Conservation in a sacred context: Bethany Goodman's 2021 placement at Pothi Seva
This summer, I had the opportunity to undertake a work placement at Pothi Seva, under the tutelage of Jasdip Singh Dhillon and Sukhraj Singh. As a recent book conservation graduate, this was a great opportunity to extend my skills and knowledge, through undertaking practical treatments, learning about the cultural and religious significance of Sikh texts and constructing an historical binding model. Additionally, working within the setting of a Gurdwara enabled me to contextualise the experience through developing a greater understanding of the Sikh community. Overall, it was an educational, fun and rewarding experience, and I am grateful for the opportunity to have worked within such an accomplished workshop.
Working in a Gurdwara
Pothi Seva’s workshop is located at the Gurdwara Sri Guru Singh Sabha, in Southall, London. Overlooking the main prayer hall, the workshop plays a central role in the Gurdwara’s community, with all conservation work carried out by a dedicated group of volunteers.
The name of the organisation signposts its action and mentality: ‘Pothi’ means sacred texts and ‘seva’ is a form of community service, or good deed, performed for the benefit of others rather than oneself. Conservation is often seen as an act of servitude, with individuals painstakingly caring for objects of the past. This mentality is seen especially in the volunteers I was lucky enough to meet during my placement, with some having given years of work to singular items, a time commitment rarely seen within heritage institutions.
The location of the workshop, within a Gurdwara rather than a specific conservation studio, allows the texts to remain within the Sikh community and their sacred location throughout their treatment. Not only does this increase opportunities for community access and engagement with heritage, but it also ensures such texts receive respectful handling in line with religious practice.
Working at the Gurdwara everyday allowed me to better understand the beliefs of Sikhism and experience the practical steps necessary to respectfully handle sacred texts. Witnessing several weddings and eating in the langar, I developed an understanding of the enaction of Sikh belief, but it was through my conservation work that I was able to better understand the practical aspects involved in interacting with sacred texts.
These include general rules, such as wearing a headscarf and removing shoes when in the Gurdwara (including the workshop), as well as more specific actions, such as storing texts in a high place, covering with a Rumalla Sahib (cloth) and placing the Guru Granth Sahib on a Manji (bed) when not in use or under active conservation treatment. Some of these actions, such as covering objects when they are not being worked on, are not dissimilar to standard conservation practice. However, it is important to intentionally carry out such acts with an understanding of their meaning, in order to convey respect to these sacred texts. My time with Pothi Seva allowed me to develop an understanding of these processes, which I would now be able to incorporate into my future practice.
As well as developing my contextual theoretical understanding of Sikh beliefs, I also developed my knowledge of the forms, bindings and content of sacred texts during my conservation work.
Within Sikhism, there are a number of sacred texts. The most important of these which I encountered during the placement were:
1. Guru Granth Sahib – containing the central teachings of Sikhism, as developed by the 10 Gurus. The text is revered as the eleventh living Guru and is treated with the same level of veneration as its predecessors.
2. Dasam Granth Sahib-contains the works of the tenth Guru, Guru Gobind Singh
3. Guru Granth Sahib Bhaag – the Guru Granth Sahib split into two volumes, making it more adaptable for study and individual prayer.
4. Sundar Gutka – a collection of selected prayers and passages.
5. Nitnem Gutka – a small collection of daily prayers.
During my time at Pothi Seva, I was fortunate enough to work on a Sundar Gutka and a Guru Granth Sahib, which I am especially grateful and humbled to have had the opportunity to interact with.
Tape removal from an early 20th century Guru Granth Sahib
All items worked on by Pothi Seva are owned by individuals, families and communities, rather than by museums or other heritage institutions. As such, they are as varied in their appearance and construction as they are in their damage. During my placement, I undertook various conservation treatments, such as repairing torn pages, flattening pages, reattaching covers and removing harmful adhesive tape
Working on items owned by the public often involves different treatments than those housed within museums. Museum or library objects are usually part of a collection of similarly valuable, and often similarly damaged, items. However, objects from the public are often uniquely valuable to their owners, holding a special place within that individual or family’s home. This leads to differences in approach, such as museum conservation is likely to be subject to time and budget constraints, whereas public conservation often must prepare the object for use, rather than display. Having previously only worked on objects from heritage institutions, my time at Pothi Seva was valuable in allowing me to learn about this variation in conservation approach.
Additionally, the placement enabled me to gain experience of ‘in situ conservation’, where work is carried out in spaces other than a specifically-built conservation studio. Working in Pothi Seva’s workshop demonstrated the flexibility of conservation and how you can adapt your practice to your environment, without sacrificing the standard of treatment. In the case of Pothi Seva, the ability to undertake in situ treatment increases the standard of practice, as it allows texts to be cared for within and by the Sikh community. This improves access to heritage while also spreading knowledge of conservation practice.
Above: The repair of an endpaper in a Sundar Gutka
One of the most interesting aspects of my time at Pothi Seva was the collaboration which was involved. One of the texts I was working on had already undergone partial treatment by another volunteer, who had re-joined the pages of the book together where they had come apart. Additionally, the tape removal treatment is part of a long-term project involving the work of several people. This collaboration made me feel more connected to the work of the group and it was exciting to see conservation, usually more of a solitary work, presented instead as an interactive a group project.
Historical Model The final aspect of the placement was the construction of an 18th century historical binding model. This was a fun way to end the placement, as well as a great way to link the knowledge which I had gained about conservation treatment to binding history and gain greater understanding of the structure of the books I had been working on.
Constructing historical models using traditional techniques and materials helps you understand how books were made and identify areas of possible weakness in the bindings, to aid in repairing the bindings in respectful and historically accurate ways.
An example of the use of historical models can be seen in endband construction. The model I made included a traditionally sewn ‘Islamicate chevron’ endband, which is historically accurate but prone to unravelling. However, through investigation of historical techniques, Pothi Seva have developed an endband which, while retaining aesthetic appearance, is more secure and less likely to unravel over time and can therefore be used as an alternative in conservation treatment.
Attaching the boards to the historical model of an 18th century Sikh binding.
Trying out these techniques increases understanding of the craftsmanship and skills necessary to create the exquisite designs often seen in these historical bindings. Therefore, historical models, while useful in learning techniques for conservation practice, are equally as important in fostering a respect and renewed admiration for these objects as the craft pieces they are.
Overall, my experience at Pothi Seva helped me develop my practical conservation skills and gave me a developed understanding of the Sikh community, as well as the ways in which these two fields intersect. It was a great experience and hopefully I can pop back in some Saturdays to catch up with the projects.
I would like to thank the volunteers I met for sharing their workshop, showing me their treatments and talking with me about their experiences at Pothi Seva. Finally, a huge thank you to Sukhraj and Jasdip for their time, mentoring me throughout the placement and giving me the opportunity to come and work at Pothi Seva. Dhannavād!