This August, Rereeti features four young professionals who are part of India’s cultural field, practicing as curators, archivists and conservators in museums and heritage sites.
This week, we engage in a tête-à-tête with Shruti Asoka.
Shruti Asoka is an independent art conservator from Bangalore. Her area of expertise is conservation of easel paintings, although she is well-versed with works of art on paper. She stepped into the field as a trainee with ICKPAC (INTACH Chitrakala Parishath Art Conservation Centre), Bangalore. Shruti sees herself leaning towards the study of methods and materials through incorporating the sciences in planning the treatment of works of art.
Rereeti: How was your childhood? Take our readers through your academic background and how you got interested in the arts.
Shruti: I have always been a practical, adventurous and outdoorsy individual. I was exposed to a lot of travel right from the start and was encouraged to be independent, take on challenges and push my limits in anything I wished to do. These are qualities that have sustained my forays into the world of art, culture and heritage.
I was introduced to fine arts by my parents since I was not very comfortable in the physical sciences. Fine arts is highly creative. During all my travels, museums and other historic and cultural heritage sites intrigued me. Temple architecture was one of the areas that awed me! It was obvious that I wanted to delve into art history in my under graduation.
I considered the Maharaja Sayajirao University of Baroda for a master’s program in fine arts (art criticism) since my professors were graduates of this institution. They always spoke highly of the teaching, approaches and opportunities thereafter. Art history or criticism never restricted one to any particular field or space and it gave me the opportunity to pursue anything I wanted. I could have been employed in the media, or worked as a freelance reviewer or been a curator at an art gallery. There’s also the option of working from home, using my time in a flexible manner to work with different projects as a consultant.
Rereeti: How did you land your first job or professional assignment? What were your expectations from the role?
Shruti: My first assignment was reviewing an exhibition of paintings centered on the theme of folk art. A dear professor had recommended my name to Vijaya Times, the local news daily, who called me one afternoon and asked if I would like to cover the exhibition for them. It was scary and overwhelming: the entire state was going to be reading my review! My peers would be able to critically evaluate my writing and understanding of the subject. Also, I had a responsibility towards highlighting the artist’s intent.
Freelancing with Vijaya Times had given me opportunities to write not just about the visual arts but to also cover sundry topics. Two very interesting articles I wrote included the sports played by persons with disabilities and a commercial household accessory! I really enjoyed that. It all involved a lot of research and gave me the chance to network and meet people.
Rereeti: Were you aware of how your career would progress post college and the options available to you as an art critic in India?
Shruti: Frankly, no, I hadn’t foreseen my career progression. When I was a student, my batch mates and friends – all artists and sculptors – were stepping into mainstream art. Hiring professional writers to do their exhibition catalog was proving to be expensive. This is where I stepped in; I knew their visual language and the background they came from. This helped me practice and develop my writing skills further.
It was also during this time that I felt having another degree in curatorial studies from a university abroad would be helpful, however, the expenses were quite high. I decided to take up a curatorial stint with Mahua Art Gallery, Bangalore instead. I was more than happy to try my hand at anything in the cultural heritage scene. I was flexible.
In all this learning, I have to confess, I wasn’t concerned much about financial gains. It was important that I enjoyed what I did. I didn’t want to be a full time art writer and was happy freelancing.
Rereeti: How did you transition from an art critic to a conservator?
Shruti: It happened quite by accident! A senior in college who was working with ICKPAC asked if I was interested in a conservator program for trainees launched by the organization. I landed the job the very next day and there has been no looking back!
ICKPAC is one of INTACH‘s (Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage) material heritage divisions, catering to the conservation and restoration needs of southern India. We were only a handful of us in ICKPAC headed by a zesty director, a retired chemist from the Archaeological Survey of India.
My first assignment was documenting and conserving 300 botanical studies and drawings from the Colonial period. All of these were executed by court artists under the tutelage of the Daniel Brothers. These are, even to this day, housed in a beautiful library in the Lalbagh Botanical Gardens, Bangalore. The drawings are pencil studies and some of them are painted in water-based pigments. The quality of these works is exceptional and splendid!
These were rare studies that none of us had seen even as students. And here I was, actually touching them and conserving them!
Rereeti: What are the some of the highlights / positives of working in the conservation sector?
Shruti: Working with artifacts, hands-on is an overwhelming and stimulating experience. There are so many of these ‘bhavas’ all at the same time. Not only are you responsible for their care and handling, but you have to be aware of their original purpose. Their functionality may have been mundane at the time, but these are objects to be venerated. Their creators have put in immense thought in the materials they chose, the methods and procedures they deployed in their making. That is the reason they are here, after all these centuries. They are the reason we are here.
Although I would like to be a specialist of one type of objects, it is mandatory that we know how to conserve some other medias as well. I really enjoy treating traditional paintings (both Mysore and Tanjore School), and prints (like oleographs, etchings, etc.). You have to do a lot of research in the methods and materials. You have to keep abreast with the latest practices involved in the treatment of the ‘objet d’art’. Pure sciences and technology have become an integral part of the discipline. An invasive treatment was a practice of the past; it is very critical to get down to the nucleus of the materials that have been used to create these and only then get into the practical treatment, part which has to be reversible under any circumstances.
I have had tons of memorable experiences. I travel a lot. I have met amazing people who have shared their oeuvre. Conservation is in its infancy in India. We are only a handful of practicing conservators.
Rereeti: How do you interact with peers beyond your workplace?
Shruti: I do attend conferences and workshops where and when possible. I have given presentations locally, nationally and internationally. We have platforms and forums world-wide where you can exchange your learning and experiences.
One very good way to get a feel of the field is by interning, and where possible, volunteering. I have been part of workshops and awareness programs as well. Many international funding agencies have shown immense interest in helping conserve Indian heritage. Like the Leon Levy Foundation and the Courtauld Institute of Art, London have teamed up with the Mehrangarh Museum Trust and are doing amazingly well in Jodhpur, Nagaur, and recently in Bundi. They have introduced month-long, intensive, teaching programs. That’s wonderful exposure for budding conservators to get a feel of how our international peers approach an issue. They also introduce you to the latest technology available for use in documentation and preventive conservation.
I volunteered at the Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery for 3 years. I started with documentation and slowly moved into the studios and worked on works of art on paper and easel paintings. I have had the opportunity to intern with the National Museums & Galleries in Liverpool.
Rereeti: How does a conservation professional approach continuing learning?
Shruti: Don’t be in a hurry: Conservation is a field that requires immense patience as treatments don’t happen overnight. Honestly, the field doesn’t have much to offer in terms of financial viability. So, personally, I would say, only the love for art and heritage are reasons enough to pursue a career in this field. But there’s definitely satisfaction, lot of learning, networking, and travel.
There are many scholarships available for further studies. The Charles Wallace has internships lasting from three months to 1 year in the UK. There is the Getty Foundation, now the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, which has paired with the Government of India, Ministry of Culture. There are many forums online that announce internships, volunteering opportunities, positions, workshops, etc., all over the world. Institutes and universities also have online courses, both free and paid that lead to certificates and degree programs. Keep yourself informed. Even the Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya along with the Bhau Daji Lad City Museum, Mumbai are offering some amazing courses.
The West has resources and infrastructure that we lack, however, that is not to say we cannot do it. We have ample skilled labor and it’s a matter of training and resource allocation. For instance, several medical equipment come in handy in our field. You can always look for alternatives. Be passionate. Be flexible.