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IN CONVERSATION WITH SMITA SINGH

— JASMEEN DUGAL

Smita Singh is an Independent Textile Conservation Consultant; having a Master’s Degree in 'Conservation of Art Objects' from the National Museum Institute, New Delhi. She is UGC-NET qualified and has specialization in Conservation of Traditional Painted Textiles from British Museum, London. Currently, she is working on conservation projects for the textile collection at  MSMS II Museum, The City Palace Jaipur and is associated with MMCF, The City Palace Museum, Udaipur as a Textile Conservation Consultant, since 2014, for the documentation, conservation and storage of collection of The Royal Mewar Textiles. She is also a visiting faculty at the ‘National Museum Institute’. Her sixteen years of work includes a long association with Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage, New Delhi; National Research Laboratory for Conservation of Cultural Property, Lucknow; The City Palace Udaipur; President House Museum, New Delhi; Mehrangarh Museum Trust, Jodhpur; School of Planning and Architecture, New Delhi, Gyan Museum, Jaipur and Srinivas Malliah  Memorial Theatre Crafts Museum, New Delhi; which has the textile collection collected by Smt. Kamladevi Chattopadhyay. During her association with INTACH Art Conservation Centre also established 'Specialized Textile Conservation Unit' in 2010. In conversation with her.

 

Smita you participated in a workshop at World Living Heritage Festival. Do share its theme and your personal experience. What do you feel people attending it took away from it?

 

The theme of my workshop at World Living Heritage Festival was 'Exploring Textile Heritage of India — Material, Technique and Preservation'. The aim of the workshop was to create awareness about our country's textile heritage and to bring into focus, the fragility of these living traditions. I wanted to emphasize practical experience for textile techniques like embroidery, block printing, dyeing, weaving and textile restoration demonstrated by skilled artisans and conservation professionals. During the workshop, participants learnt about regional variations of designs and patterns; the textiles and techniques being used in Rafoogari, an age-old Indian tradition of mending textiles, with the Rafoogars of Nazibabad; and conservation stitches from textile conservators. Our aim was to showcase traditional and scientific textile stitch repair techniques on a single platform. This was followed by a practical session by artisans of Dabu printing — an Indigo resist block printing technique from Akola; Khari printing with silver and gold foil; tinsel printing technique from Udaipur; Rogan printing from Kutch; Durrie weaving from Jodhpur; embroidery techniques like 'Danke Ka Kaam' i.e. metal plate embroidery and Pashmina shawl embroidery. It also emphasised on the effort by artisans in creating such splendours. In the end, all participants realized that the proper marketing, financial support, and above all, a respectable livelihood are required for the elevation of India's crafts.

 

Smita, you are no stranger to Udaipur. How do you feel World Living Heritage Festival will make heritage — be it heritage textile- heritage temples- intangible heritage — relevant to the younger generation as the onus is on them to pass it on to the next generation…?

 

During this festival, eminent speakers shared their experience of documenting, publishing and supporting living heritage in India and overseas. The performing arts programme and heritage walks were well organised and enhanced the tangible and intangible traditions of India. The younger generation learnt the significance of field study, its methodology and variety of research topics that they can adopt and take forward. Moreover, the seminars will give young minds an opportunity to think about the diversity of living cultural heritage.

 

What is the most interesting thing you learnt or experienced during World Living Heritage Festival?

 

There were presentations by Sthapatis and Pujaries i.e. temple priests who shared immense knowledge of living heritage. Moreover, it was thought-provoking to hear a conversation between young students and artisans about their craft during the workshop. These were the most interesting parts of the World Living Heritage Festival as they are the ones who are flag bearers of the living heritage.

 

Smita, you were in touch with weavers and artisans who came for the bazaar. Please share their experience with us. Who benefitted from participation? How did they benefit?

 

The artisans and weavers work in rural areas. At City Palace, Udaipur they got respect and exposure, which was much needed to augment their confidence and belief in their skills. There were no monetary benefits taken by the MMCF in their earnings. Artisans were direct stakeholders and they got all the support from MMCF including a shop area with all facilities like proper sign-ages, brochure highlighting their biography and respective craft, tea and food. Artisans and weavers received a good sale of their products and are happy to collaborate with the organisation for future projects.

