Lily Bennion

Introduce yourself and tell us your connection with the Shekhawati Project

My name is Lily Bennion and I am a recent graduate of the Masters in Cultural Materials Conservation from the Grimwade Centre, University of Melbourne. I became involved in the Shekhawati Project after expressing my interest in wall paintings conservation to my supervisor Dr. Nicole Tse, upon which she recommended I apply for the workshop.

What attracted you to the Shekhawati region for this workshop?

The opportunity to work with internationally renowned conservator-restorers was the initial reason I applied for the workshop, but I was also interested in gaining on-site experience in wall paintings conservation processes and methodologies. The significance of Fatehpur and the Le Prince Haveli as evidence of the wealth of the Marwari traders and their international relationships also intrigued me, especially considering the current use of the site as a heritage hotel.

What are the main concepts and ideas you have learnt here regarding Indian heritage?

Living and working in the Le Prince Haveli has provided me with insights into the perception of heritage within India, as well as the challenges of its conservation. Working in a team that involves diverse knowledge and skills has furthered my understanding of the relationship between the iconography depicted and its location within the façade and the layout of the haveli. The relationship between the iconography and the historical context of the haveli’s construction and use; as a display of wealth to international traders in the 19th century, as a Franco-Indian cultural centre in the 20th century, and as a heritage hotel in the 21st century, has informed the conservation methodology and the decisions made throughout the restoration process. The continued use of the haveli has become one of the reasons and driving forces for its conservation.

The challenges to conservation have also been very clear throughout the workshop as we have had many discussions with haveli owners, tour guides and local artisans about why and how Indian heritage is preserved. The community holds a sense of pride towards the haveli’s however the resources and skills are not always available or accessible to the owners and repainting with acrylic paints and re-construction with cement is a commonly undertaken to fix damage. These materials can damage what remains of the original paint and structure, but can act as a quick fix. The Hindu Undivided Family system of ownership can also be a roadblock to the process, which means that all owning parties are required to consent to any decisions about the haveli’s conservation. In some cases, this has resulted in custodian neglect.

Are there any difficulties you have faced with the restoration work?

The main challenge in restoring wall paintings is the vertical substrate, as gravity works against you and if you are not careful solutions can drip down the surface and any vulnerable paint or plaster flakes are likely to fall if disturbed. Another challenge has been the sheer size of the wall. As we are working in a team, we need to have a consistent approach to our restoration process, especially the cleaning and retouching techniques, to gain a harmonious result.

What is your point of view on Shekhawati and its heritage?

From my experience working and living in Fatehpur the last six weeks, it has become clear to me that the heritage of the Shekhawati region is of great tourism and local interest. As we are currently working in the entrance courtyard the conservation team has become a part of the haveli tour and each tourist group that comes through is interested in learning more about the processes used in the project. On our trips out of Fatehpur, to Mandawa, Ramgarh, Mahansar and Jaipur, our discussions with haveli owners and tour guides have made evident the investment of local artisans such as glaziers and plasterers, in the restoration and use of haveli’s. The interest of the public has indicated the benefit of a restoration approach that involves the community, artisans and conservators; enabling the conservation and research of the original cultural materials, whilst incorporating artisanal trades to recreate lost elements and allowing for use of the site by the public.

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