Chennai: When the Indian government revealed that the US was repatriating 157 antiquities and artifacts during Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s recent US visit, it was a significant milestone on many counts and it offered hope for many more to follow. Here are some statistics to ponder upon – Between the years 1970 and 2000, India recovered 19 antiquities from abroad, between the years 2000 and 2013, none were recovered, between 2013 and 2021 August, about 53 had been recovered and in the past one week, 157 were recovered, as per the India Pride Project, an NGO that works towards the restoration and recovery of India’s Heritage.
At face value, the recovered artefacts might mean different things to different people. But for the volunteers of India Pride Project, this meant years of their tireless efforts coming to fruition and offers them more hope to continue in pursuit of such looted and lost treasures of Indian heritage. While a team of volunteers monitors social media for any Indian objects going on sale, the core team works on research and coordinating with law enforcement agencies to ensure the lawful return of artifacts.
Zee Media spoke to S Vijay Kumar, Co-founder of the India Pride Project to understand their journey into the world of art, identifying and tracing stolen art and the efforts that follow, before getting the antiques to where they belong.
According to Vijay, the latest trove of 157 heritage works were recovered from the collections of five art smugglers/dealers/thieves/exhibitors, who operated and made millions in the international market via illegal sale. The big names are Subhash Kapoor (Art of Past Gallery), Doris and Nancy Wierner (Wierner Gallery), Nayef Homsi, other UK dealers who had exhibited stolen idols during the 2016 Asia Week in New York along with the Punnainallur Nataraja from Asia Society Museum. At different points in time, over the last decade, these individuals and their warehouses were held and raided by US authorities.
“Our work and coordination has primarily been with the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement, Department of Homeland Security and Colonel Matthew Bogdanos, Assistant District Attorney, New York and Art Expert Apsara Iyer in his team, besides the Indian authorities. The authorities send us pictures known as ‘robber offering photos’ that depict fresh loot, which are meant to be sent to collectors abroad. We use these pictures and compare them with our database and undertake the extremely time-consuming process of cross-verifying and matching them with old records. After sourcing irrefutable proof, we reach out to the authorities and request the retrieval of the artefact,” Vijay Kumar elaborated.
According to India Pride Project, some of the significant artifacts from the present lot of 157 are the Punnainallur Chola Bronze Nataraja, Chamunda ex Dakshina Candi temple Odisha, Chola bronze Alingana Murthy from Deepambalpuram seized from Ball State Museum, a Pala stone steele of Vishnu seized from the Harn Museum, Chola Stone Lingothbava seized from Birmingham Museum and a host of Terracota stoneware from Chandraketugarh seized from the Toledo Museum (Ohio) and Honolulu Museum. However, the team is hopeful that this is only the first batch of heritage articles from the US and that many more batches would follow. Some of the major expectations in the upcoming batches are pinned on the return of the Thachur Murugan from Tamil Nadu, host of Chola bronzes from Sripuranthan, the Barhut Yakshi from Madhya Pradesh, the Chola stone Nagapattinam Buddha etc.
The team’s biggest regret and trigger has been how India’s ‘Living Gods’ or ‘Murtis’ that are meant to be placed in the sanctum sanctorum of temples adorn the swimming pools and living rooms of the ignorant and rich Westerners, who only see them as idols that can be purchased. They firmly believe that India’s authorities at the state level must wake up to the reality of such thefts of historical artefacts and how they are smuggled out of the country. A constant lament of those working in this sector has been how Indian Law has helped smugglers rather than protecting the heritage articles – In India, idol or artefact theft is punishable with seven years imprisonment and a fine of Rs.3000. This is said to be in stark contrast to Egypt and China, where theft from tombs attracts as much as capital punishment.
While most countries track down their heritage articles that go on sale abroad and demand proof of ownership from the sellers, India is said to have been following the method where the onus of proving lay on itself. This is another major stumbling block in tracing and retrieving the artifacts from high-profile museums and auctions that take place abroad.
Despite the obstacles that come their way, the India Pride Project team remains committed to restoring Indian Pride and heritage and labours from the different locations that they have spread across, while also carrying on with their professions.