Written by Ritika Khanna
Navin Piplani is the Principal Director of INTACH Heritage Academy - the training, research and capacity building wing of Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage. He has acquired knowledge and hands-on skills in historic building conservation by working on several significant architectural conservation projects in India and Europe. Since March 2002, he has been involved as a core member of Taj Mahal Conservation Collaborative, a multidisciplinary team of conservation and management professionals, engaged in the architectural conservation of the World Heritage Site of Taj Mahal and its environs. This interview was conducted with our YHE member Ritika Khanna.
Why did you choose the field of heritage?
I had developed a broad interest in the study of architectural history during my graduate studies. There was a sense of wonder and curiosity as to how did our forefathers build such magnificent structures, architectural monuments and breathtaking landscapes. This led me to read about, travel to and experience historic places in India. This is how my journey to discover the heritage of India began!
Please elaborate on your journey so far in the field, the inspirational people you've met, the projects that strengthened your interest/commitment in the field, etc.?
The journey so far has been very satisfactory indeed – full of joys, achievements, failures, frustration, successes but overall, rewarding and worth travelling. Late Sir Bernard Feilden remains the most inspiring human being and professional for me, though I have crossed paths and met several inspirational people enroute. To name a few – Shri Martand Singh, Professor KT Ravindran, Professor AG Krishna Menon, Professor Rahul Mehrotra, Dr Jane Grenville, Peter Burman and Dr Henry Cleere, and there are many more who have provided guidance and support at the critical stages of this journey.
Several intersections during this journey have played a significant role in furthering my interesting and consolidating my commitment in the field. It begins with award of prestigious Charles Wallace India Trust scholarship to study for MA in Conservation Studies at the University of York. This was followed by the Duncan Gillard gold medal for the best dissertation and the most striking piece of academic work in the year 2001. The commitment was further strengthened by my rather brief but invaluable work experience at the ICOMOS Secretariat and World Heritage Centre in Paris. Late Sir Bernard had personally supported me to take up this internship. On my return to India, as a result of rather undesirable circumstances, I was interviewed and appointed as the conservation architect consultant with a core team working on the conservation of Taj Mahal World Heritage site. This was big life changer for me as far as my professional life in India is concerned. I had come back to India with a modest saving from the CWIT scholarship. I had deposited this money in my bank with a certain amount in the reserve code. I had decided that once I spend all this money and nothing is left in my bank account, I’d buy my flight tickets from the reserve amount and go to the UK or Europe and look for work there. Fortunately and with the blessings of almighty, this situation did not arise and my first conservation project in India was the Taj Mahal. I could not have asked for more, could I? Since then our office have worked on several challenging and inspiring projects in collaboration with the Government of India, NGOs, expert professionals, academic institutions and the local communities.
In 2007, another event led to a turning point in my professional life – appointment to the post of Hamlyn-Feilden Fellow in Conservation Studies at the University of York. A Chair was set up at the Department of Archaeology to celebrate the contribution of Late Sir Bernard and Lady Helen Hamlyn in the field of heritage conservation. Working at York opened several avenues for collaborative work, research activities, teaching assignments and professional engagements and individual/ institutional networking. It also deepened my interest and commitment in teaching and research. Having completed this appointment, I am now back in India in the capacity of founder and principal director of INTACH Heritage Academy. This is an extension of my work at York but with a focus on cultural heritage context in India.
What have been some of the major challenges you have faced as a heritage professional?
All this hasn’t come easy, obviously. Several challenges – big or small, have come up during this time. I don’t remember or wish to remember all but some of the key ones include: lack of adequate emphasis on heritage conservation on the priority list of government; insufficient number of well-trained and well-informed heritage professionals; lack of insight on heritage matters by a large majority of professionals from other disciplines like engineering, architecture, planning, archaeology, management and so forth; and lack of incentives in this field. Working as a heritage professional in India is a uphill task, at least it was in early 2000s when I had set my practice in New Delhi.
What do you think are some of the key points that make a good heritage professional?
I have maintained that any professional must possess three basic qualities – sincerity, honesty and punctuality. These are the three essentials that I look for when I interview people who wish to join my practice. In addition to these, you must have a basic common sense towards heritage appreciation, understanding and enjoyment. You must be able to work well in a team and have an excellent leadership quality. Critical thinking and immense clarity will add to one’s ability to perform well as a professional. In order to preserve and conservation one’s heritage, it is essential to experience one’s heritage. Heritage field, in my view, is an area that requires several disciplines to work in harmony. It is an inter-disciplinary and multi-disciplinary domain, and therefore a heritage professional must know how to manage not only the project but also all stakeholders and expertise that are involved in it. Heritage profession is a fascinating profession and heritage professional is a fascinating professional who knows the past, works in the present and defines the future!
What are some of the major differences you have noticed in heritage in today's age as compared to the time you started working?
Heritage is an evolving field and the notions, concepts and approaches are changing and evolving with a considerable pace. This phenomenon is noticeable in developing contexts more than in the developed contexts. The way we look at and understand our heritage is no longer a singular concept but involves diverse and complex approaches. For example, the notions of outstanding universal value, authenticity and integrity related to a World Heritage Site are different in different contexts and sometimes within the same context. The understanding of heritage as a ‘monument’ or ‘site’ is no longer applicable in only one way to different cultural contexts, particularly non-European contexts.
One of the key arguments that is now getting more and more complex for some or more and more simplified for some is the gap between the Western conservation approaches and the Eastern conservation approaches. It could a take up a whole day discussing this matter, but it is worth a while to get into this discussion whenever and wherever possible. The concept of World Heritage which is based upon the universality of significance and the notion of ‘patrimonio mundial’ is also not untouched by this debate. Another area that is slowly finding ground in the global discourse on heritage matters is the ‘living heritage’. There is a revived emphasis on traditional conservation practices and traditional building craft skills in a wider international context. This is a good sign for heritage studies and heritage conservation - more inclusive, responsive and distinctive.
What according to you is one of the major concerns/threats in the field of heritage today, and what do you think is the need of the hour to mitigate it?
One of the key concerns in the field of heritage today is the lack of scientific research. We need to understand and interpret our heritage from anthropological and cultural attributes more than archaeological approach. Archaeology tends to freeze this understanding in a distant past removing it from the present and the future. However, our past is very much a part of our present, particularly when we talk of Indian or eastern contexts. There needs to be further and in-depth research into the aspects of time and space and how different cultures apply these concepts differently in their contexts. Our academic and professional institutes need to invest more into research and dissemination in the field of heritage, particularly the ‘living’ and ‘intangible’ aspects and their linkages with the tangible aspect of it.
According to your experiences, what are the some of the main attributes of young professionals, which make them valuable for heritage/World Heritage projects?
This has been already touched upon above in question no. 4
Do you think a youth network, such as Young Heritage Experts (YHE) is important/ needed for today’s heritage community? If so, what are our main strengths and weaknesses as a future association?
I feel a youth network such as Young Heritage Experts (YHE) is very important and much needed for today’s heritage community. Your main strengths lie in the involvement of youth in heritage matters and making heritage worth engaging with for the youth from across the globe. Their expertise, passion and experience will bring together diversity and complexity of perspectives on heritage and its understanding from equally diverse cultural contexts. Being young and dynamic, the network will be more flexible, inclusive and responsible. I don’t see any weakness in the network as of now.
Finally, what advice would you give to the budding heritage professionals for a successful career?
Love your heritage, enjoy your heritage, protect your heritage – to be handed down in its truthfulness for the love, enjoyment and experience of the future generations!