the North- west corner of Raj Bhavan.
The construction of the church began in 1784, with Rs 30,000 raised through a public lottery and it was completed in 1787. St. John’s Church is the third oldest church in Calcutta (Kolkata) only next to the Armenian and the Old Mission Church.
Kolkata is approachable by any means of transport-rail, road or air. There are plenty of options to stay and a lot of places to see.

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