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Idol Threats – Shruti Ravindran

It was a Saturday morning in the middle of summer 2013 when Vijay Kumar, a shipping executive based in Singapore, received a news alert on his mobile. 

This notification was about a museum in Australia that had eventually disclosed the source of an ancient Indian artefact that had been the subject of much discussion due to its dubious origin. This update was met with great anticipation by Kumar.

Kumar is an autodidact on the topic of Indian antiquity, often going to temples in Tamil Nadu in order to take account of their sacred artefacts. His fascination with this subject started on a journey to a temple in the south of India. 

It was there that he heard a father incorrectly describe a deity to his child – this event both incensed and motivated him to compose a blog called Poetry in Stone meant to be a simplified explanation of Hindu and Buddhist art and its symbols.

Kumar had previously observed a number of vacant spots where statues had formerly been located, and had observed deities through barred grills. The pilfering of Indian figurines for sale to foreign galleries was extensive. The Australian news report appeared to be talking about one such instance.

As Kumar read the details of the report, one particular image in particular came to mind. It was of an androgynous divinity, which he had recently written about in a blog post. 

He had used an image of an early mediaeval sculpture in a temple in Tamil Nadu, carved from granite that had grown dark through the years. This deity had a beatific smile, matted hair piled high like a crown, and possessed a languid female side and a taut male side, resting on a bull. 

Unfortunately, the statue’s beauty was spoiled by the fact that both its hands had been severed.

Kumar pursued his investigation and found a picture of the statue in Australia which was also lacking hands. To the best of his knowledge, the sculpture was being venerated in a temple located in South India.

 He contacted the journalist who was mentioned in the article, requesting for higher resolution images. After careful inspection, it became apparent that it was in fact the same sculpture. “That is when I realised I was on the right track,” he proclaimed.

Kumar had to provide more than just his own testimony to prove the statue had been stolen, so he logged onto Facebook and asked his two thousand followers if any of them could visit the temple in Virudhachalam village.

 Shortly after, he received a response from an engineer in Dubai who had a friend who owned a cell phone shop in the village. The friend went to the temple, took pictures of the niche, and confirmed that a new and shiny statue with two hands was present. “It was a modern fake,” Kumar reported.

Kumar’s research was one more piece of proof against Subhash Kapoor, who ran an art gallery in New York City’s Upper East Side called Art of the Past. He had sold thousands of ancient artefacts to museums around the world, including fifteen to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. 

However, his true business was located far away, in West Nyack, New York, through a company known as Nimbus Import Export. The authorities found that it was essentially a “black-market Sotheby’s” with Kapoor ordering temple raids for the antiquities. 

The items then made their way to buyers, curators, dealers, and private collectors through a photo gallery. According to Kumar, “These guys were choosing the best of ancient Indian art, like prospective grooms looking for matches.”

The news of the theft of the androgynous idol spurred the Tamil Nadu Police to demand its return, and eventually, it was shipped back on a private jet. “A journalist contacted me to tell me when it was in the air,” Kumar recalls. “I was beyond happy that it was going to be back in its rightful place.”

In recent decades, India has been a prime target for smugglers due to its numerous yet inadequately protected temples and museums. The actual scale of the theft is difficult to ascertain, as 5.7 million of the country’s 7 million antiquities lack documentation.

 A 2013 report from India’s government watchdog revealed that the custodian of national antiquities failed to create and maintain a record of these items, and it is believed that 4,408 artefacts were stolen in a four-year period from sites under their care.

 This is only a fraction of a much larger issue; UNESCO estimates that before 1989, up to 50,000 antiquities were taken from the subcontinent.

In contrast to nations like Italy, Greece, and China, India is not particularly vigorous in its effort to reclaim its lost antiquities. Italy has a specific police force charged with battling thievery and the trafficking of cultural artefacts, as well as a database of stolen items. 

Greece has undertaken relentless and energetic initiatives to recover its relics from multiple countries, even the United Kingdom which has refused to turn over the Parthenon marbles it took while Greece was under Ottoman rule. 

China has a state-operated system that sends out teams to search the archives of international museums for misplaced artefacts. Comparatively, the Indian government has rarely taken steps to secure its lost cultural items.

Cases of citizens replacing governments in calling for the return of national art have been seen in some locations. 

Last year, Mwazulu Diyabanza, a Congolese campaigner, was arrested and charged with stealing after he procured a Chadian funerary post from an anthropological museum in Paris. 

Moreover, a gang of unknown thieves from China have been working for the past two decades to take Chinese antiquities from a few European museums and monarchical abodes.

Since 2014, Kumar has been in the business of hunting down stolen artefacts. His work in the area of transnational shipping led him to the conclusion that many of these treasures were being taken away with his help.