 

Smita, how do you feel healing fabrics from ancient times- which you discussed as Living Heritage during one of the seminars at the festival- can be created in a way that it's relevant to the millennial generation and a game-changer for Indian Fashion?

 

Yes, the healing fabrics with divine fragrance will certainly be a pivotal moment for the Indian Fashion. Fashion designers can start pondering upon the importance of satviktta of garments with a study of fragrance and reflectance of wavelengths with respect to the dye chart. The clothes we wear act as receptor to imbibe positive or negative energies and divine frequencies from the atmosphere around us, so by doing this, they can transmit positive vibrations and purity into our consciousness.

 

Tell us something about yourself, Smita. How did you get interested in textile conservation?

 

I was always interested in Arts however being born in a family of doctors and engineers it just became a hobby. I studied to be a doctor but failed. Then, I enrolled in a Science graduation programme and chose Botany, Zoology and Chemistry. There, I enjoyed my interest of drawing, however, in the form of diagrams. Then, one of my family friends introduced me to conservation, which is a combination of Science and Arts. After graduation, I enrolled myself in a certificate course at National Research Laboratory for Conservation of Cultural Property, Lucknow in 1999. I was thrilled and fascinated by Art Conservation while studying and working with the conservation scientists and scholars about the constituent of materials of artefacts, scientific methods for diagnosing deterioration of the artefacts, making their condition assessment reports, suggesting conservation treatment and its risk impact over a period and conservation treatments to preserve the artefact for posterity. From there I got a spark that this is the field I would like to pursue as my career which can be named 'Doctor of Artefacts'. Subsequently, I did Masters in Conservation.

 

How did the aspiration of becoming a textile conservator transform into reality? Was it a tough path?

 

After the certificate course, I decided to study further in Conservation, and joined National Museum Institute, New Delhi. There, I studied about the conservation of paintings on different supports, metal conservation, wood conservation and textile conservation. Being a new subject in India, we were studying everything in conservation, although, an idea of doing specialisation was germinating. There were conservators who had done specialisation in paper conservation, wall painting conservation, photographic conservation etc, however, there was nobody pursuing specialisation in textile conservation, as per my knowledge. The condition of textile objects was not good in Indian museums, and there was a pressing need to preserve and conserve them. Initiatives for textile conservation were either not done or were limited, and consequently, there were no projects or job openings for textile conservator. After completing my Masters, I joined Indian National Trust for Conservation of Cultural Property INTACH, Delhi in 2002 as Art Conservator, and started my career by conserving oil paintings and 'Painted Textiles' as these were the objects given to us for restoration. Very soon, I was deputed at the President House for conservation of Qazar paintings at Ashoka Hall. While handling other projects, I was still inclined towards my interest in textile conservation. So, I enhanced my knowledge in textile conservation by attending conference, seminars and workshops. I did further specialisation while working with conservators and conservation scientists at British Museum, London. On my return to India, I got an opportunity to establish a Specialised Textile Conservation Unit at INTACH in 2010, supported by Dr. O. P. Agarvwal and Martand Singh. Since 2011, I'm working as an independent Textile Conservation Consultant and have worked with various organisations such as SMM Theatre Crafts Museum, Delhi along with the President House for NRLC; Mehrangarh Museum Trust, Jodhpur; Gyan Museum, Jaipur and am associated with MSMS II Museum Trust and Maharanara of Mewar Charitable Foundation, Udaipur since 2014.

 

What does a textile conservator do? Can you describe an average day at work?

The work of a textile conservator includes conservation assessment of textiles objects; identification of its constituents of material; research for the construction history like stitch analysis, seam analysis, weave analysis, pattern-making of museum costumes; maintenance of all the written records; photographic documentation of the status of objects before, during and after conservation; and execution of the conservation treatments, which include cleaning and repairing of textiles to provide strengthening. The role of a conservator does not end here. We also do mounting of textiles for display; designing and fabricating proper storage area for textiles along with cataloguing and documentation of textiles in terms of Indian context of historical aspects time, ritual and festival apart from their material technology.

 

What is the most challenging or exciting part of working as a textile conservator in India?

