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The movement to restore stolen artefacts including precious 1,000-year-old antiquities to their countries of origin is set to gather momentum in 2023, with India making new claims to museums abroad and individual collectors. Potentially, they would attract cultural tourists, both national and international, but is progress being made?

Recently, the Indian High Commission reached an agreement with Glasgow Museums for the return of seven stolen artefacts to India, some believed to be 1,000 years old, according to the BBC. The majority of these artefacts with antiquity ranging from the 11th century to 14th century were stolen in the 19th century while one piece, an interesting serpent sword from the Hyderabad Nizam’s collection, was reportedly smuggled out in 1905.

The quest to get the antique pieces back picked up pace over the past three decades, although the regulatory restrictions on owning antiquities have been in force since 1972, through a union government law. Colonial laws were less effective in stopping the export of stolen artefacts.

In July 2022, the Tamil Nadu idol wing announced a claim to a 3.5 feet tall 1,000-year old bronze Chola-era idol of Sembiyan Mahadevi, a queen of antiquity, which was stolen from the Kailasanathar temple in Nagapattinam district and is now found in the Freer Gallery of Art in the Smithsonian Institution in Washington DC. The website of the Freer Gallery states that the idol was purchased from Hagop Kevorkian, New York and has a known provenance of 1929. It contains the picture of the displayed piece seen here.

This is only one of several icons that Tamil Nadu is claiming, and the general movement to restore antiquities to their countries of origin is expected to grow. Many artefacts are being returned to Africa, such as the looted Nigerian Benin bronzes repatriated by Germany. In October, 2022, Manhattan District Attorney Melvin L Bragg Jr said 307 antiquities had been returned to India, the majority of them traded by notorious idol smuggler Subhash Kapoor from his gallery in New York. Kapoor awaits prosecution in the US once he is extradited from India.

Recently, the Indian High Commission reached an agreement with Glasgow Museums for the return of seven stolen artefacts to India, some believed to be 1,000 years old, according to the BBC. The majority of these artefacts with antiquity ranging from the 11th century to 14th century were stolen in the 19th century while one piece, an interesting serpent sword from the Hyderabad Nizam’s collection, was reportedly smuggled out in 1905

Furthering the State’s claims to stolen heritage, the Tamil Nadu Idol Wing has also filed a claim in October to the idols of Somaskandar and Dancing Sambandar at the LACMA museum in Los Angeles.

While the return of famous antique sculptures, such as the Pathur Nataraja bronze in 1991, makes waves in the media and the government of the day basks in the limelight of cultural repatriation successes, contemporary approaches to museums have not raised the quality of exhibition and information practices.

Also Read: Should all Indian artefacts in foreign museums be retrieved?

Early Indian policies on museums, including those in the colonial era, gave importance to showcasing heritage and artefacts at the same site, leading to several archaeological sites of importance that display the treasures and served an educational role. These sites are major tourist attractions for domestic and international visitors.

Yet, even at such archaeological sites, the approach of the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) could be arbitrary. A controversy arose at Mamallapuram six years ago, when artists with sketchbooks were not allowed to sit near the ancient Pallava antiquities and make sketches. This resulted in a public petition and a Right to Information Act application, to which the ASI responded stating that there was no bar on sketching provided large special equipment was not involved.

While the return of famous antique sculptures, such as the Pathur Nataraja bronze in 1991, makes waves in the media and the government of the day basks in the limelight of cultural repatriation successes, contemporary approaches to museums have not raised the quality of exhibition and information practices

Beyond the displays of antiquities at the site of excavations and major finds, it is moot whether the union or state governments have a plan to showcase the numerous repatriated cultural treasures and bring them closer to the public. The Union Ministry of Culture lists nine national museums on its website and thousands of records for antiquities, of which Tamil Nadu has 3,606. A random search showed a Nataraja of the Vijayanagar period, stated to be found in the “Nadarajar sanctum” on the premises controlled by the HR and CE department of the Tamil Nadu government.

Excluding ancient deities that are actually being worshipped in Tamil Nadu — and the poor security in temples that led to their rampant smuggling over the decades — there is considerable scope to provide high-quality displays of the repatriated icons under suitable security, no different from the HR and CE strong rooms, as a source of education and appreciation of culture.

Also Read: Will notorious idol thief Subhash Kapoor walk free soon?

Online museums also provide scope to appreciate the repatriated treasures, while physical viewing and audio commentary continues to be the mainstay of the museum and archaeology experience worldwide. Here, the Union Culture Ministry’s virtual museum is replete with dead links to famous institutions, such as the Salar Jung Museum in Hyderabad.

As the custodian of unique Chola-era bronzes, Tamil Nadu has the opportunity to build a display collection of repatriated antiquities in Chennai, where the existing museum culture can be built upon. The existing Union Culture Ministry list of museums gives Tamil Nadu short shrift, and does no justice to its riches. Yet, the Tamil Nadu government has done little to raise the profile of the Government Museum in Chennai. Its website is an apology for a virtual experience, with no content to show for the famed Bronze gallery and the virtual tour remaining inaccessible.

The appreciation of art and culture is often lost in the din of contemporary distractions, but the priceless artefacts that are returning to Tamil Nadu periodically from looted collections deserve an abode where they can bring to life the culture and mystique of the past to present-day visitors.


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