Culture defines who we are, and it is imperative that we treat the inheritance that we have received from our ancestors with care and pass it on to the next generations.

Madniya Mozawala, our next pathbreaker, Fine Art Conservator & Restorer at the CSMVS Museum Art Conservation department, works on conservation of easel paintings aimed at enriched presentation and preservation of cultural heritage.

Madniya talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy from The Interview Portal about her work across diverse materials like oil paintings, contemporary paintings, manuscripts, miniature paintings, paintings on cloth, prints on paper, ivory, bone, stone and polychrome on wood.

For students, choose a lifestyle not a career! Be bold, take risks, choose adventures and remember, discipline is the bridge between goals and accomplishments.

Madniya, what were your early years like?

I was born and raised in South Mumbai; I have always lived in old buildings and heritage structures. My school, The Alexandra Girls English Institution, turned 150 years old in 2012. As a child, I was always fascinated with high ceilings, arches, domes, old windows, stone carvings, pillars, ornamental designs. I belong to a traditional business family, my dad deals with carpets (the fabric of art), the patterns on carpets and prayer mats always fascinated me as a child. My parents took my brother and me to visit the museums very often. I would hang around looking at the monumental paintings, with my mouth wide open! The scale of the European paintings used to feel magical to me as a kid. I was a daydreamer and a very sensitive kid. I was always interested in art and craft. I was trained in art from a very young age. I did a lot of extra- curricular stuff, and used to like it more than studies. I grew up watching a lot of Egyptian Mummy movies, where pyramids and painted tombs always got my attention. Though I did not know of course at that time what mummification was, I was damn curious about it. 

What did you do for graduation/ post-graduation?

I did higher secondary from Jai Hind college, Mumbai and then studied Fine Art (Drawing and Painting) at the Sir JJ School of art, Mumbai, after which I received a fellowship at the J.J. School of art, and did my post-graduation in conservation at the CSMVS (CHHATRAPATI SHIVAJI MAHARAJ VASTU SANGRAHALAYA) museum.

What were some of the influences that made you choose such an offbeat, unconventional and unusual career?

During my undergraduate studies, I developed an appreciation for easel paintings by Italian masters Caravaggio, Raphael, Titian, and the Flemish, Venetian and Dutch schools of paintings. Besides the aesthetic and stylistic quality of these paintings, I was keenly interested in the materials and techniques that went into their creation, such as the different types of support- canvas, wooden panels, copper; different types of auxiliary supports, various tempera techniques and recipes of pigments, varnishes and binders. These various factors prompted me to consider conservation as a profession.

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

I wanted to study more about the “behind the scenes” aspects of objects, specially easel paintings. I decided to do the museology and conservation course at the CSMVS Museum. This was a breakthrough for me, because after the course, I was selected for an internship at the Museum Art Conservation Centre (MACC). It was here that I realized this was a multidisciplinary field, and it was a great place to be. We had workshops, training courses, as well as hands-on work experience. During my internship I was exposed to various approaches and ethics in conservation. Though I was familiar with paintings on canvas, learning about the other materials like paper, metals, stone, polychrome on wood was challenging and interesting. I chose to focus more on conservation of easel paintings. Paintings conservation had the combination of all the things I have loved, artists, art history, materials and technology, paintings, research and a little bit of science. 

After my internship, I worked with conservators who had their own private practice, where I got to assist with private collections and auction houses like GVK, Mumbai international airport limited, Christies India, Saffron art, Hindustan Unilever on projects. Working in private practice was extremely beneficial. It is there that I learnt to deliver on deadlines, to perform to my best capacity in a very limited time frame. I also got to see and learn from different collections and storage conditions. The transport, packing and handling for national and international exhibitions is also something I was able to experience hands-on. The approaches in private conservation are very different from the museum set up. It’s more of a multi sectoral collaboration, photographers, historians, custodians, gallerists and different professionals approach the same ART in different ways and it’s a huge learning experience. 

I have been very fortunate to work with the best people in the field. There is something to learn from everyone, even when you are just part of the set up of one exhibition, because so many factors and technicians are involved and everyone has to perform to their best capacity. The lighting team, the research team, the framing team, the graphics people and the art conservators, you kind of have to be in sync with all of them. 

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

Challenge 1 :Our drastically changing climatic conditions pose a very big threat to our collections. Not only in the Indian subcontinent but this is a global challenge as well. Paintings are complex structures that are layered, sometimes there are irreversible changes in some layers due to humidity and fluctuations in temperatures.

Though we cannot have 24/ 7 climate control for all our collections due to limited resources, we have introduced dehumidifiers in various collections and also monitor temperature fluctuations and exposure to light.

Challenge 2 : The conservation of contemporary art is another challenge; the mediums and materials are ever evolving. Mix mediums are becoming popular, we still are in the process of monitoring how these will age.