 

The Textile tradition in India is rich and diverse. We value our heritage collections not only because of their antiquity but several sentimental and religious aspects are also deeply involved, which needs to be respected while deciding the conservation treatments. Additionally, it's challenging to conserve a textile as the materials and deteriorations change from artefact to artefact, and being a perishable material, we have to work on a particular artefact for several hours to preserve it. Moreover, an enormous study is required to plan a strategy for the conservation of textiles.

 

Did working with ancient materials change the way you thought of the time period they belonged to?

Definitely, it did. In today's materialistic world, residing in an urban city, we don't relate to our surroundings in a ritualistic and Satvik way, which directly affects body and soul. Whereas in ancient time people were aware about their health, fitness and mental peace. All furnishings, decorative materials and clothes were set to imbibe positive energies!

 

Do you have a favorite piece?

 

Magnificent and royal collections of velvet and metal thread embroidered elephant caparison sets and its silver ornaments at MMCF, Udaipur is my favorite one. In India, decorating elephants on various festivals has history of more than five thousand years that pertains to different regions and dynasties and unfolds fascinating aspects of Indian animal covering history. In Mewar, one can notice that court painters and sculptors have beautifully portrayed elephant, which are caparisoned and decorated with ornaments at City Palace, Jag Mandir and Jagdish Temple.

 

We have a wealth of textiles - from Lucknow's Chikan to Bengal's Kantha- Punjab's Phulkari- Kashmir's Pashmina but awareness about conservation is almost non-existent. How do you- as someone who has Master's in Conservation- aspire to change that?

 

India has a legacy of producing the most exquisite textiles, each with its own geographical and cultural mark. The same can be said for the clothing, aristocratic as well as from other sections of society. Therefore, realising the need for a common platform for exchange of knowledge in lost textile traditions as well as contemporary practices; a group of like-minded dedicated researchers including academics, curators, textile conservators, clothing designers has come together to set up TCRC: Textiles and Clothing Research Centre in Delhi. From this platform, all founder members are organising public lectures, workshops, seminars, theme-based publications and a biannual e-journal to create awareness and to promote knowledge of Indian traditional textiles.

 

I've heard there is a process in the conservation of textiles- carpets or wall art. Please explain it to us.

 

Yes, it has an entire process starting from diagnosing the damages and then conserving it for display or storage. The basic steps are written, graphic and photographic documentation at each phase of the conservation; cleaning, which includes mechanical cleaning, wet cleaning; stain removal using various special conservation grade material and equipment such as low pressure phelgum suction machine, nebulizers, suction table; followed by strengthening of textiles by stitch repair or adhesive repair depending upon the condition of that particular object; dyeing of fabric as per the colour of the damaged area by following conservation ethics and finally its mounting for display or storage. A textile conservator follows all or some of these steps as per the condition and need of an object.

 

On a more serious note- what is the biggest threat to conserving textiles?

 

Being organic in nature prior planning and risk assessment of all the treatments is very necessary. Because if something goes wrong the possibility for reversibility of the treatment is less, especially in the case of cleaning processes. Nevertheless, priority is always given to adopt reversible techniques and materials for conservation. Moreover, scientific calculation of the percentage and contact time of cleaning solutions and solvents, and its evaporation time in connection to the textile must be assessed properly before application. It is always better to give priority to prevention than cure until or unless it is absolutely necessary.

 

What's the best piece of career advice you've been given? And what advice would you give to anyone looking to become a textile conservator? What qualifications and experience would they need?

 

I have been given advice to focus on one subject which I enjoy the most, and subsequently, I chose specialisation in Textile Conservation.  If one wants to become a textile conservator, it would be ideal to do Masters in Conservation from National Museum Institute, New Delhi or M. Sc. In Textile and Apparel Science from Lady Irwin Collage, Delhi University as they have textile conservation as an optional subject. Such courses can also be done overseas from Glasgow University, United Kingdom or University of Applied Arts, Vienna and universities in France or Switzerland. There are opportunities to do internship in museums, to work under the guidance of conservation professional in India and overseas. There are fellowships that support internship for students and mid-career professionals like Charles Wallace India Trust Fellowship, Fulbright Fellowship, Melon Foundation, Nehru Trust for UK Travel Fellowship, INLAKS Fellowship, Eurasia Pacific Fellowship and Ford Foundation scholarships, etc.

 

WORLD LIVING HERITAGE FESTIVAL
Textile Conservation Consultant Smita Singh
 
28-OCTOBER-2018
 
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