What it takes to digitise artwork that is almost 4 centuries old

What it takes to digitise artwork that is almost 4 centuries old
  • A medium format Pentax 645Z, a Panasonic Lumix GH5, some lenses and lights.
  • The price of the equipment comes to about Rs. 9 lakh, though international standards would be worth much more.
The white walls of Indira Gandhi National Centre of Arts’ Twin Art Gallery were bare except for regularly spaced numbers written in pencil. The floors were littered with fly-away sheets of butter paper and foam from the massive wooden crates quickly but delicately being unpacked. Despite the churn of activity, the room was quiet and when someone did speak, it was in a whisper - the significance of the work commanding a hushed reverence. The only sound breaking the silence was the clicking of a camera shutter opening and closing.

What was unfolding in front of me was the unpacking and digitisation of 46 Tibetan Buddhist paintings, known as “ thangkas.” Some of the pieces had been previously restored while some remain untouched, unrestored. Most of them had not seen the light of day in more than six decades. All were extremely fragile.

In one corner, a few hands carefully pulled out plastic and foam-wrapped thangkas from a crate they had just opened. In another area, a few girls sat with swathes of cloth around them, rolls of velcro, and needle and thread ready to start work on making the paintings wall-mountable.

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What it takes to digitise artwork that is almost 4 centuries old
Marking the places where the thangkas will be placed. Photo: Jhinuk Sen

These thangkas, painted in intricate detail on cotton and silk, had been brought to India by Rahul Sankrityayana and were being digitised by his grandson Manav Parhawk.

For scholars of Hindi, Buddhist and Tibetan studies, Mahapandit Rahul Sankrityayana is not an unfamiliar name. Sankrityayana was a Padma Bhushan awardee, a scholar and a writer. Called the ‘Father of Hindi Travelogue,’ he spent almost 45 years of his life on the road all over Asia and Europe, wrote more than 130 books and was fluent in almost 13 languages.

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It was thanks to Sankrityayana that thousands of invaluable palm-leaf manuscripts of Buddhist philosophy, that were considered lost, were finally discovered. He brought them all back to India along with these thangkas, artifacts, sketches, photographs and even glass plate negatives.

“This is the first time in my 40 years that I have been able to see the fruits of my Nana's tireless efforts. I want to make sure I can see them again, and so that scholars across the globe have access to this immense trove of knowledge for their research,” says Parhawk.

Before the thangkas were moved from the crates to be mounted vertically on the walls with cloth and velcro for display, the digitisation began with two cameras, two lights and lots of first-hand yelling at people to stay out of the way. All this equipment costs more than some journalists’ yearly salary.
What it takes to digitise artwork that is almost 4 centuries old
Setting up the equipment took a few hours. Photo: Jhinuk Sen
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Parhawk, who is a professional fashion and lifestyle photographer, used his medium format digital Pentax 645Z with Pentax 55mm (F2.8) and 120mm macro (F4) lenses. Lenses were switched on the camera body depending on the size of the thangka being shot.

What it takes to digitise artwork that is almost 4 centuries old
A medium format digital Pentax 645Z was used for digiting the artwork. Photo: Jhinuk Sen

What it takes to digitise artwork that is almost 4 centuries old
Pentax's 120mm macro lens. Photo: Jhinuk Sen

What it takes to digitise artwork that is almost 4 centuries old
Pentax's 55mm (F/2.8) lens. Photo: Jhinuk Sen


Two Elinchrom Master 600s monobloc flashes and a complicated rig to vertically mount the camera safely six feet off the ground completed the set-up for the main full shots of the thangkas which were laid flat on the ground on a large swath of black cloth.
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What it takes to digitise artwork that is almost 4 centuries old

Two Elinchrom Master 600s monobloc flashes were used for lighting. Photo: Jhinuk Sen


Each and every one of the pieces are incredibly detailed, and to capture the close-in shots, the Panasonic Lumix GH5 (20-megapixels) with micro four thirds crop lenses was used.

What it takes to digitise artwork that is almost 4 centuries old
Panasonic Lumix GH5. Photo: Jhinuk Sen

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What it takes to digitise artwork that is almost 4 centuries old
Close up shots of the artwork, taken to retain details. Photo: Jhinuk Sen

Though the pictures were being shot in a controlled light environment (inside the exhibition hall), the large black cloth was used to reduce flare and big foamcore sheets were used as fill to make sure the thangkas got the right light.

