How An Attempt To Pen A Dummies Guide To Indian Temple Art Led To The Return of Many Smuggled Idols
S Vijay Kumar helped nab one of the most notorious idol thieves of India, and in a conversation with Swarajya, he talks of his book that captures the long trail of plunder of Indian heritage.
When Tamil author Kallki Krishnamurthy narrated the story of Raja Raja Chola in his legendary work Ponniyin Selvan, he would definitely not have dreamt that his magnum opus would someday inspire someone to go on a trail of missing antique idols and get them back to where they belong. But this work of historic fiction sparked S Vijay Kumar’s interest in art history to the extent that it has today led to the return of some of the most invaluable idols and antique artefacts that would else be lost forever. “I always felt a personal connect with emperor Raja Raja Chola especially in the big Tanjore temple,” says Kumar, who is a Singapore-based finance and shipping expert. Kumar, who has been tracking notorious idol thieves for years and continuing to do so, is now gearing up for the launch of his debut book, The Idol Thief: The True Story Of The Looting Of India’s Temples.
The book tells the tale of the most painful plunder of India’s temple treasures, which is sadly continuing. It all started with a blog poetryinstone, the result of his desire to pen a dummies guide to understanding Indian temple art. What began as a blog-site has led to a full-fledged movement, and in an interview to Swarajya, Kumar talks about his initiative and the beginnings of his journey for ‘getting our gods back home’.
How did your tryst with the missing idols happen?
I found most of the common folks had scant respect for art, history and it stemmed from the rather flawed attempts in our textbooks and conversely PhD theses inspired scholarly books. So I began writing and instead of a book, decided on a blog-site,” says Kumar as he recounts the beginnings of this journey for ‘getting our gods back home’.
The blog-site was a big hit and helped me build a circle of like-minded friends. Slowly, we started working on building our own image and knowledge archive – collecting published works and then went on site visits, documenting sites all over India.
It was during these trips that I realised that locals complained about rampant looting while those responsible for the artefacts had no answers to give, with site custodians telling them that they had moved them to museums, and museums pointing towards godowns etc. Meanwhile, major museums around the world were making new acquisitions, which had very little or no information on the origins of these artefacts. This led to the creation of dedicated groups on social media, where members would share photos of museum objects, magazine sale advertisements, online auction catalogues etc – thereby building an archive of Indian art across the world.
How did the idol theft trail take off? What are the biggest aid for these dubious operations in our country?
The first task was to match the lost ones to the objects. However, the biggest hassle was the lack of a proper archive of the lost objects. So we picked up successful cases of restitution to India in the past and were shocked to find glaring lapses in what were apparently open and shut cases and where the custodians had just taken token steps. Numerous such cases started cropping up – the Sivapuram bronzes, the Thiruvilakuddy thefts and lastly the mishandling of the Vaman Ghiya case by the Archaeological Survey of India and the Rajasthan police. To top it all, there was the Comptroller and Auditor General of India report of 2013 that lambasted the poor efforts of India. From 1970 to 2000 the country had managed to get back only 17 artefacts while the score for the next 12 years was zero.
We compared this with Italy which had actually campaigned with India as rich "source" nations at the United Nations for bringing in the UN statute for protection of cultural property in 1970. Italy set up the Carbenerri Art Squad with over 3,000 specialists, invested in information technology, lawyers, a tech platform to match objects etc, and successfully recovered 3.9 lakh objects in the same period.
Then came Peter Watson’s book in 1998. Watson did an expose on Sotheby's and brought it out as a book, Sotheby's: The Inside Story. It had a full chapter on India, naming Indian smugglers like Vaman Ghiya and Sham brothers. The modus operandi was that the auction house representatives would visit India and go on recce trips with the idol thieves and pick and choose objects that would sell and then they would be looted. This was organised looting on an industrial scale. Yet the law took its own time to catch up and eventually the Rajasthan police arrested Ghiya in 2003. They seized over 800 objects from his farm houses in Delhi of which over 400 were antiques and the rest fakes (the fakes are used to secure export permissions and originals switched).
There were rumours that Ghiya had confessed to having sold over 10,000 objects of Indian art. But we got back nothing. Incidentally, one of the buyers dealing with him developed cold feet and returned a dancing Shiva stone idol from the Ghateshwara temple in Baroli to the Indian High Commission in London. But it was never brought back to India and stays there to this day. Ghiya too was acquitted due to lack of evidence, thanks to the shoddy investigation by the Rajasthan High Court in 2014, and is a free man today.
This worsened India's cause in the art market. Every dealer, every auction house knew that Indian art was henceforth fair game.
What are the biggest impediments to investigation and to bringing the stolen and smuggled idols back?
Although our social media outreach helped us and random people began to bring cases to our notice, most of these weren’t reported, nor was any first information report (FIR) filed. There were no photographs either in most cases, except those documented by the likes of a Huntington Archive and the French Institute, Pondicherry. To me, the lack of proper procedure for reporting thefts and the absence of a proper photographic archive is the biggest dampener.
Surprisingly, the 1970 UN statue itself lays down clearly these requirements while Interpol has a free stolen art works database, where you can upload the details. But sadly, India doesn’t seem to use these at all.
When and how did your efforts begin to bear fruit and how did that serve the cause.
Our first major success was the widely-reported Vriddhachalam Ardhanari theft, which I tracked to the Art Gallery of New South Wales – sold by Subhash Kapoor. A fake idol had been installed in the temple and the original spirited away. The theft wasn’t even reported but I recognised the murti from memory having worked on a blog-post studying its beauty. This was a published stone idol. This started a wave of restitution, and global law enforcement agencies started to look at us as someone who can deliver. They had had enough with the lethargy and red tape in India. We learnt to work around this by leveraging the media and naming and shaming collectors, museums to fall in line.
How can we secure our idols and temple treasures, given that very often, it is those that are to guard them that give them away?
Sadly, we could have achieved more if we had more support from within. The lack of awareness of the scale and scope of these thefts and the money involved is one of the biggest issues.
Of late, however, Western governments have begun to recognise that illicit trafficking in antiquities aids and abets terrorism and that there are signs of such activities in India as well as financial impropriety with money coming in via hawala systems. But so far, the approach from India has been to be happy with a few token restitution photo ops and not to dismantle the system.
The smugglers are far ahead of us in this game as they employ experts and sometimes even have celebrated scholars assisting them. There are also many collecting lobbies that fund our own scholars with freebies like overseas assignments, talk invites, resident scholarship etc – in return these scholars are lobbying to dilute our already toothless antiquity act.
The need of the hour is to establish a national art squad, open up all cases and go after every cog in the wheel – from the export licence, to the shipping bill, to the antiquity certificate registration, customs etc – for we know that there is rampant corruption. India also needs to get tough with some banks, which are inadvertently assisting in laundering the funds.
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