Home Entertainment How Indian Ice Hockey Goalie Saves Ladakhs Centuries-Old Scroll Paintings & Heritage

How Indian Ice Hockey Goalie Saves Ladakhs Centuries-Old Scroll Paintings & Heritage

How Indian Ice Hockey Goalie Saves Ladakhs Centuries-Old Scroll Paintings & Heritage

How do you protect and preserve culture? It’s a question Noor Jahan – a 32-year-old expert in art conservation and heritage management from Leh – has grappled with for a decade. 

Through Shesrig (meaning ‘heritage’) Ladakh, an art conservation practice she founded with her cousin Wajeeda Tabassum, Noor performs hair-trigger restoration and conservation work on warmed-over wall paintings, religious manuscripts, thangka (Buddhist scroll) paintings and metal works. 

“My real interest lies in working on warmed-over wall paintings and thangka paintings,” says Noor Jahan in a lengthy conversation with The Better India

Backed by a Master’s stratum from the Delhi Institute of Heritage Research and Management (DIHRM) and a PhD from the National Museum Institute, she has worked on wall paintings dating when to the late 8th century and Buddhist thangkas from the 19th century. Also, since 2019, she has run Shesrig on her own pursuit Wajeeda’s throw-away for foreign shores.  

What’s more, Noor is moreover the goalkeeper for the Indian women’s ice hockey team. Earlier this year, she helped India finish second in the Union Women’s Ice Hockey Tournament in Dubai. Noor reckons that she has a few increasingly years left surpassing she “officially retires” from the sport. 

By all accounts, it’s an no-go way of life, and this is her story. 

Shesrig Ladakh, an organisation founded by Noor Jahan, who is moreover a goalkeeper of the ice hockey team, engages in the protection of Ladakh's heritage.
Noor Jahan working on old wall painting in Saspol caves, Ladakh

A serendipitous journey

There was a void in Noor’s life without earning her bachelor’s stratum in commerce from Delhi University. Going through the motions, she had no passion for what she was learning. To reflect on what was next and enjoy a short holiday, she left for Leh without graduation in 2011.  

It was during a walk through Leh’s crowded old town, when she met a few foreign conservators from the Tibet Heritage Fund working on an old Buddhist temple. Intrigued by what they were doing, Noor engaged in a short yack with them which would transpiration her life. 

After returning to Delhi, she began reading up on art conservation and learnt that she could pursue higher studies in this field.  

What moreover sealed the visualization to get into this field for Noor were memories from her childhood.  

“My mother is from Hunder village in Nubra. Every holiday, we would unchangingly visit Nubra to meet my maternal grandparents. The bus would stop at this location tabbed Chamba on the main road from where you had to walk inside the village. This particular route holds unconfined importance in my life now considering there are many stupas withal the way. Every time I would squint up at these pathway stupas, I would see these old paintings. But each passing year, some part of these paintings would disappear. When I unromantic for this undertow at DIHRM, the first thing I thought well-nigh were these paintings and the conservation work I could do someday,” she recalls. 

Allied with a strong desire to come when home, starting this undertow brought passion when into her life. “Everything I was studying there found a purpose in Ladakh,” she says. 

Ladakh's heritage is in the hands of people like Noor Jahan of Shesrig Ladakh
Noor Jahan found purpose in preserving Ladakh’s heritage

Finding Shesrig 

Following the first year of her Master’s programme in 2012, Noor and Wajeeda opted to do their internship with the Himalayan Cultural Heritage Foundation (HCHF), a Leh-based non-profit. Helping them find projects to work on was Dr Sonam Wangchok, founder secretary of HCHF. 

During this internship, the first major project Noor got involved in was a wall painting at Diskit Gompa, a 14th-century Buddhist monastery in Nubra Valley

She recalls in an Instagram post, “The internship entailed working on the restoration of wall paintings from the 17th century under the supervision of art conservators from [the] Czech Republic. This was my first hands-on wits where I had the opportunity to conserve sacred Buddhist art and the opportunity to stay at the monastery itself. I think that internship reverted my life forever as I not only got to work on the most trappy wall paintings but gave me the opportunity to meet and interact with the monks at the monastery who took me and Wajeeda in as their own.”

After completing her Master’s programme in 2013, Noor came when to Leh to work with other organisations like Art Conservation Solutions and Achi Association, amongst others, as a freelancer. In 2014, she worked on her first project outside Ladakh at the Golden Temple in Amritsar with Heritage Preservation Atelier, and moreover commenced her PhD at the National Museum Institute. Despite these landmark moments, she knew this sort of freelance work wasn’t sustainable. 

