Preserving and restoring India’s rich and diverse cultural heritage is not easy, because it is as much about technical skills as it is about having an eye for art !

Rajeev Kumar Choudhary, our next pathbreaker, Team Manager – Conservation at Museum of Art and Photography (Bangalore), works as a full time Art Conservator, also responsible for designing conservation awareness programs, and handling transportation and storage of artworks.

Rajeev talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy from The Interview Portal about his most memorable restoration project of the Bhootnath temple at Mandi, Himachal Pradesh, a temple built in the 16th century.

For students, there are a few careers that aren’t just careers, they are your calling ! They offer very few employment opportunities, but that should not dissuade you from doing what you love !

Rajeev,  tell us what were your early years like?

I grew up in Lutyens’ Delhi seeing the beautiful architectural and historic places around me. I did my schooling at Navyug school Sarojini Nagar, Delhi. It is “one of its kind” of schools in Delhi, founded based on the vision to give quality education to talented students from economically weaker sections by NDMC. I have loved to go to museums and other monuments since my childhood days. 

My father was a government servant working with CPWD as a Carpenter. I always loved to see him working in his workshop.

What did you do for graduation/post-graduation?

I did my graduation from Delhi University with History Honors and Masters in Conservation, Preservation, and Heritage Management from Guru Gobind Singh University, Delhi. During this Masters course , we mainly studied Indian heritage, museology, heritage management, archaeology, and art conservation. Also, we had to take field trips to different cultural zones of India to study them.

What motivated you to choose such an offbeat, unconventional and uncommon career?

My history teacher taught us our history with such passion and pride which inspired me towards our history and cultural legacy. My father always motivated me to perform every task with sincerity and gave me the freedom to choose the profession of my interest.

Our coordinator at INTACH (Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage) New Delhi, always supported me in taking all my career decisions and developing my career. 

After completing my bachelor’s, I came to know about a course in art conservation through one of my friends and the thought that came to my mind is that, maybe this is the only way I can preserve our cultural heritage (that I was in awe of) for future generations. 

How did you plan the steps to get into the career you wanted? Or how did you make a transition to a new career? Tell us about your career path

After completing my graduation in history, there were two paths that I could have chosen: either pursue a master’s in history and go for a teaching career, or go for a profession where I can get the opportunity to preserve our heritage. So I choose to become an art conservator.

The masters course includes both practical and theoretical aspects of study. Students have practical classes in the second year of the course. We also have to do an internship from any conservation institution after the 2nd semester. 

My first job was with ASI (Archaeological Survey Of India ) in the Red fort where I worked on the conservation of Wall paintings, which itself was a very prestigious project as it was a world heritage site and very few people get the opportunity to work on a world heritage site in their entire career.

After completing my ASI project, I joined INTACH’s (Indian national trust for art and cultural heritage) material heritage department because it is one of India’s biggest and pioneering organizations working for the conservation of Indian heritage. This includes departments like material heritage, natural heritage, architectural heritage, intangible heritage, etc. I joined them because platforms like INTACH can give you exposure and experience through the work they do on material heritage from all across the country. While working with INTACH I worked on sites all across the country as well as in our lab in Delhi, which includes the conservation of wall paintings, stone, paper, photographs, metals, canvas paintings, etc. While working here I worked with international and national institutes like the Courtauld institute of art London, IGNCA, etc. 

After INTACH, I joined DAG (Delhi Art Gallery) which is one of the biggest art galleries in India. I was appointed as the first conservation manager to oversee the collection, artwork movement, and condition of records. While working here, I got the opportunity to closely observe the master prices of Indian art.

Presently I am working with MAP( Museum of art and photography) as a Team Manager – Conservation which is India’s first major private museum and is located in Bengaluru. The museum’s mission is to take art and culture to the heart of the community by making the museum accessible to diverse audiences. This is “one of a kind” of opportunity for anyone because we have to work from scratch and build a state-of-the-art conservation lab. This was challenging especially because conservation materials are not easily available in this region. 

Today we have one of the finest conservation labs in the region with all the facilities required for doing conservation of any kind of artwork.

While working in these organizations I also got the opportunity to enroll for training programs from different international agencies like Leon Levy Foundation course in Nagaur (Rajasthan) on conservation studies, ICOM “training the trainer” project, CoSTAR conservation science training and research program by Lakshmi Mittal and Family South Asia Institute, Harvard University, Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya, Harvard Art Museums and Harvard University on technical studies of artworks, etc. All these training sessions helped me a lot in understanding the current scenario and practice of art. As art Conservation is a very dynamic field, and so we have to keep evolving by keeping our skills updated with the latest technology and methods.

The practical skills came from different sources like working in the field on different projects, through workshops, training programs, internships and working with artworks in conservation labs. As conservation is an ever evolving field, one has to keep updating his skills to be relevant. 

How did you get your first break? 

My first break was through a campus placement. It was with the archeological survey of India (chemical Branch). 

What were some of the challenges you faced? How did you address them?

Challenge 1: 

One of the major challenges in this field is the unavailability of sufficient employment opportunities in our times. Only people with great passion can survive in this field. 

Where do you work now? Tell us about your current role

I am currently working with MAP( Museum of art and photography) as a Team Manager – Conservation which is India’s first major private museum and is located in Bengaluru

I am involved in everything related to the Conservation and preservation of artworks like physical conservation of artworks, examination of artworks, managing artwork movement, and providing training on preventive care and handling of artworks.

What skills are needed for your role? How did you acquire the skills?

A person needs to have a degree in art conservation with knowledge of art and science both. I did my master’s in conservation from Delhi.

What’s a typical day like?

A typical day in our lab is all about assessing the condition of artworks received in the lab, conservation of artworks, planning for shipping and packing for artworks going for exhibitions, and loan (artworks given to other exhibitions for a certain duration). 

What is it you love about this job? 

The satisfaction of being able to save our heritage 

How does your work benefit society?

I think my work is not only a source of my income but also a service to society by conserving our rich tangible heritage for future generations.

Tell us an example of a specific memorable work you did that is very close to you!

Though all the different works that I have done are very close to me, If I have to mention one, it will be a conservation project of Bhootnath temple at Mandi, Himachal Pradesh because this is an existing temple, i.e, people come here for worship every day. This temple was built in the 16th century and had conservation issues (earlier repairs that were improper), and there was cement plaster applied on beautifully carved walls. Once we removed the new cement plaster from the temple walls, so many devotees and local people gathered there to see the original sculpture. I could notice the happiness and pride in their eyes which was very satisfying for all of us who were working on the site. 

Your advice to students based on your experience?

Always follow your passion and don’t be afraid to take harsh decisions as these decisions will make you work hard to achieve your goal.

Future Plans?

To promote and conserve India’s cultural heritage by doing awareness programs and physical conservation.