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A sculpture of Brahma at Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya (CSMVS), a museum in Mumbai. Photo by Jean-Pierre Dalbéra.

Until recently, expertise from outside of South Asia has been vital in informing practices around cultural conservation, but larger efforts must be made to understand and adapt to the unique regional context and nuances. The current state of research and practice of conservation in India is in a nascent stage, faced with the overwhelming task of the safekeeping and preservation of India’s vast material and intangible cultural heritage. We spoke with Anupam Sah, the Head of Conservation at the CSMVS Museum, to learn more about the status of art and heritage conservation in India. Anupam Sah will be moderating our upcoming two-part seminar series on December 10 and December 17, entitled “Art and Science of Heritage Conservation: Finding the Right Balance.”

Anupam Sah, Head of Conservation at the CSMVS Museum.

The discussion will focus on the recent developments in science and the impact of these developments on the field of art conservation. The seminar will also delve into the current understanding about materials and techniques in the conservation of antiquities, and is a part of the Mittal Institute’s Program for Conservation of Culture (PCC). With the aim to promote a climate for cultural conservation in South Asia, this program will bring global values of conservation practices in conversation with local needs, existing know-how of materials, resources, climate, legal parameters, and history, and will build a solid foundation for future safekeeping and conservation of South Asia’s heritage. 

How would you summarize the status of art conservation in India?

Today, because of the efforts that the pioneers of art conservation initiated in India from the 1960s onwards, we are in a position where we are about to reach a critical mass that will enable the heritage conservation profession to advance in a manner that is philosophically consistent as well as technically sound. At the same time, India and other Eastern civilizations that have been comfortable with the thought of not latching on to the materiality of objects forever are also becoming conscious of the values of the tangible aspects of cultural heritage along with their intangible significance. As a result, there is a growing awareness today to conserve the physical manifestations of our cultural heritage in a scientific and structured manner, and this augurs well.

There is a burgeoning body of heritage conservators, of conservation institutions and entrepreneurs. There are emergent efforts to create well-directed training programs and focused efforts to create groups of trained conservators. Three decades after the first degree course at the National Museum Institute, another Masters in Art Conservation Program is slated to be launched this year at St. Xavier’s College, Mumbai. Gaps in the profession are being identified and filled. Heritage conservation projects are being launched.

The support for all of these is forthcoming from various Government of India plans, as well as policies looking at re-associating the sciences with the arts; from various state governments’ efforts; from foundations such as the Andrew Mellon Foundation, the Getty Foundation, Aga Khan Trust, Tata Trusts, World Monuments Fund, ICCROM; from multinationals like Citi, from corporations like Indigo airlines, and numerous Indian individuals and philanthropists. Scholarships, through nationwide open selections, to study art conservation and exchange programs are consistently being provided by Charles Wallace Trust, Nehru Trust for Indian Collections at the V&A, INLAKS, as well as the embassies and consulates of the G8 in India. 

India is poised on a platform that is getting stronger and sounder at a time when it is being realized that cultural heritage conservation can play a very useful role in the development of the region by networking with various sectors. Heritage conservation is beginning to be seen as linked with the development of the nation; it is associated not just with the growth of an economy, urban development, and agronomic systems, but is also intrinsic to livelihoods and spiritual growth of the people that make up a civilization.

Who or what do you believe are the key players in ensuring that art conservation flourishes?

For art conservation to flourish, at certain points in our lives we have to also be made consciously aware — through formal education if need be — that cultural heritage has certain significance and diverse values. To disseminate and instill this, the first set of key players are the teachers, right from primary school to university levels — including parents and elders, siblings, friends, and states-people.

The next key players are the specialized institutions and programs that will nurture and incubate the development of practitioners for conservation of cultural heritage. The third set are the institutions that have within their mandate to employ these trained personnel. When this third set is proactive, the practice will flourish more.

Have you observed any differences in the perception of art and heritage conservation in India and other developing countries, as opposed to a developed country?

I think the people of every country have their perception and sense, steeped in local context, of what is of value and significance, and this is eventually what then comprises their body of cultural heritage to be conserved. Many Western nations today, after their own journeys of development, have arrived at a position where they have been able to create systems and protocols that guide the preservation of cultural heritage, from macro cityscapes to individual artifacts.

Developing countries are creating their own platforms for preservation systems and are slowly filling gaps in their exposure to materials, tools, equipment, and their applications. The culture of scientific studies, research, recording, and academic reporting of conservation work is generally more pronounced in the West. Once proper training is provided and an understanding and familiarity with materials is developed, the naturally highly skilled conservators in India and elsewhere are as good as anywhere in the world. Manual skills need to be more appreciated and celebrated in India than they are now, just as local terminologies need to be encouraged for better understanding of the materials and techniques that make up the art objects.

What are the key challenges that lie in the way of art conservation in India, and how would you convert them into opportunities?

In India, the biggest challenge and corresponding opportunity is to train people at diverse levels, as there is an entire ecosystem of professionals that needs to be developed for holistic heritage conservation. The trained art conservator is just one of the key players. This is a time to make training more rigorous, at par with other professions, and establish corresponding remuneration. While conservation laboratories are mandated in almost every museum of India, most of these positions are not filled with appropriately trained personnel. The association of conservators in India needs to be revitalized, and policies at all levels have to look at both short-term projects as well as long-term horizons.

How can India’s institutions improve their efforts in art conservation?

The heads of institutions who are custodians of cultural heritage should populate their few vacancies with well-trained personnel, and they in turn create projects to conserve heritage and that would generate additional contractual jobs as well. The trainers and institutions should enhance their capacity-building programs, in response as well as in anticipation, including creating bridge programs for in-service personnel. Practicing conservators should chip in with efforts and be recognized as a professional body.

What does the collaboration between the Mittal Institute and various museums in India hope to achieve?

While institutions have come forth and offered different programs for India, the Mittal Institute’s partnership could fill a gap in knowledge development in the area of conservation science and research. With Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya (CSMVS Museum) as a partner, the idea is to roll out a 3-year program that aims to engage scientists and art historians in order to strengthen the employment of science in cultural heritage conservation. The Conservation Science Training and Research Program (CoSTAR) will reach out to institutions across India and empower their staff to add further scientific value to the good work they are already doing. ☆


Join us on Thursday, December 10, at 11:00 AM EST for Part 1 of the “Art and Science of Heritage Conservation: Finding the Right Balance” workshop to learn about the recent developments in science and their impact on the field of art conservation.

☆ All opinions expressed by our interview subjects are their own and do not reflect the views of the Mittal Institute and its staff.