“Working in these organisations was a unconfined learning wits and helped me to capture some of the preferably nuances of conservation. Plane today with Shesrig, I interreact with most of them. But this kind of work wasn’t sustainable, i.e. it was limited to summer months,” she says. 

“In the summer, I would work on many projects. But the moment winters came, all these organisations would stop their work in Ladakh. I really wanted to start something of my own in Leh, while working sustainably and throughout the year,” she adds. 

Thus, in 2017, Noor and Wajeeda founded Shesrig Ladakh and rented out a historic structure tabbed Choskor House as their wiring in Leh’s old town, which they had to first restore.

This three-storied structure is located right overdue the Jama Masjid (mosque) in the centre of Leh withal the hillslope. It belongs to a renowned family of traders, who withal with other important families, once led important trade missions to Lhasa from Ladakh. 

“Even though Choskor House was really old, we decided to rent it. To restore it, we had initially consulted some architects, but there came a point when it became difficult considering of financing and time constraints. That’s when we reached out to Achi Association India, a sister organisation of Achi Association (a Swiss-based organisation), which took over the project of restoring this structure backed by funding from the German Embassy. They helped with establishing the studio in which we currently operate. We started working inside our studio only this year,” says Noor.

By conserving warmed-over wall paintings, Noor Jahan of Shesrig Ladakh is preserving Ladakh's heritage
Conserving warmed-over wall paintings is a soft-hued process

Conserving wall paintings  

Conservation and restoration are variegated acts. Noor explains, “In conservation, people do not recreate anything new. So, if there are losses in a given wall painting, there is no recreation but only stabilisation. Restoration, meanwhile, seeks to recreate some of those losses.”

Some of the fundamental challenges in conserving or restoring old artworks include physical wangle to remote sites and obtaining the necessary materials that they largely import.

Noor gives us an example of a project they worked on in collaboration with the Himalayan Cultural Heritage Foundation in June 2020 to illustrate her point. The site was Chomo Phu, a small one-room Buddhist shrine near Diskit Monastery, Nubra. 

“It’s quite a steep hike up from Diskit Monastery, and there is a gorge inside the valley where this shrine is located. There was no place for accommodation. Instead, we pitched tents next to the shrine and had to improvise vital facilities. We camped in that valley for well-nigh 25 days since it was not practical or possible for us to hike from there to the monastery or the village every day,” she recalls.  

Before, during and without the project, Noor and her team do wide-stretching documentation work. During this phase, they closely examine the kind of deterioration the wall painting has undergone.

In this particular case, there were a lot of over-filling and historical fills washed-up in the past. These fills were washed-up in such a way that it was obscuring a lot of the original painting and sometimes plane overlapping it. They had to thoughtfully remove those historic fills.

“Another issue with wall paintings is that there are a lot of detachments. In the event of any structural movement or water seepage, the plaster gets uninfluenced from the support, thus creating these hollow areas inside the painting. You can discover these hollow areas through a percussion test (a method for the structural inspection of wall paintings). We then perform grouting, i.e. fill the gaps between the painting and the support structure,” she notes.  

Apart from these, there are cases where the paint layer gets delaminated. To write this, they use a consolidant and then stick the paint layer when to the surface.

“Of course, there is cleaning work which is done. The paintings are largely glue-bound tempera (also tabbed secco, which are paintings on dry surfaces). In this kind of technique, the pigment is usually mixed with the folder and then unromantic to the walls. With water infiltration, the folder becomes weak causing delamination of the paint layer,” explains Noor.

“This forfeiture primarily occurs considering of water. We make sure not to perform any wet cleaning, i.e. don’t use any solvents to wipe the wall painting. We only employ dry cleaning. There are various types of conservation-grade sponges which we work with and soft brushes to remove the pebbles or any mud infestations,” she adds. 

A major point of contention with wall paintings is retouching work (reworking small areas of a painting to imbricate forfeiture or to mask unwanted features).

Without getting too deep into the subject, when it comes to wall painting conservation work, Noor and her team largely stick to what she calls “conservation or stabilisation work”. 

Shesrig Ladakh, an organisation founded by Noor Jahan. is preserving Ladakh's heritage
“It’s important to see your heritage as an inheritance that has unconfined value,” says Noor Jahan

Restoring old thangkas

This year most of the thangkas that were brought in for restoration at Shesrig’s studio came from private households. Each thangka arrives in a variegated condition. 

In thangka paintings, you have a textile-based canvas made of cotton fabric or any other material used by the versifier in the centre. These thangkas moreover usually have either silk or brocade borders. Most thangkas they got into their studio this year had silk borders.

