Being inheritors to a historic heritage is both empowering and humbling. It is empowering because of the remarkably old roots of our nation’s composite character. It is humbling because of the enormous responsibility it places on us to preserve it and make it accessible to others.”
What did Sonia Gandhi mean when she used these words to inaugurate the ‘Tejas’ exhibition in Brussels on November 19? Was she articulating a polite platitude? Or did she allude to the real condition of our heritage, obscured when it is aggressively marketed in cultural festivals abroad? Was she aware that the exhibition which she inaugurated at Palais de Beaux Arts, forms part of a heritage which is neither preserved properly nor widely accessible?
The exhibited objects range from early Indian sculptures to rare Kangra paintings. Handpicked from Indian museums, these are being displayed together for the first time.
And certainly, as Sonia Gandhi put it, the exhibition is making them accessible to ‘others’ — those who live in Brussels or are privileged enough to visit it. The exhibition, though, will not be accessible to India’s ‘own’.
Indian bigwigs who choreograph cultural festivals do not usually ensure that such exhibitions travel across India once they return home. ‘Others’ are evidently more equal than ‘us’ in their access to cultural treasures of this kind.
‘Tejas’, for the Congress president, profiles the radiance and energy of India’s civilisational journey over fifteen hundred years. But again, she, like most of India, is hardly likely to know that much of this ‘radiance’ doesn’t see the light of day.
Its effulgence remains locked up in dark museum vaults. The Indian Museum in Kolkata has 1,165 collections on display while those that lie locked up number more than 25,000. In the National Museum in Delhi, just about 8 to 10 per cent of its vast collection is on display.
Art objects, of course, are supposed to be safe in reserve collections, even if they remain unseen. Actually, about that too, there isn’t any unanimity. Because of an international traffic in illicit art objects, theft of art and archaeological treasures from protected sites and museums has escalated.
In India, between 1977 and 1979, 3,000 thefts of antiquities were reported. Only ten cases were solved, it requires very little imagination to realise that much of what could not be traced was smuggled out and sold. These are only reported thefts. The UNESCO in that decade (1979 to 1989) estimated that more than 50,000 objects had been smuggled out of India.
Remote localities are especially vulnerable but so are well-policed premises. Most recently, there have been thefts in the Patna Museum and in the Indian Museum, while the Rashtrapati Bhavan estate itself saw a bizarre robbery a little less than ten years ago.
This was in 1997, when one-third of the artifacts housed in its museum were looted. When the case was solved some weeks later, part of the loot had already been destroyed — the kilos of melted silver and broken antiques that were recovered suggested this. Amazing though it may sound, the main accused who had scaled the Rashtrapati Bhavan walls, was a rag picker!
Despoiling museums and monuments is not something that rag pickers usually do. Art thieves are generally well heeled characters, several of them have attained high rank and office. The French have had a specially notorious record on this front, if one remembers the case of Andre Malraux who later became the French Minister of Cultural Affairs.
Malraux was charged with stealing some stones and bas-reliefs from the temple of Bantea Srei in Cambodia while entrusted with an expedition to study Khmer architecture.
‘Some stones’ is an understatement, he actually destroyed the unity of Bantea Srei by removing almost a ton of material. The sentence of three years’ imprisonment was later reduced, but it highlighted the impunity with which government permits are misused to steal material.
Malraux has contemporary clones, many diplomats are known to have (mis)used the immunity from search usually given to diplomatic bags, for this purpose.
Where does this lead us? Simply to the conclusion that certificates of admiration that our heritage earns in cultural festivals abroad mean very little.
In real terms, the challenge is how India which is so self-congratulatory about its soft power, uses its position as a global player to safeguard it. Certainly, she can learn from the approaches and endeavours of other global players who also happen to be archaeologically rich countries.
To begin with, there should be a ‘cultural census’. There are inventories of African objects outside Africa and Oceanic objects in Australian, European and American museums. Do we have inventories of Indian objects in museums abroad? Do we even have inventories of the distribution of objects from one site across India?
These may take time to complete, but cultural inventories facilitate research. They also help as a control in the illicit movement of objects. Contrary to the perception that colonialism resulted in the largest removal of objects on a global scale, in many cases, the escalation has been more recent.
Two-thirds of African artifacts now in the West have been acquired since the 1960s after most African countries gained independence. A census may well reveal a similar situation for India.
Along with this, there should be a national programme to fingerprint the country’s art heritage. Some years ago, the journalist Pallava Bagla wrote about Baldev Raj, a nuclear scientist at Kalpakkam, who had been documenting the exact composition of old bronze statues, to help trace them in case they were stolen as also prevent originals from being replaced by fakes. How successful this mission was remains unclear but Raj’s work highlighted the necessity of creating a large database for all types of art objects.
Secondly, art theft must be pursued proactively, the issue of return should be determined on the criteria of the means by which objects have been acquired. Italy, for instance, has seen extensive illegal excavation and smuggling.
Peter Watson’s The Medici Conspiracy has described how this “branch of organised crime” operated and prospered for well over thirty years.
Recently, the Italian government has been spectacularly successful in breaking this network. Looting in Italy is down by half, government officials have also succeeded in forcing American museums to return some of the stolen material. This is only the most recent example of how single mindedly countries seek return of their national treasures.
The case of the Elgin marbles, removed from the Parthenon in Athens nearly two hundred ago also exemplifies this. In 1832, one of the first acts of statehood as Greece achieved independence from Turkish rule, was to call for the return of the marbles. They are still in the British Museum but the Greek government continues to pursue the matter in all appropriate forums.
In India, in contrast, it is a Vijay Mallya who is more interested in bringing back, albeit on payment, our cultural treasures, rather than the Government of India. Certainly, there are cases of successful return of antiquities stolen from India, but the fact that less than 1 per cent of art theft cases get solved, shows that seeking out our stolen treasure is hardly a national priority.
Finally, tangible cultural treasures matter a great deal to Indians because our identities and histories are bound up with them.
Surely, it is logical for us to demand that the state which sponsors spectacular festivals abroad, also creates public awareness about the magnitude of our disappearing heritage.
India can learn from its neighbour, Nepal which, in 1988, published details about Stolen Images of Nepal. Authored by the late LS Bangdel, the purpose was to “attract the attention of the western art world…many of the stolen sculptures may some day appear in the art market, or museums, but once it is proved they are stolen art objects no one has the right to possess them.”
Nearly sixty years after independence, we do not have any work on the lines of Bangdel’s volume. Public awareness can also be created through exhibitions, can we have a photo exhibition of the ‘Missing treasures of India’ and of art objects regularly seized by Indian Customs?
And yes, can the aam admi who is as interested in his own heritage as those privileged ‘others’ in Belgium, also hope to imbibe the effulgence of ‘Tejas’ when it returns from Brussels?
(The writer is a noted historian. She may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)
Counterpoint will be back next week