 He then used his expertise in global logistics to uncover fraudulence in the paperwork of these one-ton bronze statues, which were too large to be hidden in a purse or stored in aeroplane baggage and thus had to be sent by sea.

Kumar is confident that his attempts to stop smugglers have been more effective than any governmental organisation in India, with him having facilitated a majority of the fifty-one restitutions that have taken place in the last eight years. 

He is accompanied by a retired archeology professor, Kirit Mankodi, with whom he sometimes works, but the latter has helped to reclaim a much smaller number of antiquities – only two over the same period.

The efforts of Kumar and other amateur detectives is commendable, yet their activities have also exposed a few worrisome legal and ethical issues. If the stolen item is not too old, it should be returned. 

However, how do we address the situation of artwork taken from a country in the distant past? Do people who were never the rightful owners have the right to request it back? Who will be held responsible if the art is neglected again once it has been given back?

An image depicting a spot can be seen here. It has a vivid red background with a white circle in the centre. The circle has a blue outline with a yellow stripe running down the middle.

Kumar found repatriating the androgynous deity to be both exciting and humbling, as it showed him that without his help India’s gods would stay outside the country. 

He remembered Vaman Ghiya, an art dealer whose arrest in 2003 revealed his history of smuggling in excess of twenty thousand antiquities. 

This made Kumar furious, as he realised how many artefacts were dispersed due to the bureaucratic inactivity and the evidence of illegal procurement. 

As a result, he and Anuraag Saxena, an ex-investment banker in Singapore, began the India Pride Project in 2014 with the stated goal of “bringing our gods home” and gathered other nationalists who shared the same ambition.

Saxena and his group have two intentions: to raise awareness and to prick the conscience of people who have become accustomed to stealing. 

They carry out demonstrations in places like the British Museum, where they take pictures of twenty Indian artefacts with speech bubbles that read “Help!!! 

The Brits have kidnapped me!”, “I’ve been snatched, sold, paraded, and shamed,” and “Ask yourself: How did I get here?” in order to make a statement. The protests began in 2018 and continue today.

Kumar is the leader of a covert team of volunteers who pretend to be purchasers of artefacts at auctions in Amsterdam, London, and New York, then supply him with photos of possible artefacts to be returned. 

He jokingly refers to his team as his “Avengers” and pins the pictures on his bedroom wall until his wife removes them. He spends hours examining the pictures in an effort to identify them, and if he succeeds, he looks for proof of their origin to justify their restitution. 

Kumar then provides this evidence to Indian diplomats in the country where the relic was found in conjunction with Delhi’s antiquities authorities.

Kumar jokingly compares himself to Robert Langdon from The Da Vinci Code due to their lack of physical fitness and great memories. 

He claims to have memorised a plethora of out-of-print art history books, organising them according to his own mental algorithm that progresses through style, region, period and dynasty. 

This system helps him spot tiny correspondences between the references and artefacts he encounters in auctions and museums. 

He describes this as a game, saying “other people play UNO; I play with idols.”

Kumar believes his most noteworthy likeness to Dan Brown’s protagonist is their independent stance against a powerful, clandestine cabal. 

“Much like Langdon, I am not intimidated to challenge the mafia, though I do it without any governmental backing”, he states, “and I encounter a great deal of bureaucracy.”

Repatriation requests have been around since as far back as 1936, when the oba of Benin asked for the return of artefacts taken by the British in their 1897 attack on Benin City. This was followed by a surge in requests during the 1960s and 70s, when African countries gained independence. 

Western museums and their imperial powers typically disregarded such demands, going as far as to not ratify the UNESCO convention that prohibited the illegal trade of cultural property until much later. 

This was summed up in the 2002 “Declaration on the Importance and Value of Universal Museums”, which was issued by the directors of the British Museum, the Louvre, the Prado, and fifteen other institutions, claiming that repatriation requests.

 While legitimate, would reduce the “diverse and multifaceted” collections of Western museums and thus be a “disservice to all visitors”.

Recently, the call for repatriation has become a global movement, driven by strong political and intellectual forces that dispute the stories told by museums about themselves. 

Advocates of repatriation do not view museums as benign repositories that acquired the artefacts they possess by chance. 

Rather, they feel that these institutions were created by imperial powers to propagate white supremacy, showcasing “superior” Western artefacts alongside relics stolen from subjugated cultures they had destroyed. 

Dan Hicks, an archeologist and curator, said in his book The British Museums: The Benin Bronzes, Colonial Violence and Cultural Restitution that “the museum is to empire what the border is to the nation state”. 

