Why is liberalised India smuggling its heritage abroad?

WHOSE ART IS IT ANYWAY? An understaffed, ill-equipped systemis unable to keep pace with the needs of modern art collecting.Picture shows gold coins of the Vijayanagara period on display at theArchaeology Museum, Hyderabad. Photo: P.V.Sivakumar  

Last week’s headlines on the arrest of an art dealer who allegedly smuggled Indian artefacts abroad raise important issues about the preservation and protection of our heritage. Is heritage something that belongs to the land of India or to the people who identify with it? If it is the latter, then the vast numbers of Indians living in the United States, UK, Canada and elsewhere in the world may well make a strong case for the right to own the sacred images which they may have inherited from their grandmother’s puja rooms, which, currently classified as antiquities, can only be ‘smuggled’ abroad. Or, should many like me who come originally from areas outside modern ‘India’ (Northwest Frontier, in my case) seek permission from Pakistan to own the images in our puja rooms? None of this even raises the matter of people who are not of South Asian origin and who wish to own Indian art. If, on the other hand, heritage is bound to the land of the Republic, then its erudite citizens must ask why so few smugglers of their heritage have been brought to book.

Catching one person every eight to ten years is in fact reflective not of the success, but of the failure of the present laws. Actually, a vast network, from rag-pickers and village level entrepreneurs, small town middlemen, metropolitan shopkeepers and shippers, to sophisticated art dealers and connoisseurs have channelled Indian art out of the country. This is irrespective of the fact that those links in the chain that operate in India have been dealing in antiquities which, since the promulgation of the Antiquities and Art Treasures Act of 1972, may only be traded by licensed vendors and owned by those who have registered them with the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI). And of the ones who have traded them abroad, we have managed to arrest few of the smugglers, although thousands of art works have actually left India's shores. Perhaps the larger question then is not how we can increase policing of the borders, but focus instead on why so many Indian art treasures continue to leave the country? Are there no takers for them among liberalised India’s many millionaires?

Regulated market

The crux of my argument is that apart from the need to develop more professional and larger cadres of art historians, conservators and archaeologists to man our sites and museums so that heritage can be safeguarded and maintained, policymakers must equally urgently think about what measures can be brought in to encourage the collection of antiquities and retention of artefacts in India.

The urge to collect art is as ancient an impulse as is the urge to make art; a strong and strongly regulated domestic market for Indian antiquities is the best means to curtail the illegal export of art. If art fairs, auctions and dealing in Indian antiquities are incentivised in India, a domestic market will be encouraged so that the only markets that presently thrive, that is, the markets abroad, are stemmed. A beginning has been made in this regard with the issuing of licences for recent public sales of art to a handful of dealers, but much more needs to be done in this regard for it to percolate to middle India.

That there are many Indians who are willing to buy art is amply shown by the unprecedented rise of the Indian market for modern and contemporary art. As this market has grown more transparent, it has elicited more buyers, sellers and artists, and has been growing exponentially. Meanwhile, the market for antiquities has been shrouded in mystery with covert dealings, money laundering and the illicit trade in national heritage. While there are no systematic figures for what this market nets every year (which is itself part of a wider problem) conservative estimates for the sale of just contemporary art in the Indian metropolises alone (not to speak of the phenomenal prices Indian art fetches in Europe and the United States) were well over Rs. 500 crores annually between 2000- 2010 and, according to some figures, the projected worth of the Indian art market in 2006, (before the 2007 downturn) was Rs. 2000 crores.

That slump has largely lifted now, but none of these published figures factors in the value of antiquities. Nor can they account for the illegal trade. All that can be said is that the commodity market in the grey area usually reflects sales figures which are much higher than the legal market. Since the year 2000, Indian art has appreciated a staggering 10 per cent faster annually than the stock market. Yet significant aspects of this market need careful examination, lest it be reduced to a bubble which, on account of ineffective policy, soon bursts.

