india pride project looted artifacts
All photos courtesy India Pride Project
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Meet the Amateur Art Sleuths Fighting To Bring Back India’s Looted Cultural Heritage

From sting operations at art sales to cheeky protests at the British Museum, the India Pride Project is on a mission to hold museums and former colonisers accountable.
September 7, 2021, 11:10am

Four days a week, Singapore-based Anuraag Saxena advises companies on public policy and reputation management. His Thursdays, however, are reserved for a completely different kind of work: bringing stolen Indian art heritage objects back to the country of their origin. 

Saxena is one of the co-founders of the India Pride Project (IPP), a global group of volunteers who choose to contribute their uncompensated time, skills and energy to the restitution of stolen art objects to India. Formed in 2013 by Saxena and shipping company executive S Vijay Kumar (author of The Idol Thief), the primarily digital project currently comprises a core group of about a dozen members and 280 volunteers who pitch in ad-hoc. 

IPP volunteers connect with each other through email, WhatsApp and Zoom calls, in addition to their popular public social media handles. The volunteers are a true motley crew. In their midst is a group of mattress and hubcap salespeople from Tamil Nadu – who got together and contacted Saxena because they were frustrated by how little the state government was doing to reclaim its treasures – and a Bihari volunteer who hosts periodic litti-chokha parties with other Bihari friends to discuss what they can do to help the project. 

There’s also a volunteer who runs a small IT company in the U.S.; a young British-Indian techie who takes weekly IPP calls on the half-hour tube journey to work; a homemaker who translates IPP’s materials into Hindi to spread their message to the hinterlands; a diversity of researchers who contribute historical and architectural research in their focus areas; lots of young students, particularly law students. There’s even a New York-based cyber-security expert who helps the IPP follow the money on shady art deals, and uses his contacts to conduct sting operations at exclusive art gatherings like the Asia Art Week and glitzy private purchasing parties.

The IPP’s work is multi-pronged and involves research, awareness-building, legislative intervention, and advocacy. They’ve contributed research crucial to several successful restitutions of objects of dubious provenance, such as a 12th century Buddha stolen from a Bihar museum in 1961 and a 900-year-old Natarajan idol taken from the Brihadeeswara Temple in Tamil Nadu in 2006. They made headlines most recently in late July, for contributing research towards an investigation that ultimately resulted in eight statues (including a 12th century Chola bronze figure of the dancing child-saint Sambandar) and six paintings traced to notorious art smuggler Subhash Kapoor, being arranged to be returned by the National Gallery of Australia to the Indian government. 

Kumar told VICE how IPP researchers would go on documentation trips and notice that objects were not in the locations mentioned in guide books. They would also go to far-flung locations not properly documented by the Architectural Society of India in order to collect photographs and information. As in the case of the 12th century Buddha, they match images of objects they know to be stolen with objects seen in museum catalogues or public (and more “exclusive”) buyers’ catalogues, to prove that an object on sale or exhibition has been stolen. They would then get in touch with the concerned authorities in that country. 

Soon, the IPP began receiving requests for information from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and Interpol, particularly after these agencies began to prioritise blocking the supply chains of stolen art heritage objects due to their connections to money laundering. “They would get no response when they wrote to [official government machinery in] India,” he said. “We started cooperating more with them, and managed to spot a lot of recent thefts that were matched to dealers overseas.”

But what actually motivates a group of working professionals, many of whom have no formal background in art or art history, to spend their free time tracking down art heritage objects? 

For Saxena, it's all kinds of personal. “If you look at the industry that peddles heritage art, they strip an object’s emotional value away and sell it only for its functional or aesthetic value,” he told VICE. “I get emails from people from small villages, saying ‘we had this temple; when my grandparents died they did their shraadh (last rites) there; my parents got married there; but now the deity is not there any more; can you help us get it back?’ They don’t look at it as a national crime or a heritage crime; it’s a personal loss.”

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"If you look at the industry that peddles heritage art, they strip an object’s emotional value away and sell it only for its functional or aesthetic value." – Anuraag Saxena

This, Saxena says, is why he’s interested in bringing stolen heritage objects back to local communities rather than just the country. “If my community has lost an object, it doesn’t matter if it’s in a museum in New York or in New Delhi, it still isn’t where it was taken from.”

Kumar brings up an interesting distinction between objects like European paintings and the kinds of heritage objects most commonly taken from India. “[Calling] them idols is incorrect,” he said. “The chola bronze [figures] from my state of Tamil Nadu are called ‘thirumeni, which translates to ‘body of god.’ They are treated as living gods: woken up in the morning by singing songs, ceremonially bathed, dried, clothed and fed, sung lullabies to and taken to bed to sleep.”

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Shipping company executive, author of 'The Idol Thief,' and co-founder of the IPP, S Vijay Kumar

When asked by VICE whether the IPP is primarily motivated to work on the restitution of Hindu objects, the answer is a carefully considered but vociferous no. 

