It is time for the world to return India’s cultural artefacts
The idea of universal museum sounds good. But artefacts are best preserved when returned to communities which have an ownership claim.Updated: Aug 16, 2019 19:41 IST
Like Republic Day, India’s Independence Day too has never been a dry political event. Both celebrations have strong cultural undertones. If the former is known for the cultural tableaus along with the riveting Indian Air Force flypast, the latter is marked by the rendition of the National Anthem and patritotic songs, the sale of Tricolour merchandise, and the tradition of kite flying, along with the prime minister’s speech from Red Fort. This year, the cultural quotient of the I-Day got a boost after two stolen artefacts — a limestone carved relief sculpture (1st Century BC and 1st Century AD) and a Navaneetha Krishna bronze sculpture (17th Century AD) were handed over to the Indian High Commission in London by a United States-United Kingdom investigation team. “The cultural significance of artefacts ... extends beyond a monetary value. The pieces .... are stolen fragments of history; and it is an honour to return them to their rightful home country,” said Peter C. Fitzhugh, a special agent of the team, said.
While we are deeply elated by this handover, we are distressed too. This is because the return of the artefacts has only reminded us, all over again, about the ones that are still in foreign shores, especially in the possession of the museums of the world. From the Kohinoor diamond to the 7.5-foot tall Sultanganj Buddha statue, there are thousands of such artefacts, manuscripts, paintings that were taken away from India as a part of the colonial project to “save objects” and use them for “projecting the image of India”.
While India and many other nations have been demanding the return of their historical heritage from various governments, over the years, there has been a shift in the politics of museum language with the idea of a universalised museum gaining currency. While it is true that these are global treasures, and does not belong to a particular/region, the real owners of these historical treasures, feel that the artefacts must be returned because they are best preserved when they are kept within their own local, cultural context. This is the reason why several communities across India are now setting up their own small community museums to display their historical heritage because they believe that is the best way to preserve their own history and culture for their next generation, and also provide a local context of the artefacts for those who come from outside.
First Published: Aug 16, 2019 19:40 IST