Naman Ahuja is professor of Indian art history at Jawaharlal Nehru University and co-editor of Marg, a magazine of the arts published from Mumbai. He has curated major exhibitions of Indian artefacts in Europe, Britain and India in “an effort to share the richness of Indian culture with both the vernacular and global audiences”. In a telephone interview, Prof. Ahuja speaks of India’s poor record in cultivating its museums, and why >the country’s obsession with one royal stone whittles down the larger question of reparations and repatriation. Excerpts:
Solicitor General Ranjit Kumar told the Supreme Court that if India demands the Kohinoor, other countries will start asking India to return their items. The Centre then took a U-turn, stating that it will “make all possible efforts to bring back the diamond”. What do think about the ongoing debate?
No, India does not stand to lose assets which it will be forced to return to other nations, but several nations may feel guilty about not returning Indian objects to India. What possessions of other countries does India even have to even return? Hardly any! But that is not the point. The debate on Kohinoor is entirely rhetorical at the moment. Even if objects like the diamond were to be returned, where will they be kept? In our >understaffed and uncared-for museums where stories of theft and negligence are legend?
Do you think the debate has gained momentum now because objects like the Kohinoor are seen as symbols of national pride? Or is there a larger question of righting the exploitations of colonial rule?
The momentum has been provided by the media to act as a strategic counterbalance to >Prince William’s visit to India. It is unfortunate and embarrassing that so much attention is being given to the Kohinoor — and this debate has been going on for over 50 years. It receives traction whenever there is a visit of an Indian premier to the U.K. or vice versa. At the end of the day we must remember that it is but one flashy stone from the treasury of the Mughals, the Sikh Maharajas, and the British royal family. There are thousands of sculptures from stupas and temples which have a larger civilisational history, religious manuscripts and treatises on ancient science, entire portions of famous buildings and textiles that adorned those buildings — things that mattered to the people of India and affected their lives — that are in museums abroad. But we dumb down the larger debate by only asking for the Kohinoor. Incidentally, Maharaja Ranjit Singh’s court was in Lahore and now Pakistan has also made a claim to the diamond.
The whole discussion is a symbolic tool. When any British dignitary visits India, the media makes some symbolic gesture about colonial reparations, and the Kohinoor has become a rather exhausted device which is used to that end. It would be worthwhile to look at far more meaningful strategies of reparation rather than waste public and media attention on something so rhetorical.
Stolen antiquities are being returned to the country of origin — for example, those traded by art smuggler Subhash Kapoor. So, why not those taken away by colonial rulers?
Because we haven’t made a cause for them; we’ve never formally made a legal case in British courts or the international courts. We’ve only been asking for this flashy stone, which whittles down the larger question of reparations and repatriation.
When Greece asked for the Elgin Marbles to be returned to it, the British Museum responded that the sculptures are better positioned in London to “serve world audiences”. Do you think this is a patronising standpoint or a fair point — to begin a debate on whether the country demanding the return has the infrastructure to preserve the object in question?
Patronising though it seems, there is some truth to it. We must accept some historical facts. Let us first look after all that we have before we greedily seek more and ruin that too. It has taken the Chennai Museum more than 35 years to repair and reopen its Amaravati gallery! The artworks, meanwhile, have suffered irreversibly. We have to start improving our museums. However, it’s not just that Western museums are well equipped; over the past 200 years their universities and publishers have produced extraordinary knowledge on these objects and the civilisations they came from. India has a long way to go to raise curiosity about history, cultivate its museums, and raise its bar on research.
A second major fact of our times is that we are forced to think beyond the limitations of our national boundaries. After all, Indian people live all over the world: will they be denied the privilege of living with Indian art in the new countries they have sought to make home? Globalisation is a fact and Indian culture is a part of world history.
Third, repatriating everything to the place of origin makes it a one-stop sitting target; it runs a very serious risk these days when artworks are regularly attacked because of censorship in the name of protecting someone or the other’s idea of what ‘tradition’ is, in times when changing political agendas can suddenly redefine what is no longer acceptable in a nation, and times when art museums are being attacked by terrorists all over the world. We have to be sensible to mitigate the potential loss by sharing these assets and placing them in different locations and repositories.
The All India Human Rights and Social Justice Front that has filed a PIL in the Supreme Court asking for the Kohinoor to be returned has also asked for the return of the ring, sword and other treasures of Tipu Sultan, Bahadur Shah Zafar, the Rani of Jhansi, and other Indian rulers. Where do you think this begins and ends? And is it a necessary settling of accounts?
Yes, I do believe that inequities have to be settled in some way, but not by claiming back royal jewels which have little to give us civilisationally except some publicity.
The way forward is not to seek the asset back but to seek the sharing of what that asset leverages — an equal sharing of the knowledge that comes out of it, a joint participation in it, not merely the onerous responsibility of being its caretaker.
What do you mean by asset leverage?
I mean the potential return of an investment. What an object can mean for civilisation, how it can be used to create a more informed or tempered view of society, to foster religious tolerance and sympathies for communities different from one’s own — these are the unquantifiable benefits of what intelligently curated museums exhibitions can achieve. What assets have we leveraged to such ends in India?
Do you see artefacts as global property or as symbols of culture that define and explain a community’s past?
They are global property; they define and explain a community’s past, not just for the sense of pride of that community alone but something that the community has to offer to the rest of the world — just as that community itself stands to learn from the achievements and objects created by other people in the world. Art is universally acknowledged for its capacity to disturb us, to express feelings that take us out of our comfort zone and make us see things afresh. Museums and their collections therefore hold the potential to foster respect for difference. A provocative space like that is a must for any society, and such spaces need protection.