What is it that causes nations to start reclaiming their national treasures?

In the now borderless world of cultural space, can countries lay claim to people and relics?

January 12, 2023 11:48 am | Updated 06:41 pm IST

The crown with the Kohinoor placed on the coffin of Queen Elizabeth II in London, September 2022

The crown with the Kohinoor placed on the coffin of Queen Elizabeth II in London, September 2022 | Photo Credit: Getty Images

In 1968, the London Bridge — of ‘London Bridge is falling down’ fame — was bought by an American millionaire. Piece by precious piece, the structure was dismantled, each stone carefully marked, packed and crated, then shipped to Arizona. There it was unwrapped and re-erected in Lake Havasu City. Just so, sitting on the ranch nearby, the new owner could have a convenient view of history, bought from one continent and now visible in another.

The history of national treasures is one of ambivalence. Unable to maintain the massive stone monument, the city of London decided that selling it off was easier and would also help replenish the coffers of a bankrupt municipality. Now, more than half a century since the transaction, the British government still hasn’t laid claim to the lost heritage.

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Kohinoor’s sordid history

The case of the Kohinoor diamond has been hotly debated as the crown that it embellishes was on constant display at Queen Elizabeth’s funeral. But who should be its legal owner? The stone was mined in India, acquired by Alauddin Khilji, appeared on Nadar Shah’s Peacock Throne, moved between various rulers in South and East Asia, then ended up with Queen Victoria in 1850 as the spoils of war. Except for decorating actress Elizabeth Taylor’s ring, it has had a happily sordid and varied history. Now on exhibit at the Tower of London, along with other crown jewels, its ownership is claimed by India, Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan. Tipu Sultan’s exquisite single-edged swords are also on display in London, at the British Museum, under glass cases, temperature and humidity controlled, along with his ring and perfume box.

Mysuru ruler Tipu Sultan’s ring, inscribed with the name of Ram, that was auctioned in London in 2014.

Mysuru ruler Tipu Sultan’s ring, inscribed with the name of Ram, that was auctioned in London in 2014. | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

What is it that causes nations to start reclaiming their national treasures? What indeed constitutes national treasure — only valuable and priceless artefacts, or ideas as well? What about citizens of intellectual worth who have settled abroad? Should they be returned as well?

The last decade has witnessed a steady rise in acts of national atonement and restitution. In a belated reckoning, white nations have issued public apologies for their past acts of racism, colonialism, and the plunder of national treasures. Canada and Australia have made serious conciliatory gestures in Parliament towards indigenous people. Australia returned a vast cache of Indian artefacts recently, while France transferred artefacts to Benin. Brazil’s white authorities are paying more attention to the plight of the Amazon Indians. In the U.S., statues of former de-segregationists have been steadily dismantled. Not to mention the return of Jewish art stolen by the Nazis.

Statue of Liberty in Patna

Yet the question remains: does the larger picture of a more inclusive and connected world require an altogether different approach, and an attitude of genuine forgiveness? Certainly, cultural crimes around the world are many and varied, but chances are slim that antiquities acts, however stringent, will stop relics from crossing borders. How many artworks have already crossed borders and how many can be sent back to the place of origin? The Mona Lisa was painted in Florence by an Italian artist and now hangs in the Louvre in France. Italians regularly petition for a return of the painting while the French point out that it was never theirs. The ancient Egyptian Temple of Dendur was shipped to the U.S. as a gift, and now sits in New York’s Metropolitan Museum. If ever in the future, New York City were to sell off the Statue of Liberty for lack of maintenance funds, it may be no surprise if Patna buys it for one of its many traffic junctions.

A couple takes a selfie in front of the Mona Lisa.

A couple takes a selfie in front of the Mona Lisa. | Photo Credit: Getty Images

Fluid should be the future of cultural borders, not just with historic artefacts but with all forms of exchange. Look at the cheetah, which went extinct in India, and 70 years later the void has been filled with African cheetahs. There is also the steady migration of people: sometimes it is not out of choice like V.S. Naipaul’s grandparents sent to Trinidad as indentured labour. More recently, it has been the prospects of better education, jobs and quality of life that has lured Indians to greener pastures.

Claiming diaspora

Yet we don’t hesitate to claim the successes of our diaspora. In 1968, Har Gobind Khorana, an American citizen of Indian origin, received a Nobel Prize in medicine, and we quickly claimed him as our own. International recognition made him India’s national treasure. Likewise, Viswanathan Anand, India’s only chess grandmaster left Chennai, and now makes Spain his home. Neeraj Chopra, the country’s recent Olympic gold medalist, has been bestowed with national awards and large sums of cash, but is it enough to stop him from moving elsewhere, and throwing the javelin for say, France at the next Olympics? People are more fickle than relics or animals; it is hardly possible to keep them grounded, or extradite Indian-origin CEOs Sundar Pichai or Satya Nadella on the grounds that they are India’s national treasures. Or for that matter, make artist Anish Kapoor and conductor Zubin Mehta feel obligated to make themselves and their work available in India.

Zubin Mehta

Zubin Mehta | Photo Credit: Getty Images

In the now borderless world of cultural space, nationality and nationhood have become outmoded. People, animals and materials as fixed and tethered to the country of their origin is an archaic idea. That world heritage is inclusive and allows every citizen of every country to be a long-distance owner of shared cultural ideals needs to be encouraged. The aesthetic appreciation of a diamond, the structural ruggedness of an old bridge, the universal health value of an ancient practice like yoga, all need the long reach of borderless, accessible space.

Every year in late November, Siberian cranes cross the northern border into India. They are not refused entry, not checked by customs officials for illicit drugs or gold smuggled under their feathers. They fly unimpeded, merely going from one home to another. Couldn’t the same measure apply to people, relics and buildings?

The writer is an architect and sculptor, and the author of Blueprint.

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