License Raj

The paradox is that laws made to protect heritage have now become self-defeating. It is illegal, at present, for an individual with a keen eye who happens to spot a historical object to acquire it unless he can first verify that the vendor is licensed. Farmers regularly find things in their fields; these are usually passed on to the thousands of middlemen who operate the art trade in India. Garbage collectors sell off old household goods in every city, and which keen collector has not gone scavenging for treasures amongst rag-pickers, who must all, as per current regulations, seek licenses! The first links in the chain, thus, have no legal means to sell the objects they find, setting off a cascade of illegal activities.

The problems continue. Should Indians wish to own antiquities, they must register them with the ASI. Registration, collectors across India claim, is a cumbersome process. The extensive paperwork apart, the law demands that changes in the ownership of registered items must be notified to the ASI, that the ASI should be permitted to enter your home to inspect the registered items every three years. Furthermore, if the state wishes, it may compulsorily acquire an antiquity in a private owner’s hands. All of this is a disincentive for Indians to build collections of antiquities.

The methods of compensation when the Government decides to invoke Section 19(2) of the Act and compulsorily acquire an antiquity are blatantly unfair because the owner of the artwork is forced to surrender it at a price established by Government appointed nominees who are, at best, ill-equipped and not adequately conversant in art prices (in a country that has no regard for the international value of the piece in question) and at worst, acting at the behest of vested interests.

Compensation laws and compulsory acquisition invariably bring to mind the all too famous case of 1979 when the trustees of the Nizam of Hyderabad's jewels were forced to accept arbitration under a compromise agreement with the Government of India to sell the art for Rs.218 crores – a figure very much below real value in the international market. Considering movable property like jewellery forms part of women’s traditional wealth, considering also that many tribal and nomadic communities may have a communitarian sense of land but value their material possessions highly and the fact that artefacts, paintings and jewels can command prices in the same league as land, a comparison with a similar situation with the Land Acquisition Act is appropriate. After all, a painting by Amrita Shergil achieved Rs. 6.9 crores in a public auction in Delhi in March 2006. And while the abuses and failings of the Land Acquisition Act, we all know, have come under severe scrutiny, art, which is of the same value and importance, seems yet to be a matter that Parliament will find time to debate on.

As part of the endeavour to create a legitimate domestic market, we will have to create the knowledge base that will allow proper assessment of objects and we will have to spend great effort in preserving and protecting our archaeological sites. And it goes without saying that in addition to a robust domestic market we also need first-rate public collections in well-tended museums. Museums and private collections are not at odds with each other; across the world (and in India) the generosity of private collectors has been the mainstay of museums.

The preservation of culture has always depended on both private and public collecting. The desire for the possession of art objects is less of a threat to our sites today than urbanisation, the cutting down of forests, mining and the construction of dams. In an age when Metros are built through Delhi, one of the oldest inhabited cities in the world, and from which we are given to understand there were hardly any artefacts found; in an age when the Sardar Sarovar dam stands to obliterate several archaeological sites as the Nagarjunasagar did a few decades earlier, in a country where the pace of development and population growth are heralded as one of the highest in the world, one wonders if the knock on effect of these realities is being factored into the staffing needs for the ASI?

Rather than recognising the deep root of why Indian artefacts continue to get exported, policy-makers remain content with the level of petty policing of 'smugglers'. The biggest casualty over the past two generations however, has been of the loss of the knowledge base about Indian art history. This significant crisis in the discipline has meant there are few trained people today to fill the many vacant posts in our museums. Without the museums and teachers of art-history, the even bigger casualty of course, is the extent of indifference and visual illiteracy that has spread across the country; where heritage seems not to matter in any tempered civilisational discourse, but is mobilised for the worst kind of jingoism or right-wing agendas.

Smugglers may peddle in heritage, but the inaction of our policymakers threatens to destroy it forever.

(Naman P. Ahuja is Associate Professor at the School of Arts and Aesthetics, Jawaharlal Nehru University)

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Printable version | Sep 16, 2021 11:08:42 PM |

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