Shrine to Manasa Devi. Terra cotta, iron. Panchmura, West Bengal, India. Late 20th century. Bristol Museum and Art Gallery.
Researched history and ethics. Reassembled fragments and created structural infills.
The shrine had been part of the collection of the British Empire and Commonwealth Museum before its acquisition by the Bristol Museum and Art Gallery, but little was known about its history. Though originally labelled as a “Shiva” shrine, consultation with art historians determined that the object was in fact a folk shrine to the Bengali goddess Manasa Devi, who protects her worshippers from snakes and poison. The figure is likely the ferryman who appears in some versions of Manasa’s mythology; the wide base on which he stands is a boat. Votive shrines like this one are still made in Panchmura, in the Indian state of West Bengal, as offerings during festivals.
An initial concern was that the damage to the shrine was done intentionally to obscure the figure’s identity and prevent its worship; the figure’s missing head and arm would have been identifying features. But research revealed that the shrine would have been ritually destroyed by sinking it in a river, not by breaking it. The damage likely occurred after it arrived in the UK and the head and arm simply lost.
The shrine is made of low-fired ceramic with decorative elements attached with nails. The ceramic body is terra cotta with a gray core; some pieces show cracking surrounding the core. The blackened surface appears to be the result of firing in a reducing environment, although the underside of the base is reddish in color. Some of the decorative elements, including the frame, cobras, flowers, buds and figure have a slight metallic sheen, likely from an applied coating.
The central figure wears a skirt with a sash and several necklaces. His proper right leg is crossed over the proper left leg, and the proper right arm is raised and bent at the elbow.
There are three levels of decorative schemes surrounding the central figure, which are anchored to the support structure with ceramic struts. The levels of decoration, radiating outward from the figure are:
- A flat band with a rope pattern, with 23 individual buds.
- An arch of 14 lotus flowers.
- A flat band with a rope pattern and incised stylized flowers and waves, with 23 individual cobras.
Each decorative element was prepared separately with a nail fired in, then attached to the body of the shrine.
The shrine base is formed of a hollow, footed tube, with a wide, shallow base serving as support for the decorative elements.
The shrine arrived in 42 separate pieces, not including small fragments. All of the broken edges were clean, with no evidence of previous restoration. Conspicuously absent were the figure’s head and arm, as well as three whole cobras. All of the cobras and three buds had become detached from their arches. The nails attaching the decorative elements to the base were corroding, causing the ceramic to spall in several places. There were several instances of inherent failure within the ceramic joins; the blackened ceramic visible inside showed that this failure occurred before or during firing. The surface of the shrine had a heavy accumulation of dust and dirt.
The shrine was surface-cleaned using brushes and a HEPA-filtered vacuum.
Adhesive tests were carried out to determine the best method for reattaching the fragments. Paraloid B72 was chosen because of its good aging properties as well as its versitility; its application as an infill meant that the materials introduced into the shrine would be minimal. The body of the shrine was reassembled using Paraloid B72 in acetone.
The nails of the disassociated elements were airabraded to remove corrosion and coated in Paraloid B72 before inserting them back into their best-fit positions.
Finally, supportive infills were made where the shrine was weakest. The infills were composed of glass microballoons and powdered pigment in 50% Paraloid B72 in 50:50 acetone and ethanol, then shaped in-situ. Painting the fills with acetone brought them to a finish that matched the shrine’s sheen. The infills helped to strengthen weak joints, hold the cobras in place, and stabilize the foot of the shrine.
Replacements for the missing three cobras were made using the same infill material; a mold of one of the existing cobras was made from dental silicone and casts taken from this. However, it was ultimately decided not to use the replacements.
Although the reassembly of the shrine was relatively straightforward, the rationale behind it was not. Ultimately, the decision was made to not attempt to hide the fact that the shrine had been broken, for several reasons. The damage is part of the shrine’s history. The figure’s head and arm are permanently lost, and it would be disingenuous to restore the whole shrine to a like-new condition without them.
Even without the missing elements, the reassembled shrine is visually striking. Its graphic silhouette contrasts with its endearing, handmade qualities. The treatment has made the shrine much more stable, both physically (reconstructing the foot makes the shrine less likely to tip over and break again) as well as chemically (the coating on the nails will help reduce future corrosion).