Supporters of the movement are advocating for transparency, beginning with the return of cultural items taken during colonisation. 

These items were often taken by means of robbery, aggression or deceit and keeping them denies formerly colonised people, including indigenous communities, of their heritage which is an integral part of their identity. 

In 2018, the campaign achieved a major victory in the form of a report commissioned by French president Emmanuel Macron. 

The report revealed that over 90 percent of African cultural artefacts are located outside the continent and recommended that thousands of objects acquired during the colonial period be swiftly and permanently returned. 

This action has caused two other imperial countries, Germany and the Netherlands, to take similar measures.

Leading directors at the world’s biggest museums anticipate a “horror scenario” if demands for repatriation are met: their collections could be stripped rapidly. 

Despite the fact that there is no tangible connection between the ancient cultures and the current ones, nor any traceable descendants of the rulers, the directors do not deem repatriation as a just cause. 

They say that some pieces were given to colonial officers or missionaries, and not taking them back might be in the best interest of the relics themselves.

 This was expressed by the Musee du Quai Branly’s first indigenous director in an interview with the New York Times in 2020: “I’m not in favour of objects being sent out into the world and left to rot.”

It is without doubt that the future of old artefacts, regardless of whether they are in the possession of museums, dealers, or auction houses, comes down to one particular fact: their provenance, or the record that demonstrates their ownership timeline. 

These details, or their lack thereof, can determine if an object is suitable for repatriation–if it left the origin country post 1970 when the UNESCO Convention was executed, or if it was wrongfully taken from its original owners. 

Also, a detailed, uncomplicated provenance can be beneficial to a museum that desires to keep a relic. Unfortunately, only a small percentage of artefacts stored in museums or available in the art market possess a carefully researched ownership record.

When it comes to the reasons behind this, it depends on who you ask. According to Kumar, it is merely a case of exploiting a weak system by smugglers and those who possess the collections. 

“Generally,” he remarks, “they were aware that it was not an innocent purchase made in good faith, but a freshly stolen item.” 

On the other hand, Victoria Reed, curator of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, believes it is a result of the costly research required for provenance, which only came about in the late ’90s as a consequence of certain cases involving illegally acquired works, including those of the Nazi regime during World War II. 

Before then, the process of acquisition was based on a “sort of gentleman’s agreement,” Reed states, “where you knew the dealer, believed in the dealer, the dealer would provide a good item, and if it had a remarkable history, we would inquire about provenance.”

Despite this, it is widely accepted that numerous of these documents are completely fabricated, with the sole purpose of legitimising items for museum curators and private collectors.

Erin Thompson, a specialist in art crime, has noted that many antiquities are from nations where the background to their excavation and ownership is either unknown or unknowable. 

This can lead to the possibility of fake artefacts being acquired by museums, and also the loss of information about where and when the object emerged or was made. According to Thompson, “The focus on preserving these collections has diminished their value.”

Gazing at the photos on his wall, Kumar sometimes daydreams of being alone, pitted against a host of foes consisting of burglars, shady vendors, and unscrupulous experts.

 If one individual were to come close to symbolising this shadowy foe, it would be Pratapaditya Pal, an authority and curator who designed the Los Angeles County Museum of Art’s vast collection of Southeast Asian art. 

For more than four decades, Pal has served as a consultant to several private collectors, including the canned-food magnate Norton Simon, who reached an agreement with the Indian government in 1976 regarding a Chola bronze of Nataraja.

The deity Shiva’s dancing form–which had gone missing from a South Indian temple two decades prior. 

Simon notoriously stated to The New York Times , “Hell, yes, it was smuggled. In the last two years, I invested between $15 million and $16 million in Asian art, and most of it was smuggled.”

After a long exchange, I spoke with Pal on the phone. He made it clear he was not in favour of repatriating art and compared it to the abortion debate in the US. 

He was pleased to see art from India being kept and displayed in the North and argued that repatriation would lead to these works facing a dismal conclusion. 

He then posed the query of where repatriated works would be stored, citing the example of the oldest museum in Asia in Calcutta which had inadequate display and storage.

In the antiquities world, Pal’s position is quite outdated. During his retirement, he wrote a series of nostalgic essays focusing on his own experiences of socialising with wealthy “pucca gentlemen” collectors who had a strong appreciation for ancient Indian art. 

He fondly remembers the “extraordinary omnium gatherum” of ritual Indian art that filled the homes of his affluent acquaintances on the Upper East Side.

Kumar is distinctly revolted by Pal’s nonchalant attitude. He believes that the work of curators like Pal, who help museums in wealthier countries collect artefacts, is not a sign of respect for these sacred objects. 