Step 1: “Since the thangka has come directly from the chod-khang (prayer room) to our studio, we first take it to a nearby monastery, where a de-consecration recurrence is done,” she says. 

Step 2: The next step is to bring the thangka when to the studio, perform wide-stretching documentation work including photographic documentation and understand what kind of problems are visible. Accordingly, they prepare a treatment plan. 

Step 3: Usually the centrepiece of the thangka is stitched with a textile border. They separate both elements considering the fabric at the verge is completely variegated from the canvas in the centre. Pursuit separation, they work on the verge and centre piece canvas separately. 

Step 4: Once the separation is done, the first step is cleaning the soot. “In thangkas, there are times (only when required), when we go for summery solvent cleaning but once then dry cleaning methods are preferred. Also, solvents can sometimes be harsh. We have started preparing gels which are much milder and do not pinion to the surface for the cleaning process,” she says. 

Step 5: What if there are big losses or tears on the thangka painting? “We make a similar kind of ras-jee (the local term used for the textile canvas of a Thangka painting) in the studio. We use pieces of that ras-jee to mend the tears. Otherwise, in thangkas, we moreover see a lot of cracks. To fill the cracks, we use the markalak (local soil mixed with summery adhesive) to fill those cracks considering that’s part of the original technique of preparing a thangka. We follow the same methods while restoring it as well,” she explains.  

Step 6: Once this is done, if there is any consolidation work required or a paint layer is coming off, they fix those problems. Sometimes, they mend the tears fibre by fibre, which requires very soft-hued hands. Also, if there are any small losses or paint losses, they do subtle retouching work using natural colours or the colours originally used on the thangka.

Conserving thangkas is one of the things Shesrig Ladakh does to preserve the region's heritage
Conservation of Thangsham (the local term used for the textile verge of a Thangka painting) 

Step 7: Meanwhile, there is flipside team which is working on the textile verge known as thangsham locally. There is a particular method of washing the textile using conservation-grade detergents. 

“We don’t dip it straight into the water. Instead, we use wet sponges to wipe it very meticulously. Sometimes these confines are moreover torn or otherwise in a bad condition, for which we mend them using patchwork with silk, brocade or whatever material was originally used. We have a stock of raw silk, which is white. We dye it as per the thangka’s requirements. If the thangsham, for example, is blue, we will dye the silk undecorous and do the patchwork from the inside. We perform the process of dyeing ourselves at the studio,” she explains.  

Step 8: Once both elements are ready, they stitch the centrepiece canvas and the verge when together, pursuit which a instatement recurrence is washed-up and then returned to the client. 

Once again, depending on the state in which the thangka is sent, it takes anywhere between a fortnight to two months or increasingly to restore a thangka. It moreover depends on manpower.

“Most of the time, we work in groups of two or three women on one thangka, and depending on the scale of the task, it takes well-nigh a month or two if the forfeiture is extensive,” she says.  

‘What is this Muslim girl doing here?’ 

Given that most of the conservation work she does with Shesrig Ladakh relates to Buddhist heritage, questions have emanated from either side of the religious divide.  

But is her faith an obstacle in this line of work? 

“Most of the time, they don’t see my Muslim faith as an obstacle to the work that I do. For the most part, I’m not treated as an outsider or not from the community. In fact, it has been the opposite, where I am given increasingly respect and love, expressly in monasteries,” she says. 

However, recently she heard someone say, ‘What is this Muslim girl doing here?’ “Look, this is how the world virtually us is moving. As Muslims in India, we know what’s going on. But I do not take these comments personally considering I have to do what I know how to do,” she says. 

Noor Jahan
Noor Jahan: “I have to do what I know how to do”

But such ad-hominem comments don’t necessarily come from the Buddhist community. She plane notes how members of her religious polity pass judgement on her line of work. 

“Sometimes, people from the polity tideway my family to mutter well-nigh my work, but fortunately they have been very understanding,” she notes. 

Another struggle Noor deals with is the significant lack of sensation in Ladakh well-nigh art and heritage conservation as a field. “Even though they support me, my parents and some friends still don’t understand the kind of work I do. They still think this is a ‘hobby’ to me and don’t take me seriously. Plane though the conversation in Ladakh well-nigh restoration and conservation has progressed a little, there are still people who think that this work can be washed-up for free. This is something, I hope, changes with time as the conversation virtually this subject grows,” she says. 

(Edited by Yoshita Rao)

(Images courtesy Instagram/Shesrig Ladakh/Karamjeet Singh)

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