Will it ever come home? Exploring India’s missing art since colonial times – I

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The Koh-i-Noor in the front cross of Queen Mary's Crown

In a short, multi-part series, we explore some of the masterpieces of art that were spirited away by colonial powers from what stands as modern India — all of which have not been returned till date. In part I, we broadly explore the history of such stolen art, where it stands, crusaders seeking it out, and certain issues with its restitution

Dancing Sambandar (Pic credit: NGA)

Towards the end of July this year, news reports made global headlines when Australia announced that it would be returning to 14 culturally significant artworks. These included six bronze or stone sculptures — two of which hail from the remarkable Chola dynasty — a brass processional standard, a painted scroll and six photographs, all from the National Gallery of Australia (NGA).

It was also clarified that some of which were likely stolen, illegally excavated or unethically acquired from the country. The NGA had undertaken similar repatriation in 2014, 2016 and 2019, it said in a statement, keeping in mind “legal principles and ethical considerations”.

According to the Indian Ministry of Culture, 101 antiquities have been stolen from the subcontinent’s Centrally Protected Monuments between 2000 and 2016. However, others suggest that the actual number of missing artwork may be in the several thousands. Some reports claim that well over $700 million worth of Indian art and antiquities entered just the US in declared imports over the last decade.

Queen Victoria wore Koh-i-Noor as a brooch, by Franz Xaver Winterhalter | Via Wikipedia

Now take a moment to consider: All these numbers are just after the turn of the century. And that is another half century after India gained Independence. For the decades on decades that preceded this freedom, one may not even be able to plumb the numbers of artworks that were moved out of India during colonial times.

Looting today might be considered an activity motivated by economic gain, but it was once a wholly legitimate act — carried out by colonial rulers of the subcontinent as a consequence of victory over the native population.

The British ruled India for over 200 years, and some of the pieces of art that were moved out of the country during this stint remain controversy-ridden till date. The most frequently evoked example of this is the Koh-i-Noor diamond, embedded in Britain’s crown jewels.

In yet another example, The Indian Express reports: “Perhaps the most significant among objects that made its way to the British Museum through this process of exploration and classification of Indian history is a Buddhist shrine, the Amravati Stupa which was established in the Guntur district of Andhra Pradesh in the 3rd century BCE. It came into public attention in the late 18th century, when Colin Mackenzie excavated and recorded it. By 1845, Sir Walter Elliot removed parts of the sculpture and kept them in the Madras Museum, from where they were transferred to London in 1859, under the assumption that it would get spoiled in India. At present, it occupies a separate gallery in the British Museum, and unlike the Kohinoor, there is hardly any political rhetoric around its retrieval.”

The Amravati marbles in the British museum (Wikimedia Commons)

But for something that happened hundreds of years ago, these acts have the remarkable capacity to evoke high emotion even today — perhaps subject to the cultural patriotism and the unique beauty that surround them. In 2014, the India Pride Project (IPP) was formed, to bring back historical artifacts that were taken from India both during colonial times and after 1947.

Presumably the world’s first crowdsourced heritage recovery team, this network also records recoveries inside India. Its co-founder, Singapore-based Anuraag Saxena, has coordinated a core group of 250 modern treasure hunters of artworks taken from India “without the consent of the community or its owner”, blaming colonial invaders for the heritage they stole alongside modern-day criminals.

Since its founding, the IPP has initiated many projects — some of which have been controversial. For example, in 2018, members of the group went to British museums and snapped pictures of Indian statues with speech bubbles carrying statements like “How did I get here?” and “I’m a deity, not a showpiece.”

IPP’s controversial tweets

This, they say, is because even today, the British Museum, the Pitt Rivers Museum and the Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A), and others across the world, such as in Netherlands, are adorned with entire exhibits of colonial art seized during the colonization of India, and other nations.

Some reports claim that this loot from India in Britain’s museums was less about a greed for wealth than the obsession of East India Company officials with old Indian paintings, sculptures and manuscripts — a preoccupation of sorts with the discovery of exotic Indian history and culture.

In the case of the Koh-i-Noor alone, while the government has again appealed repeatedly for its return, the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office at one point replied, “The British Museum Act 1963 prevents our national museums from removing items… the government has no plan to change the law.”

According to the Act, museums cannot dispose of the objects in their collections, except in a few special cases and unless it is necessary to remove them “temporarily for any purpose connected with the administration of the Museum and the care of its collections”.

It also needs to be acknowledged that the road to restitution is tricky. In India, there is often a lack of established processes to take back artifacts and some experts claim Indian authorities do not take care of such items properly. In a documentary on stolen historical treasures, titled Blood Buddhas, filmmaker Nikhil Singh Rajputt touches upon this handling of objects returned to New Delhi.

The SI museum in the walls of Purana Qila | Via Wikimedia Commons

According to him, most of 28 or so artifacts returned between 2014 and 2018 to India by the US, Australia, Canada and Germany have been handed over to the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) and are stored at an ASI warehouse in Delhi’s Purana Qila without proper protection against theft or atmospheric stressors.

But others, like Indian Member of Parliament (MP) Shashi Tharoor, an outspoken proponent against post-colonial injustice, say that the state of their preservation here does not entitle someone else to steal these artworks. “They stole them first and found the justification later,” he says in Blood Buddhas.