To him, it is like a desecration to display them in galleries and museums, with onlookers posing with them and champagne glasses in hand. “It is defilement,” he states. A Nataraja should not be treated as a mere decoration, he explains. 

He then went on to reminisce about his ancestral village, where he had seen a priest rush from his home to the temple with a bowl of rice, worried that God would go hungry. 

The priest would then wake Him up, bath Him, dry Him, and dress Him in fine silk, flowers, and diamond necklaces. “Once you have witnessed this,” he adds, “you would not want to see Him displayed without the proper rituals.”

Kumar clearly despises individuals like Pal. However, I noticed the similarities between them: they become quite eager when they think they can get their hands on the gods, regardless if they are working on behalf of a nation or an organisation.

They both tell stories of intense, nearly compulsive chasing; and they both wax lyrical about the magnificence of the relics that they seek. Furthermore, both are proud of their diligent effort, knowledge and deep dedication to their contradicting work.

An image depicting a glowing yellow spot can be seen. The shape of the spot looks to be circular and is emitting a bright light.

Kumar is delighted that many sculptures have been repatriated to India, with the Idol Wing confiscating hundreds from museums and private collectors. 

He believes these icons should be in their place of origin. Pal, the curator, however, has a gloomier view – the sculptures are likely to end up in storerooms, “just like the bronze Nataraja that our country spent millions of dollars to return in 1986. 

It was a famous case, yet now it cannot be seen anywhere.”

In August 2019, I made a visit to the androgynous Shiva that had been residing at an “icon centre,” a shelter for repatriated artefacts, located in Kumbakonam, Tamil Nadu, for the past five years. 

Upon entering through the temple’s tall doorway, I was met with vivid stucco gods adorning cows, rats, and peacocks and encircled by romping demiurges, sages, and princes. 

A Tamil film melody emanated from a tire shop nearby, and a flower seller, who had fallen asleep beside a cushion of jasmine and rose garlands, was at the entry.

I ventured into a sun-drenched courtyard and queried a nearby priest for the whereabouts of the temple’s administrative office. He gestured towards a small chamber, where a handful of bureaucrats were sipping filter coffee.

 When I inquired about the androgynous relic, the accountant among them vigorously shook his head. He informed me that the idol was “engaged in a court case” and thus out of bounds for viewing. “So nobody can visit?” I asked. 

“It’s an off-limits area, not a museum,” he answered, adding that “ordinary people” were not allowed in. “What about art scholars?” “No chance. No possibility,” he said.

I ventured to the building where the relic was held, a low-slung structure painted a petroleum green that was reminiscent of a bank vault. The entrance had a retractable security grille with two padlocks, and a heavy door with yet another padlock. 

Twice a week, a security guard grants access to a priest and two accountants, who are armed with mops and brooms, to the over a hundred repatriated relics, which are kept unclothed due to fire hazards. 

The accountants clean and dust while the priest performs a brief ceremony, without artefacts such as lamps, oils, or ash, in the general direction of the statues. “It’s just a ritual,” one of the accountants informed me. “Not to see, not to touch.”

Without having seen any of the idols, I departed, not sure of how to feel. It was an unfortunate destiny for statues that had been exhibited to the public, admired and respected by countless people.

 I noticed the possibility of a compromise, one in which artefacts that are significant in terms of culture and religion are returned with the assurance of caretakers to retain them properly, and other artefacts remain in their places, where they can be appreciated, rather than disappearing into a large storage room.

In November, a few months after my visit, I came across a report about a thousand confiscated wooden and stone relics that were thrown in the backyard of the Idol Wing’s Chennai branch. 

These artefacts included temple chariots and sculptures of nymphs and gods, which had been exposed to the elements after multiple monsoon seasons and bird droppings. 

It seemed that these items were stuck in between two lives: once being ritual objects, then transitioning to valuable commodities through theft or grey market transactions, often for display in a collector’s home or a museum.

 However, the act of confiscation, albeit legal, caused them to shift back to their original status, meaning they could no longer be exhibited.

Kumar is not disheartened about the fate of these artefacts. He wishes for them to be restored to their original temples, but in the meantime, he is content with them being in a dismal backyard. “It doesn’t matter,” he adds. “

They were not better off in a wealthy person’s bedroom in Europe. Furthermore, these sculptures endured four hundred years of Islamic conquests. The line of their thousand-year history was only broken by greed, however, they have survived. They will remain forever.”

It is evident that online learning has become an increasingly popular way to receive education due to the convenience it offers. More and more people are taking advantage of this modality as it allows them to access educational materials from any location and at any time. 

The ability to take classes remotely has made it easier for people to pursue educational opportunities that may have been previously unavailable to them.

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