History & Culture

Should the Archaeological Survey of India be the only gatekeeper of India's art and culture?

I get asked questions all the time, about art, architecture and the like. Earlier this year, after the raids by Tamil Nadu’s Idol Wing in Chennai, their frequency picked up. People wanted to know if a painting they had inherited or an idol in their puja room could be termed an antique. Perhaps because I organise lectures on temples and archaeology, they assumed I’m an expert, but I am only a student.

Such questions of inheritance, registration and provenance, however, were tackled a couple of weeks ago, at a conference at Mumbai’s Piramal Museum of Art. Art Laws of India — with stakeholders like professors, art historians, lawyers, collectors and curators — “explored how museums, royal families, private collectors and temple collection trustees” can navigate The Antiquities and Art Treasures Act (1972).

Our laws relating to heritage sites, monuments and antiquities were set up by the British, and have developed, piecemeal, over a century to become what they are today. The Indian Treasure Trove Act of 1878, the subsequent Antiquity Act, and the setting up of the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) in 1861 were done at a time when discoveries were being made and no one was aware of the extent of what existed in the country. As most were enacted without any parliamentary or public discussion, loopholes and obscurities abound.

The 1972 act, which governs the free movement of art objects within and outside India’s boundaries, was formulated primarily to prevent smuggling and fraudulent dealings in antiquities. But, as many would attest, parts of it are archaic. So, a change is imminent, and a new draft, which address these concerns and modifies it to adhere to contemporary realities, is due to be tabled in Parliament soon.

Should the Archaeological Survey of India be the only gatekeeper of India's art and culture?

Seize and desist
  • Since the ASI is a custodian, and not an enforcer of the Act, the police intervenes in criminal activities like smuggling. Unfortunately, recovered artefacts are often dumped at government spaces that have no funds or infrastructure for their upkeep. For example, this year, over 400 seized idols (from the Chola and Pallava periods) were left in the Egmore Government Museum grounds, where they were subject to the elements.

Four to tackle

There are four main issues that need to be addressed by the law. The first is the upkeep of public monuments, like temples, mosques and churches. While some are managed by the ASI, countless others are uncared for, or managed privately. Like the Pullamangai Brahamapurisvarar in Thanjavur. This early Chola temple, with its incredible wall reliefs, is looked after by an old woman living nearby! In Kozhikode, Kerala, the medieval Mishkal Mosque, with its carved wooden doors, pillars and mimbars, is managed by a private trust.

The second: inheritance. As Siddharth Mehta, lawyer and managing partner of Mehta & Padamsey, stated at the conference, many people are unaware of the value, antiquity or importance of the objects or manuscripts they have inherited, and how to address or value it. Many homes and guest houses in places like Shimla and Ooty are repositories of old works, hardly touched after being inherited. But if their owners want to liquidate it, especially in the absence of any documentation to support the inheritance, it could pose a problem

The third issue is of trading in objects and their origin or provenance, which leads to the fourth, that of trafficking in antiquities. Illegal exports need to be controlled and domestic trade made transparent. A move towards legitimising trade will give clarity on ownership and origin.

Should the Archaeological Survey of India be the only gatekeeper of India's art and culture?

Bringing them home

Large numbers of artefacts, exported from India pre-Independence and pre-1972, can be seen at several international museums, galleries and auction houses. Like the Uma Maheshwari statue at Singapore’s Asian Civilisations Museum, which has been part of heated debates. As owners learn of provenance, many are being repatriated. On August 15, a limestone-carved relief from Andhra Pradesh (dated between the 1st century BC and 1st century AD), and a 17th century Navaneetha Krishna bronze sculpture from Tamil Nadu were handed over to the Indian High Commissioner to the UK, Ruchi Ghanashyam. According to digital newspaper thecitizen.in, 34 such artefacts have been returned in the past five years and over 200 are promised to be returned.

What is an antique?
  • Any coin, sculpture, painting, epigraph or other work of art or craftsmanship
  • Any article, object or thing detached from a building or cave
  • Any article, object or thing that is illustrative of science, art, crafts, literature, religion, customs, morals or politics of bygone ages
  • What the Act does not include as antiquity are ancient and historical records (other than those declared by or under law to be of national importance).

The way ahead

Over the last 70 years, the ASI has done a fair share of preservation and conservation, but they cannot manage to look after our entire heritage of cultural edifices and keep track of private collections. At the Mumbai conference, two archaeologists shared how their job is made more difficult because of the lack of enough training facilities and trained personnel. Moreover, they are not responsible for policing trafficking.

Recently, there has been a suggestion to do away with the organisation’s role for private collectors and trade (they handle antiquity registrations besides maintaining public monuments). But who will be the gatekeeper then? There has to be more assistance to ASI’s efforts and, perhaps, this is the right time to effect a public-private partnership.

Should the Archaeological Survey of India be the only gatekeeper of India's art and culture?

One has to incentivise private principals to get involved in efforts to preserve culture, along with aggressive training programmes to bring in personnel. In the absence of an official, publicly-available documentation of cultural histories (craft, art, performing arts and oral traditions), a crowd-sourced model of documentation can be effective, as long as it is secure and legally sound. This would be an effective use of available technology.

Art trade and illicit exports are not the only problems in preserving cultural histories. There is an urgent need to protect sites from natural weather erosion, climatic and environmental changes, and developments like highways, dams and housing. A trip to the Konark Sun Temple reveals shops and cheap motels marring the view, water damage is degenerating the paintings in Ajanta, and most visitors to Kanchipuram would have seen the extensive urbanisation that has made the temple town unrecognisable. India is changing rapidly and we have to move into the future in systems, interventions and laws to arrest this loss and downward slide.

Sharan Apparao is a renowned curator and the founder of Apparao Galleries.


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Printable version | Jun 8, 2021 9:23:18 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/society/history-and-culture/whats-the-asi-got-to-do-with-it/article29231478.ece

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