We are trying to build up a database of all the modern pigments and varnishes, canvas weaves. This will give us a good library for the future conservation requirements.

Challenge 3 : Unfortunately, Art conservation as a profession is not very developed in our sub- continent, and hence most of the collections are subject to human neglect. People write names on heritage structures; vandalism is also very common. 

We must set some standards for handling and storage of art works and cultural sites of importance, and handling and storage should be taught at the art school levels. Proper framing and mounting of art works are also areas we need to focus on. 

Challenge 4: Another big challenge is to make custodians and collectors understand that cultural heritage and objects are supposed to age gracefully and not look brand new!

How did you get your first break?

My first break was at the CSMVS. My internship was at the Jehangir Nicholson Art Foundation or JNAF which was set up to take care of one of the richest private collections in Mumbai. The gallery functions as the modern art wing of the museum and displays this vast collection through rotating exhibitions. During my internship I was really drawn to this collection and started documentation and conservation of this collection. It has some really remarkable art works by artists like V.S.Gaitonde, S.H. Raza, M. F. Hussain, Jehangir Sabavala, F.N Souza and other paintings from the progressive artists group. With the help of this collection, I gained a lot of experience and insight into modern art by observing the supports and pigments they used, the mediums and protective coats they applied, the framing and mounting techniques. We do a lot of rotating exhibitions at the JNAF, we borrow objects, and also send our objects on loan.

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

I am engaged at the CSMVS Museum art conservation department in the capacity of an easel paintings conservator, where I aim at enriched presentation and preservation of cultural heritage. I am surrounded by beautiful artifacts, phenomenal collections, research scholars and curious students. It is a beautiful environment to learn and grow. We have national and international collaborations, lectures, seminars, exhibitions, workshops. So, there is no typical work day, somedays I am removing really old varnish from a 16 century painting and some days I’m making condition reports for a painting which will travel to a different continent. 

As an Art Conservator, what does your work entail?

My work is very exciting and mainly involves condition assessment of paintings for national and international exhibitions, examination of objects, documentation, conservation and restoration of various schools of paintings and materials from the 14th to the 21st century, preparation of condition reports and treatment reports, collaborations with other institutions in India and abroad, site projects and surveys, scientific study on objects and dissemination of knowledge through training programs and online lectures.

What are skills required for your role? How did you acquire them?

Some of the skills are acquired hands-on and many are also acquired by training. One has to study and evolve. Online courses and training organized by other institutions and organizations help you develop, polish and update your skills. We have many in-house training courses and capacity building workshops for staff and trainees. In these workshops we invite experts from various fields to discuss their experiences and study our collections. For example, we had a masterclass in conservation of Dutch and Flemish paintings from our collection; where we invited art historians and art conservators from The Netherlands, to deliver a series of lectures, study our collection and share their perspective on conservation of these paintings. 

How does your work benefit society? 

Culture defines who we are. It is wonderful to let the beauty of the past revel in the splendor of the present. It is imperative that we treat the inheritance that we have received from our ancestors, with care and pass it on to the next generations.

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

As I work so closely with each and every painting, I have the privilege to learn about the origin of the painting and the life of the painting through time. One forms a special relationship with all of them, every project is remarkable and every painting is different. I feel extremely fortunate to work in this sector where I deal with objects of national, international, culture, history, artistic, scientific and personal significance and value. One such collection, I got a chance to closely work with, is the al-Sabah collection, which is the collection of Sheikh Naseer Sabah al- Ahmad al- Sabah and Sheikha Hussa- Sabah- al- Salem al- Sabah, her highness Director General, Dar al-Athar al-Islamiyyah of Kuwait. It is an Islamic art collection, with a personal touch, some objects from that collection are very rare and very close to my heart.

Your advice to students based on your experience?

Choose a lifestyle not a career! Be bold, take risks, choose adventures and in my experience, discipline has been the bridge between goals and accomplishments. Also follow the interview portal. They are doing a great job by making careers so simple and approachable. To have so many offbeat people and careers on one platform is commendable. 

Future Plans?

Travelling and learning. I am a painter at heart, I am a workaholic, I work round the clock. Art inspires me. After the museum hours, I freelance as an independent restorer, and also paint commissioned works. It’s a small studio set up at the moment. I want to learn more about different schools of paintings, different methods and approaches in the field of paintings conservation, historic processes of art conservation, and apply it to the Indian context. I want to experiment and branch out into other offshoots of art as well. Conservation of historic interiors has been on my mind for some time. I love to watch how they restore ceilings of churches and murals in Europe. I want to learn these advanced practices and adapt them in my daily work, based on our climatic conditions and the resources available to us. Dissemination and presentation of what I know is another aspect I want to venture into. I also want to work in a pyramid someday, hopefully!