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Karni Singh Jasol: A Heritage Conservationist’s Life Cut Short

The director of Jodhpur’s Mehrangarh Museum Trust died in an accident earlier this year. In his short life, he left an indelible mark in the area of museology and heritage conservation and promotion in India 

As a passionate museologist, Karni Singh Jasol had a multi-dimensional approach to heritage restoration and conservation. Photo: Neil Greentree

Those who knew Karni Singh Jasol, the late director of the Mehrangarh Museum Trust, are acutely aware of the gap that he left behind when he died in a road accident in April this year. Deeply attached to the museum in Jodhpur, Rajasthan, Jasol worked for the trust for 23 of his 49 years of life, during which he made noteworthy contribution to its conservation, image building and higher visibility.

The Mehrangarh Fort was like a second home to Jasol. His association with the fort dated back to his childhood—his father worked at the fort as a historian. Jasol, with a double master’s degree in museum management and Indian history, culture and ethno-archaeology, started his career in a private museum before joining the Mehrangarh Museum Trust—which was set up by Gaj Singh, the erstwhile titular maharaja of Jodhpur, to preserve and promote the royal heritage of the Rathore rulers of Marwar—in 1999 as an assistant curator, working up his way to become its director.

Neil Greentree, an ace photographer who worked with Jasol for two decades, remembers him as a visionary who set a standard for heritage museums within and outside India. His partnerships with major international museums, thinkers and scholars around the world transformed the Mehrangarh museum into a world-class institution with groundbreaking exhibitions and awe-inspiring events.

Jasol often spoke about having an Indian model of museum management rather than looking for Western models to follow. His vision for the museum was futuristic, say those who have worked with him. To Jasol goes the credit for making the museum the fort’s pièce de résistance. Under the aegis of the museum trust, Jasol showcased the grandeur of the erstwhile rulers through their paintings, costumes, arms and ammunitions and other heirloom.

During his tenure, the Mehrangarh fort won the UNESCO Asia Pacific Award of Excellence in 2005 and the Fassa Bortolo Domus Award for Architectural Conservation in 2012. It was also under his stewardship that Mehrangarh began to host two major international-level events—the Rajasthan International Folk Festival, which is a melting point of global and local folk artistes, and the World Sacred Spirit Festival. The latter is organised at the Mehrangarh fort and at Ahhichatragarh fort in Nagaur, also restored by the Mehrangarh museum trust.

Conscious of the power of international visibility, Jasol took the museum to international exhibitions. “The underlying objective was to open the avenues for better research on and understanding of the museum’s collection, thus helping understand our heritage and past better,” says Poulomi Das, a museum professional, recalling Jasol’s vision.

Conservation Philosophy

Jasol was passionate about museums. Being concerned about their neglect, he lobbied for their maintenance wherever it was needed. He was of the opinion that professional curators should be raised for the betterment of museums, training for which must begin at the school level. He also called for more facilities for research, training and art.

Therefore, school outreach programmes became very much a part of the trust’s activities. It began to offer scholarships and internships and in-house scholar’s retreat programme. The internship programmes had students from countries like Australia, Denmark and Switzerland. Local students too were engaged through workshop activities and visits. In recognition of his efforts, Jasol received the Nehru Trust Award for imparting museum education.

Greentree adds, “In recent years, we collaborated on a free annual programme that teaches conservation and art photography to Indian museum professionals. The programme has already had a significant impact on the preservation of cultural heritage around the country.”

“Jasol wanted to connect the museum to local communities, children and the entire world. He helped in conducting the Commonwealth Association of Museums conference at Mehrangarh Fort in 2019,” recalls Das.

Major Contributions

Jasol was the chief curator of a celebrated travel exhibition “Peacock in the Desert” that focussed on the Rathore dynasty of the Marwar-Jodhpur. A pioneering step in promoting heritage at the global level, the exhibition was showcased at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, Seattle Art Museum and Royal Ontario Museum, Toronto.

“Garden and Cosmos”, an international exhibition that he had worked on along with two other researchers, was an intricate work in art display and went on to garner international acclaim. The exhibition was showcased at the National Museum of Asian Art at the Smithsonian Institute, Seattle Art Museum, The British Museum, The Art Gallery in New South Wales, Australia, and Mumbai’s Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya (CSMVS). On the day of his accident, the CSMVS team was at the Mumbai airport to further discuss the logistics of the exhibition to be held at CSMVS during September-October 2022, Das recounts.

“He was all that a modern curator and museum director should be. He was passionate about his subject, deeply knowledgeable about all aspects of his work and shared his knowledge with everyone who wanted to visit or learn more about the fort,” recalls Sunayana Rathore, curator of Mehrangarh Museum Trust.

“Jasol was always open to suggestions on ways to improve the Sufi music festival. His constant tinkering and innovations turned the festivals into extraordinary events. The vision was never narrow—the festival brought together international performers on stage, often with local Rajasthani musicians. The settings and the ambience were magical for the artistes. They inspired collaboration and new levels of creativity,” Greentree reminisces.

Jasol’s approach to heritage restoration and conservation was multidimensional. He initiated conversations about newer techniques, skills and research on conservation. “He started an extensive conservation programme for the fort and the museum and its collections. A conservation lab was built. The restoration of the Nagaur fort had been started under the supervision of Maharaja Gaj Singhji but eventually had Jasol intently helping with that,” says Das.

Jasol saw visitor experience as an important dimension to brand-building of the museum and focused on enhancing it. “He was working on a new interpretation centre along with more visitor services like ticketing for the museum,” says Das.

Jasol died before time, but his contribution to the arts is indelible, say people who knew him as a pioneer in the field. A passionate voice in the realm of museology, art and culture, he lives on through his work and in the memory of people as an empathetic, kind, dedicated and visionary person.