Please tell us about yourself

Art conservator Sarojkant Mishra gets the chance to restore bits of India’s heritage. This isn’t a lucrative job. But there’s true job satisfaction . 

A small tear in the canvas, a couple of lime splashes, damage caused by dust, fungal growth or cracks in the paint due to increased humidity… there are a thousand and one factors constantly preying on art pieces, eating into their aesthetic value. And nothing is safe, be it oil paintings, stained glass windows, frescoes or hand-woven textiles. The only way to ensure that art, all these tangible pieces of history and culture, continue on its journey of glory is to conserve them. That’s precisely my job as an art conservator.

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What do you do?

I currently work at the Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (Intach), in the conservation unit, and in the material heritage department. We work on everything that does not come under the purview of the Archaeological Survey of India. So we do not actually work on monuments and buildings but on things that can be found inside it, such as paintings, altars, wall paintings, textiles, sculptures and even paper.

Tell us about your work

The work we do is an amalgamation of chemistry and arts, and everyone works on a specific piece or area. When I started in 2008 with oil paintings, I worked on 13 original artworks dating from the 18th century that were literally in pieces. I got the opportunity to work on every aspect of conservation — recreation, stretching and un-stretching canvases, mending, lining (auxiliary support added to the original support of the painting), consolidation (of, say, flaking paint) and retouching.

The cost of artwork restoration and conservation depends on the amount of deterioration, the time it will take to be corrected, and how sensitive the work in question is to the treatment, as well as to environmental factors. One of my tasks for each day is to visit clients and assess the pieces of art, before drawing up conservation assessment quotes.

Such delicate and fragile work can be intimidating to a newcomer and this leads to mistakes. The good part is that every single step we carry out is reversible. For instance, I once started cleaning a painting without testing the solvent and this caused a reaction. But I was able to try out other solvents to restore whatever was ruined.

But the escape clause does not make things any less challenging. I once worked on a painting that was faultily restored 40 years ago using the wax lining technique, which is not reversible at all. The layer of wax at the back made the painting look darker, and I had to remove all that wax to restore the painting. Moreover, I had to recreate the lost areas using materials that were homogeneously compatible with the original paint layer.

What did you study?

I have a Bachelor’s degree in chemistry followed by Masters in conservation from the National Museum Institute. The entrance exam for the latter tests your knowledge of art history, chemistry, and your sketching abilities.

How did you end up in such an offbeat, unconventional and cool career?

Incidentally, it was my father who urged me to consider conservation as a career. Apart from sketching and drawing during my school years, I had no background or inclination towards art. After his prompting, I took one good look at the art collection at the National Museum in the Capital and, awed and overwhelmed, I made the choice to study there.

What do you love about your job?

The most rewarding aspect of my job is the drastic, tangible changes you can see for yourself. An added perk is that I get to travel all over India, to places of historical importance, and regularly interact with art students, collectors, auctioneers, historians and archaeologists. Our work receives a lot of royal patronage, and the parting words at the end of a job done are usually effusive thanks for what they feel is literally reinstating lost glory.

Few art colleges in India offer a specialisation or degree in it. However, with an increasing number of workshops, this is becoming a fast-expanding field. Today, there is a continuous, albeit gradual, effort to help students develop an early interest in the subject.

On the bright side, conservators with ample experience, such as those employed by art firms and museums, have earnings closer to the commissions of art galleries.

What are your future plans?

My future plans? Further studies in conservation science at Cardiff University. The analytical aspects, different conservation grade materials and their appropriateness for artworks are areas I wish to work on before returning to India to develop appropriate materials for conservation.

Most of the conservation grade materials used in India are imported from Europe, which are meant for lower temperatures and will behave differently for artworks here. There is a need to develop indigenous and traditional materials as well as methods with an eye on modern conservation.