Culture

Why India Must Counter The Heritage Plunder 

Artboard 3 Created with Sketch.
Snapshot

Creative India interviews Anuraag Saxena, co-founder, India Pride Project.

The gods are returning, slowly, in journeys long and tiring. In September, the Australian government returned three more stolen artefacts to India, including an idol of goddess Pratyangira and a Buddha statue. There are more idols on the radar for retrieval. Reclaiming the gods is a quiet battle of nerves involving passionate heritage investigators, agencies, dedicated volunteers — their triumph, success, sweat and frustrations. On the other hand, there is a world of emotions — people waiting to reunite with their gods and goddesses after years of soul-wrenching distress. For them, the auspicious sound of the nadaswaram and shahnai, the joy of celebrations, are faint and distant.

For years, our heritage has been systematically plundered from the most treasured religious and heritage sites. Earlier this year, two artefacts were seized from Christie’s auction house in New York City ahead of the Asia Week New York festivities after intense investigations. In June, the US returned more than 200 rare heritage objects, including the ancient bronze Ganesha and the figure of Bahubali. While we witness the world’s growing willingness and sensitivity towards returning what belongs to India, we need to tap and tinker our concern for heritage, reverse this cunning loot, celebrate when the gods come home, and wish for a heritage squad on the lines of the impressive Carabinieri Art Squad.

Artboard 3 Created with Sketch.
Anuraag Saxena, co-founder, India Pride Project (IPP)
Anuraag Saxena, co-founder, India Pride Project (IPP)

The plunder is largely commercial, part of a well-oiled global network, says Anuraag Saxena, co-founder, India Pride Project (IPP), a Singapore-based volunteer organisation that repatriates stolen antiquities. He tells Sumati Mehrishi over an email interview that India cannot be seen as a weak power twiddling thumbs on this issue. Excerpts:

On why India is targeted:

India is targeted for many reasons. India is one of the few countries that do not have a dedicated enforcement wing for heritage-crime. Heritage-crime is a sophisticated crime, like cyber-crime. A special workforce is needed to understand how art-valuation, shipping, documentation, currency-transfers, and auction-houses work. The current skill sets within police are not enough. India does not have a functional national database of heritage objects. When it comes to the legal process, there are no photographs or documentation to prove that an object was ours. Registration is not mandatory. I find this extremely weird. I buy a priceless heritage object and I can get away without any registration. Nobody comes after me. To us, it is a basic property rights issue. How can anyone claim ownership over anything unless a process of registration is involved?

India has emerged as a no-consequence zone within the art world. Unscrupulous dealers and unethical buyers realise that they are relatively safer dealing in Indian antiquities.

On the pattern of looting:

The recent looting is very different from the historical plunder. Historical plunder was part of a cultural-conquest — the winner would want to remove cultural markers. It was a localised issue. Today, looting is largely commercial — part of a well-oiled global network (including art-dealers, local-goons, shipping agents, hawala operators and auction houses).

On the role auction houses play in selling idols to private art collectors and museums:

Auction houses play a key role as intermediaries in buying and selling. They are as crucial to a transaction as real-estate agents when you buy a flat. Unfortunately, not all auction houses do. Sotheby’s, for example, had to shut down their London office after BBC’s sting operation. Christie’s and others auction-houses were raided earlier this year during the Asia Art Week in New York. Illegal antiquities worth over $4 million were confiscated.

On expectations from the government:

There are two ways one could respond to it. One way is to list all solutions to the heritage-restitution challenge — a simple list of actions and institutions that other countries have established successfully. The other way to respond to it is at an ideological level. Our expectation from the government is really simple. Make heritage-restitution a priority. We expect the government to recognise the importance of bringing our gods home. Not just from the point of view of restitution of peoples’ faith, but also from a geo-political power-equation point of view. India just cannot be seen as a weak power twiddling thumbs on this issue.

On India Pride Project – its birth and focus:

Any Indian heritage that is owned by the public, that is stolen away, is something we would like to bring back. Maps, manuscripts, paintings, sculptures are all within our purview. When an unscrupulous buyer wants to buy a 2,000 year old artefact, it’s most likely a temple-statue. We track whatever gets stolen and smuggled — as far as it represents Indian heritage. If it’s ours, and you have it — we’ll come after you. Rightfully speaking, all public art and heritage needs to stay home.

I moved to USA in 1998 and saw how proud they were of their heritage. It made me wonder why we don’t care as much. Gradually, I found out about the rampant looting of India’s art and heritage. We, as people, have let this happen for centuries. I believe it’s shameful to sit back as a nation and watch this happen. I’d like to think that destiny brought a few like-minded patriots together – some average-Joes with pre-existing love for Indian heritage. India Pride Project was born.

On the emotional value and perspectives:
From a cultural and faith perspective, idols (especially from religious sites) have tremendous emotional value. This is across various religions. If you look at Indian villages, life revolves around a couple of spaces — a village-well, temple (or other place of worship), and probably a banyan tree — pretty much. That’s where people congregate, celebrate festivals and create memories. When such places of worship and social importance get looted, it rips apart the social-fabric of that village. Looting away a statue from a temple is no different from cutting that banyan tree. That space loses its significance.

On evolving public awareness:

Our objective is to inform. Most people don’t even know how much of our heritage has been plundered, and how that weakens us as a nation. Once they do, they turn into natural allies and supporters. No one — I repeat — no one has stood up and opposed the cause. People are either positive, or at worst, indifferent. Our objective is to merely inform and not influence. We initiated a hashtag #BringOurGodsHome on Twitter. Within no time, with support from citizens, it was one of the top 10 trends in India. Our supporters and volunteers organise “awareness parties”, where they discuss the challenges with friends and colleagues. We have shared our story with a dozen people in volunteers’ living rooms, in classrooms full of researchers at universities across the world and with large audiences. IPP is as much your project as it is mine. Once people understand that they are as important to this project as everyone else associated, it automatically becomes a success.

On how citizens can contribute:
Familiarise themselves with culture-theft. Know why it should matter to us as a nation. This short video video could help. Believe in the cause? Make some noise. Start spreading the message. Tweet about it, write about it, and host discussions. Get together. Write to the PMO and ask the government – “Why should India Pride Project do what the Government should be doing?”

On international protocols to facilitate tracking and repatriation of heritage art: The largest and most globally-accepted protocol is the UNESCO convention of 1970, to which India is a signatory as well. The convention essentially says that countries signing it have an obligation to set up structures to preserve/protect their own cultural property, provide support to other signatories/governments when their cultural property is stolen and restitute such stolen cultural-property if found in their country.

See also:

-Video: Support the India Pride Project

-India Pride Project: How smuggled Indian art is brought back home

-India has abandoned its gods

-Operation hidden idol: The struggle to bring back Indian antiquities

-Crowd sourcing an idol hunt