How India is pushing for the return of stolen artifacts | Asia | An in-depth look at news from across the continent | DW
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi recently thanked Australia for returning 29 Indian-origin artifacts that were illegally stripped from the South Asian country. It is the latest in a series of ancient artifacts that have been returned to India.
The objects – including sculptures, paintings, photographs and a scroll – date back to the 9th century and were held by the National Gallery of Australia.
“Thank you for your initiative to return Indian antiquities and the antiquities you sent include artefacts hundreds of years old and photos which were illegally taken out of Rajasthan, West Bengal, Gujarat, India. ‘Himachal Pradesh and other Indian states,” Modi told the Australian Prime Minister. Minister Scott Morrison at the 2nd Virtual India-Australia Summit on March 21.
A catalog shared by the government featured 12th century Chola bronzes, 11th and 12th century Jain sculptures from Rajasthan, 12th and 13th century sandstone goddess Mahisasuramardini from Gujarat, a number of 18th and 19th century paintings and old gelatin silver photographs.
Push to bring back heritage objects
India has lost several important national artefacts, first under British colonial rule and then due to illegal smuggling activities. As the conversation around looted artefacts grows across the globe, India’s attempts to repatriate stolen heritage items are bearing fruit.
In September last year, Modi was credited with bringing back 157 Indian artifacts, which were handed over to the Prime Minister during his visit to the United States. Modi and US President Joe Biden also expressed their commitment to strengthening efforts to combat the theft, illicit trade and trafficking of such items.
While nearly half of these artifacts were cultural, the other half were figurines related to Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism.
It is estimated that thousands of works of art are stolen from Indian temples every year and shipped to a burgeoning international antiques market.
Since coming to power in 2014, Prime Minister Modi has brought back Indian cultural artifacts from his travels to countries including the United States, Australia, Canada, Germany and Singapore.
Where do the artifacts go?
“The return of these artifacts is a welcome move as they represent India’s cultural identity,” Juhi Sadiya, an assistant professor at the National Museum Institute in New Delhi, told DW.
While the final destination of these objects will be decided by the relevant authorities within the government, Sadiya says they are well equipped to provide the preventive conservation these objects need, which includes providing microclimates with the right conditions. humidity, temperature and lighting to avoid damage to artifacts.
Anupam Sah, head of art conservation, research and training at the Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya Museum in Mumbai, formerly known as the Prince of Wales Museum of Western India, said preventive conservation can be replicated even in fledgling institutions.
“The country’s cultural assets are divided between private ownership, monasteries and religious institutions, universities and educational institutions, and the specific repositories of cultural heritage, which are museums,” Sah told DW, adding that the country has the necessary tools for preventive conservation.
While the main objective is to prevent future hazards to objects, specialized curative treatments are carried out for objects that require special attention.
Religious identities of relics
While many say the artifacts belong to Indian museums, some volunteer groups have called for the relics to be returned to temples, their “rightful” place. One such group is the India Pride Project (IPP), run by two Singapore-based Indian-born art enthusiasts.
The group, which prides itself as the world’s first participatory heritage recovery project, is using its global network of volunteers to build “the case for India’s stolen heritage to be brought home”, said the co-founder Anuraag Saxena to DW in a previous statement.
According to the activist, “history belongs to its geography”, and nations, museums, citizens, as well as officials, must understand why this is the right thing to do. The group has a unifying theme: #BringOurGodsHome.
“We took an academic issue and turned it into a social movement,” Saxena said.
The IPP has successfully recovered some stolen statues, but experts say leaving the task of recovery to individuals would be tantamount to bringing back pieces that best match their version of the story.
In the ideal scenario, Sah thinks the artifacts shouldn’t be taken out of their cultural context. “It is not limited to religious objects but also, for example, a cave painting that is displayed outside its original environment,” Sah said.
“In an ideal situation, I would prefer to see these objects returned to their original cultural context with appropriate systems in place to ensure their safety and longevity,” Sah said. But until their safety is assured, Sah believes trained professionals are best suited to handle the conservation task.
Long way to go
While the recovery of the famous Kohinoor diamond, now part of the British Crown Jewels, is still a dream for many in India, the cultural significance of the newly recovered artefacts cannot be ignored.
However, UNESCO, the UN culture agency, says heritage theft remains a rampant problem across India, which is compounded by poverty and poor protection of historical monuments.
Emphasizing international cooperation to recover illegally stolen antiquities, the UN agency also stressed the importance of building conservation capacity in the country.
“A key measure is the development of digital inventories and professional documentation of cultural property,” UNESCO said in a statement. In favor of a nationally coordinated approach, the organization said the newly developed mechanisms, if available in regional languages, would be able to “report a theft instantly and could facilitate the interception of objects stolen before they enter the illegal trade channels”.
Edited by: Srinivas Mazumdaru