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  • Writer's pictureKeerat Kaur Garcha

A Journey into Film Conservation: Reflections on the 7th Film Heritage Foundation Workshop

Updated: Jul 13


The 7th Film Restoration Workshop by the Film Heritage Foundation in December 2022 was a global celebration of the art and science of film preservation. The diverse subjects, international participation, and practical approach underscored the importance of collaborative efforts to safeguard our cinematic heritage. As film technology continues to evolve, workshops like these play a pivotal role in ensuring that the magic of classic cinema endures.

In the ever-evolving landscape of art and heritage preservation, the 7th Film Heritage Foundation Workshop emerged as a beacon of knowledge and collaboration. Held at the iconic Chhatrapti Shivaji Mahavastusamgrahalaya (CSMVS for short ,formerly known as the Prince of Wales Museum) in Mumbai, this workshop brought together participants from diverse corners of India and experts from around the world. As an aspiring conservator, I was fortunate to be part of this immersive experience, and  I am excited and eager to share my reflections on what was undoubtedly a transformative event.

A Fusion of Art and Science

The world of art conservation often walks a delicate line between science and aesthetics. The Film Heritage Foundation Workshop illustrated this duality beautifully. With participants hailing from various regions of India, each day felt like a convergence of cultures, ideas, and techniques. The air was electric with discussions, debates, and the mutual pursuit of knowledge.

Ms. Marina Ruiz-Molina, Paper Conservation, Metropolitan Museum of Art conducting a session on mechanical cleaning methods.

During one of the highlights of this workshop, we had the opportunity to watch restored films which were screened at the end of each day. It was like traveling back in time, experiencing the magic of cinema in its purest form. The meticulous restoration work breathed new life into old classics, reminding us of the cultural treasures hidden in our film archives.

Techniques of labelling and their application on different surfaces.

The Importance of Punjabi Cinema to Sikh and Panjabi Heritage

Whilst focused on film conservation, the conference highlighted the value of preserving film heritage as part of the much larger category of 20th century media. Relating to the Panjabi and Sikh tradition in particular, there is a wealth of film and photograph material which exists in family collections. Videos and photographs of historic Gurdwaras taken by Sikh families and Jathas during yatras are an important, undocumented treasure which could help shed light on heritage sites which have been fundamentally altered in the recent past. A number of historical Asthans have historical relics, including manuscripts, which are now missing and the conservation of such film material would help ensure that the lost heritage they provide a window into is not forgotten completely. In additional to family yatra videos, there are collections of microfilms, an earlier method of digitisation, which should be preserved as they may show manuscripts which are now lost. A number of research collections in India have microfilm copies of Gurmukhi manuscripts which act as an important physical backup. Indeed, digital photographs and videos are often seen to be a durable way of documenting heritage but they themselves require preservation and can be easily lost. The recent cyberattack on the British Library which has made millions of digitised pages inaccessible, highlights how fragile purely digital records can be.

In the Sikh and Panjabi tradition there is a wealth of film material from the 20th century which is a highly fragile state. Knowledge of such film preservation and restoration techniques could make a great deal of difference in safeguarding this important section of our heritage. For example, videos made by Sikh yatra groups are an untapped source for researchers seeking to understand the history of Sikh Asthans as they can help document architectural and artistic features which have now been lost. For those interested in such changes to Sikh virasat (heritage), there are a number of Panjabi films which contain footage of historic asthans (sites) and nishania (relics). This includes sites which have subsequently been lost or altered. Further research is needed to survey and collate this information.

An image from part of the historic Goindval Sahib Asthan (confirmation required) shown briefly in the 1974 film Dukh Bhanjan Tera Naam. Note the presence of tradition paintings mounted onto the wall.

A 19th century Guru Granth Sahib manuscript from Sri Darbar Sahib Amritsar shown briefly in the 1974 film Dukh Bhanjan Tera Naam.