While the confusion of the artwork numbering and listing them right had everyone fumbling with multiple lists, the bigger challenge was something else: camera positioning. To ensure the camera was positioned just perfectly over the thangka meant that it had to be placed at a certain height (that’s where the rig comes in). Furthermore, the camera could only be operated manually, which meant multiple stretching exercises by Parhawk to get the frame right so as to avoid stepping on the surface where the art work had been placed. This frequently led to scenes like this one:

What it takes to digitise artwork that is almost 4 centuries old
It's an exercise. Photo: Jhinuk Sen
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A good few biblical photo ops later, 46 thangkas had been photographed. I then sat down with the team to discuss the process and the equipment they had just used.

The main idea behind using the particular equipment that Parhawk did, was to generate the right colours without chromatic or hue shifts. This ensures that the art looks as close to the source as possible when viewed on computers later. The idea is to match the original, not a copy you see on screen.

Hue Shifting is described as, “a basic tool for any artist who works on computer. The principle is the following: whenever you want to create a colour derived from another, you have to move its hue along with its brightness.” So, if you have to get a shadow tone from a brighter colour, you cannot just lower the brightness, you need to use this tool to create the right colour of the shadow. In this case, the point was to capture the absolute right colour from the very beginning. Imagine trying to accurately photograph the white colour of a blank canvas. If the lighting is too dark, the colour will actually appear grey rather than white, while an incandescent light may give it a yellow-brown tone. This phenomenon was made popular by the blue-black dress image that polarised the Internet in 2015.
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A chromatic shift (often called a chromatic aberration) “is an effect resulting from dispersion in which there is a failure of a lens to focus all colours to the same convergence point. It occurs because lenses have different refractive indices for different wavelengths of light.”

These thangkas are full of subtle colours and incredible shading. It was essential to reduce all possible errors to a minimum and it was unlikely that Parhawk and his team would ever have this opportunity again.

“I needed to get the right highlights, mid-tones and shadows like they are on the original piece and not what works on a computer screen. This is probably the only time I will get my hands on these, and I needed to make sure I faithfully reproduce colours, luminosities and most importantly, textures of the fine brush strokes,” Parhawk explained.
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So was the equipment he had at his disposal up to the task?

“I use a medium format camera because it shoots 14-bit raw files with massive colour depth and information. The camera has an 11 stop exposure latitude. The colour is very accurate and the sensor is 1.7 times the size of the sensors on any Nikon or Canon DSLR, even the high-end ones capturing mind numbing detail,” Parhawk says.

Despite having most details well in place, the team was white balancing continuously with a grey card. The purpose of that was to keep a check, even in that controlled environment, just to make sure there are no errors or accidental colour casts.
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“It helps massively in post-production to spot the right colours,” pointed out film editor Ralph Fernandes who was collaborating with Parhawk on this project.

So while the team was working with the equipment they use on a daily basis for all their other photography work, what if they could pick something better?

Parhawk chose to pick a large format camera from my money-is-no-object list. A large format technical camera would have been incredible but they are frighteningly expensive. They can cost you more than $30,000 (nearly Rs 20 lakh).
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“What you are looking at repeating the same process that photographers do with Sinars and Linhofs. You are trying to capture the largest amount of available detail in a RAW file,” Parhawk said.

“For older stuff and art restoration stuff, they also use ultraviolet and infrared cameras to capture details that are beyond the visual spectrum. It helps in recreating it. And that is specialised gear. There are paintings they don’t even expose to light because they may be fragile or just very, very valuable. They are digitised in dark rooms with infrared and UV camera systems,” Fernandes pointed out.

“The lighting equipment we are using right now is not the highest possible grade. That would be the Balcar or the Briese - these are high-grade lighting systems. They are awesome, but they are very, very expensive,” Parhawk said speaking about the lights he would have liked to use if he could afford it.
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In the Balcar or the Briese the wavelengths are more colour correct and the light modifiers are better, meaning the image being shot would have been more perfect. But like most other high-end equipment, they cost many arms and many legs, even for Indian pro photographers.

The sky is the limit when it comes to equipment that could have been used, but for now, the medium format pulled its weight perfectly. Had the team used the high-end equipment suited best for the task, the costs would have shot up by a few crores at least. They pulled out incredible details and near-perfect colours in a fraction of the cost (Rs 9 lakh for all the equipment, give or take a few thousand).

At the end of the day, what you are looking for is clarity of image, which means good lensing, good colour depth for restoration purposes, accurate saturation and well-controlled light that reproduces the textures and colours as faithfully as possible - for that, the setup was well suited.
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The exhibition, titled ‘Rahul Sankrityayana’s Antiquity Collection,’ is as magical as the name promises. Hosted in collaboration with the Patna Museum and curated by Sankrityayana’s daughter Jaya Parhawk, it is on display till 9 April.
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