Threading the divine Namita Jaspal, a heritage conservator, who got an opportunity to restore a dress worn by sixth Sikh Guru Hargobind, shares how it has been the biggest challenge of her life Parbina Rashid
past present: Namita and her team restoring the heritage chola
A stitch in time, sometimes, is not enough to save nine. It, in fact, has the opposite effect. Especially if the cloth happens to be some 400 years old and the needle belongs to an amateur. Namita Jaspal, a heritage conservator, has learnt it first hand when she got an opportunity to restore a dress worn by sixth Sikh Guru Hargobind.
The call to preserve the dress, revered by millions of Sikhs, reached Namita when she was least expecting a project of such magnitude. The project was the endeavour of a group of NRIs, headed by the person in charge of Gurdwara Chola Sahib in village Ghudaani Kalan, near Ludhiana. Historical, because this is the dress Guru Hargobind wore when he came out of imprisonment at the Gwalior Fort. As the story goes, 52 prisoners who held on to his chola as he came out of the fort were also given freedom.
The chola before and after restoration
“Preserving the chola worn by the Guru, which is now part of the memorabilia at Gurdwara Shri Chola Sahib, has been my biggest challenge so far,” says Namita who has just completed the job to her satisfaction and to the ones who entrusted the responsibility to her. It was challenging because she was handling a dress which is steeped in religious sentiment. It was also a dress which had borne the brunt of time and bad handling.
“The fabric of the chola had, over the centuries, lost its strength and flexibility. The robe is striped and there are loosely-woven stripes that alternate with thicker ones. Most of the thin and light-coloured stripes were either torn or completely lost,” she explains.
There were attempts at restoration earlier, but they failed. “Most portions were gathered and sewn in an attempt to reduce further damage, but that only led to the disfiguration of the garment,” says Namita.
So, all the old sewn restoration had to be removed before Namita could start her conservation work. “It was a divine feeling to be able to touch the chola, which was worn by a revered Guru. We had many people approaching my team with the request to be allowed to touch it once. We had to be strict so that no further damage was done to the robe,” she says.
For Namita, who is married into a Sikh family in Chandigarh, it was easy to identify with the religious sentiment that ran high. “Though I am not a born Sikh, I am married to one and I have attended a school which was run by a Gurdwara in Delhi,” she says.
Namita has been freelancing as a heritage conservator since 2006 and has handled some prestigious projects like the Archaeological Museum at Sanghol, near Ludhiana, Firoz Shah War Memorial at Ferozepur, besides documenting more than 100 historical sites near Pushkar and restoration of paintings as well as manuscripts that belong to private collectors.
What Namita enjoys about her job is the challenges this profession, which is a male preserve, throws at her. “This is a profession dominated mostly by architects and men. If you happen to be a woman and that too a non-architect like me, government officials do not take you seriously.”
But that’s a minor hiccup and Namita does not mind facing it. For all she knows, the reward could come in the form of divine projects like the chola of the great Guru!
Namita Jaspal, with inherited skills of art and aesthetics and passion for science, opted to pursue post- graduation in ‘Conservation of Cultural Property’ after her graduation in Science from Delhi University in 1992. Four year intense training at National Museum Institute provided the right foundation to start a career in Conservation.
She is currently practicing conservation consultancy for Heritage property including monuments and collections.
She has been doing independent research in conservation techniques and procedures in Indian context.
She has worked on the conservation of wall-paintings of Sri Harmandir Sahib Ji (The Golden temple at Amritsar. The project is getting a lot of appreciation for the organized and ethical treatment has provided. It is for the first time in the history of Sri Harmandir Sahib Ji (The Golden Temple) that wall painting conservation and preservation is being done in a scientific manner, keeping the codes of Ethics into consideration while decision making. Another project just completed is of the Conservation of Krishna Temple at Kishankot, Gurdaspur, Punjab.
In her private Conservation Laboratory, she is not only providing conservation services, but also mentoring young aspiring conservators and archaeologists by the way of training and paid internships.
She has been a guest lecturer at DIHRM (Delhi Institute of Heritage Research and Management).
With all the updated knowledge database and innovative practical approaches relevant to the Indian conditions, she could successfully do curative and preservative treatment of very old textiles like a nine feet long flag from nineteenth century that is regarded as priceless memorabilia of second Dogra regiment at Chandi Mandir, and four hundred years old (seventeenth century) Chola Sahib Ji of Sixth Guru of Sikhs, Sri Hargobind Sahib Ji.
Apart from this she has done conservation of Photograph collections, archival records, numerous paintings, manuscripts and other cultural objects. She is also involved in preparation of up-gradation proposals for museums and such organizations.
These days she is also keeping herself busy by teaching and sharing her experience and knowledge of heritage conservation.
Archival conservation projects taken up by her team are also getting popular.
Her expertise includes Conservation and preservation technologies and procedures for conservation of varied material like wall paintings, paper, photographs, textile, ceramics, stone, metal and archaeological objects.