In addition to the family collections which include information on Sikh heritage, it is also important to preserve the overall heritage of Panjabi language cinema. The technical evolution of Punjabi cinema traces back to its origins in the 1920s in Lahore, the capital of British Punjab, where pioneering efforts led to the release of the first silent film, "Daughters of Today," in 1924. Transitioning to sound films with "Heer Ranjha" in 1932 marked a significant milestone, while subsequent decades saw the emergence of studios and the adoption of techniques from American and English films, reflecting a cross-cultural exchange and a quest for innovation. Despite challenges and periods of decline post-partition, Panjabi cinema is now experiencing a surge in output and experimentation. However, the historic material of Panjabi cinema remains in a highly fragile state. A healthy and vibrant future can only be fostered if there is an equivalent care for the past.

Preserving Punjabi Cinematic Heritage: The Urgent Need for Film Archives

The absence of dedicated Punjabi film archives underscores a critical gap in preserving cultural heritage and historical narratives, both domestically and internationally. Despite its significant cultural impact, Punjabi cinema remains inadequately represented in archival collections, risking the loss of invaluable cinematic treasures. Establishing Punjabi film archives is imperative not only for safeguarding this heritage but also for promoting academic research and scholarly inquiry, facilitating a deeper understanding of Punjab's cultural identity and historical narratives. Collaborative efforts between government agencies, academic institutions, and cultural organizations are essential for developing sustainable archival infrastructure and funding mechanisms, ensuring the recognition and preservation of Punjabi cinema on a global scale.

Conversations That Mattered

The true essence of any workshop lies in the conversations it ignites. As a young conservator, I had the privilege of engaging in invaluable discussions with more senior conservators who have dedicated their lives to preserving our heritage. Their experiences and insights were nothing short of inspiring. These conversations were not just about technicalities; they were about the passion, dedication, and unwavering commitment to safeguarding our cultural heritage.

Friendships Forged

Beyond the knowledge and expertise exchanged, the workshop was a melting pot for forging friendships. In the world of heritage conservation, where each artifact has its story, these friendships form bridges between past and present. We bonded over shared dreams of preserving our rich heritage and the challenges we face in a country where art conservation is still emerging.

The Ambience of CSMVS: A Heritage Oasis

The choice of location for this workshop, the CSMVS, added a layer of magic to the entire experience. The grandeur of the museum, steeped in history, served as a constant reminder of the importance of our work. It was a reminder that, like the artifacts within its walls, our cultural heritage is priceless and irreplaceable. As I walked through the museum, I  could not help but reflect on how such spaces hold the power to inspire. The museum was not just a place of learning; it was a sanctuary for art lovers and conservators alike.

The Role of Philanthropy in Conservation

In a country like India, where the field of art conservation is still finding its footing, philanthropic organisations play a pivotal role. The support and collaboration of organisations such as Pothi Seva are instrumental in providing  invaluable training and capacity building more accessible. These initiatives bridge the gap between the immense potential of our conservators and the recognition they truly deserve. Collaborations with philanthropic organisations empower young conservators such as myself  to embark on these challenging but profoundly rewarding journeys. They provide us with the resources and mentorship needed to make a lasting impact on our cultural heritage. The support given by Pothi Seva's Baba Shaam Singh Scholarship helped me attend an event which did a great deal to shape my career as a Sikh conservator.

In conclusion, the 7th Film Heritage Foundation Workshop was not just any ordinary event; it was a transformative experience that reinforced the importance of art and heritage preservation. It showcased the power of collaboration, the beauty of restored films, and the significance of the conservator's role in safeguarding our past for future generations. In an ever-changing world, events like these remind us of the timeless value of our heritage. They remind us that, as conservators, we are not just preserving artifacts; we are preserving stories, memories, and the essence of our culture. I left the workshop with a renewed sense of purpose, a network of like-minded friends, and a heart filled with gratitude for the opportunity to be part of something so profoundly meaningful. As a young conservator, I now carry the responsibility of ensuring that our cultural heritage lives on, just as these restored films did on the workshop's screen. Indeed, the 7th Film Heritage Foundation Workshop was not just an event; it was a journey into the heart of conservation, and I am deeply grateful for the experience.

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