Thoughts on The Idol Thief

Colonialism and imperialism, as the leftists would often argue, continues to manifest itself in many ways, even as the colonies are long gone. A fundamental manifestation in today’s times are these galleries, museums and private collections dotting the global art landscape.

Sujit Sivasundaram in his book Islanded’ had noted how the Britishers tried very hard to occupy the place of the Tri-Simhala Kandyan Kings of Sri Lanka by undertaking grand projects of legitimacy. One aspect of that was the blatant cultural appropriation by the British to show themselves as patrons of art through two primary ways – commissioning art works for their own glorification akin to the kings, and also to ‘restore and protect’ heritage of the past of the occupied lands.

Further, much damage was undertaken in many colonies – the Taj Mahal was also up for sale but for the pittance being received for its ‘inferior’ marble. One standard way of the British and many others was also to take away artifacts and items of great value to reduce them to displays in their own countries – many of the colonial officers themselves, during these postings, indulge in sales of exotic oriental arts to supplement their incomes from the various East India Companies or the parent governments.

Sripuranthan Nataraja (courtesy: The Hindu)

Even as part of the history and archaeology bodies, the bosses, often the European, had nothing but contempt for the heritage, or would take it away to their parent country as some kind of trophy, a kind of jewel in the crown that the colony represented. This was aptly represented by the character of District Commissioner Richard in Bhisham Sahni’s magnificent novel ‘Tamas, where a curator excavating a site nearby ‘gifts’ a Buddha head, adding to his already large collection.

‘They cannot take care of it,’ ‘it is better in our museums and collections’ – the attitude continues to fester even today amongst the patrons and museum curators.

The impacts of this new form of modern imperialism is felt across the antiquities market, evidences of which can be seen time and again. The antiquities black market is, as the investigative journalist Jason Felch had stated few years back, the dirtiest corner of the art world, and seems to find ways in washing its hands off responsibilities altogether.

While it is my personal opinion that old objects being either to museums or their source locations, one must admit that a sizeable market for such esoteric art does exist globally. Therefore, the least that these institutions could do is to ensure that there is responsible procurement, not just driven by greed and arrogance. The biggest weakness of the market practices, the process of provenance, is riddled with several weaknesses – the manner in which the antiquity of the piece and the investigation into its origins is shameful to say the least.

Circular referencing, fake letterheads and stamps, references to outdated or unreliable databases, fictitious art validation by historians or quoting imaginary conversations – the procedure is riddled with falsehoods and deceit at every step.

One of the biggest heist, therefore, happened with the action in the United States of America and Bharat independently on the notorious antique smuggler Subhash Kapoor, who had left no stone unturned in earning big bucks by looting temple antiquities and artifacts from various sites in Bharat like Chandaketugarh (which has not yet been verified). It was only in 2011-12 that a grip on him was obtained in the case of the theft of the Sripuranthan Nataraja and Uma Maheshwari bronzes.

A highly detailed account has been provided by S Vijay Kumar in his memoir like book, ‘The Idol Thief, which traces the fall of Subhash Kapoor through a convergence of independent actions and initiatives taking place across the world. It is interesting to note how Vijay also points out the rot present in the investigation agencies in Bharat as well.

The Madras High Court had last year observed ruefully the horrendous practices undertaken by the moles inside the Idol Wing of Tamil Nadu Police and the thoroughly corrupt officials of the Hindu Religious and Charitable Endowments (HR&CE) Department of Tamil Nadu to abet if not entirely aid the theft of idols.

The professional network of such smugglers within Bharat like Sanjeevi Asokan and the Prakashs, or the manner in which Singapore and Hong Kong have become excellent conduits for smugglers with impunity has been highlighted thoroughly, giving the reader a good introduction into the nefarious antiquities world.

Vijay Kumar’s own tryst with the Chola Uma Maheshwari at display in a prominent Singapore museum has also been discussed, and serves as a symbol of the tentacles that this hydra called Subhash Kapoor had spread across the world, looting not just our antiquities, but pushing a knife of greed and contempt through our culture, heritage and traditions in a single blow.

Source: The Hindu

The book, though an important one, leaves the reader highly unsatisfied. Editing could have been tighter, and the flow seems interrupted at several ends. On reading the book, you wish that the author had written much more lucidly about the entire Subhash Kapoor saga – the information presented therein about the various cases is no more than that already floating in the public domain.

However, it can be forgiven, since the author is not a full-time investigator or journalist, and has taken considerable pains to get this account out. Also, the India Pride Project, which morphed out of the efforts of the writer and many others, would understandably prefer to keep several things under wraps, and so can be forgiven, especially the identities of the various anonymous tippers, investigators and contributors who sit in the crosshairs of the antiquities market.

Several pieces have highlighted the role that antiquities smuggling has been paying in financing terrorism, narcotics and many other crimes to generate finances for operations, and this book is an important contribution to the discussion on ways to curbing this ever-increasing problem.

A philosophical question arising from the whole exercise is the manner of repatriation of antiquities. Morality demands that the countries go ahead and use diplomatic channels for obtaining clearances.

However, people do not necessarily want to wait anymore. It is an open secret today that rich elite of emerging economies are tapping into the same burglar smuggler network now to ‘repatriate their honour’ in many ways, with China leading the way. Is it correct though? Some in the India Pride Project disagree with the idea of theft on moral grounds; however, the frustrating grind of bureaucratic machinery adds fuel to the fires of impatience and anger seething amongst many.

The role of the countries of origin in these cases also leaves much to be desired, as shown with the Bharatiya government’s lethargy in taking back antiquities officially returned, forget requesting new discoveries.

I would recommend this book to all those who would like to know more, in an interesting, easy to read manner, about this shady world’s business. It behoves a more detailed examination though, but it is not an attractive enough topic for several ‘intellectuals’ to explore, and may not be there anytime soon. Till then, read through this and wonder where the Suthavalli Nataraja still hides.

(This article was published on author’s blog on September 15, 2018 and has been reproduced here in full.)


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