“This is the India Pride Project, so obviously we care about Buddhist, Hindu, Islamic, Christian, Jain and Sikh heritage coming back. We have to be faith-agnostic in our approach. But statistically speaking, because Hinduism is the predominant faith and has predated the other religions in India, India will have more Hindu objects taken away,” Saxena said. 

The IPP considers working on the restitution of cultural objects stolen after 1970 relatively low-hanging fruit. This is because the return of such objects (meeting certain basic conditions, like the filing of a police complaint) between signatory nations is already assured by a UNESCO treaty, under which cultural objects are immediately returned if the aggrieved nation can prove that the object was taken after 1970. India is a signatory to this treaty, while its former coloniser, the UK, is not.

Saxena believes that it’s time to radically shift the focus of the discussion towards the larger issue of decolonisation of museums, not just individual stolen objects. He points to movie characters like Indiana Jones, Tomb Raider Lara Croft and Brendan Frasier’s Rick O’ Connell in The Mummy when discussing how a certain kind of “kleptomania” has been normalised by Hollywood and museum culture at large. 

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Instead of nations proving to museums that the objects belong to them, as is currently allowed for by the 1970 Convention, Saxena believes the current conversation should be flipped on its head. “You tell us what’s legitimate in your collection,” he said. “The process of identifying individual objects and begging [a museum] to give it back to us is rather inefficient. For the amount that has been looted from India for centuries, we’ll keep doing this for a hundred years if we follow the object-oriented approach. Museums should [instead] prove to us that they had the consent from the community that the object [originated from].”

Lewis McNaught, retired director of the Mall Galleries in London and founder of returningheritage.com, believes that there’s a strong moral case to be made for restitution, no matter which country you’re from. 

“Obviously, today, if an army or a series of traders moved into a country that they want to develop and take over, it would be illegal to plunder objects of art, sacred objects, royal regalia,” McNaught said. “It appears the argument for keeping objects is that it’s acceptable to retain objects stolen under the same conditions in previous years. The moral argument [for restitution] is very strong, but does the moral argument overcome the legal argument?”

McNaught explains that national collections are governed by quite rigid and inflexible Acts of Parliament in the UK. “Take the British Museum – the British Museum Act is rigid in saying that they will not return items to source communities, except in a small number of exceptional circumstances.”

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“What’s interesting about the IPP is that they are working with the diaspora here in the UK,” McNaught continued. “Indian diaspora communities are beginning to acquire significant influence in British politics. The more they become key influencers in Parliament, the more likely restitutions to India will be.”

Pritesh Patel, a third-generation British-Indian and dedicated IPP volunteer, echoed McNaught. “We as a generation are established now,” he said. “As a young British Indian person, I see it as [participating in] a global conversation around decolonisation.”

Patel is a volunteer with a flair for the tongue-in-cheek, as seen in the novel protest he carried out at the British Museum and Victoria & Albert Museum in 2018. “We had these speech bubbles [saying things like ‘Help! The Brits have kidnapped me!’; ‘I have a right: to be where I belong’ and ‘Ask yourself: How did I get here?’], and we held them up against the glass panes the objects were exhibited within and took photographs. 

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An IPP volunteer carried out novel protests at the British Museum and Victoria & Albert Museum in 2018.

Cheeky protests aside, Patel makes a sober case for restitution while acknowledging how emotional the issue can get on either side. “In this post-Brexit world, the last thing I want is for my country of birth to be engaged in any antagonism with my mother land. So this very much is a moral issue for me. As Persons of Indian Origin, we don’t expect Britain to pay India millions of pounds in financial reparations for the wrongs of the past, but we do expect acknowledgement of the plunder, loot and exploitation.”

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"In this post-Brexit world, the last thing I want is for my country of birth to be engaged in any antagonism with my mother land." – Pritesh Patel, a third-generation British-Indian and dedicated IPP volunteer

But until that utopian dream is realised, there’s plenty that can be done to curb the illicit removal of art heritage objects from India, and to make a more substantial push for museums to return art objects to formerly colonised countries. 

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An IPP volunteer carried out novel protests at the British Museum and Victoria & Albert Museum in 2018.

The Indian government, meanwhile, needs to take heritage theft more seriously, Kumar said. “Frankly, if we had more support and stricter laws, if India was more aggressive, we’d be in triple digits [of returned objects] by now.”

As he points out, there’s currently little incentive for people to hand over to the government any object discovered at temple ruins or unearthed from the ground. 

“A lot of objects are currently handled under the Treasure Trove Act of 1878, which states that anything valued above ten rupees [around 15 cents] that’s found under the ground belongs to the government. The finders of such objects get paid a nominal amount by vassal networks, like Rs 1,000 or 2,000 ($13-27), and then most of these objects are smuggled out of India. The government should incentivise finders, perhaps by paying them some token value, or by honouring the landowners in whose property the objects were found by naming the site after them, or inviting them to national events like the Independence Day Parade.”

Saxena also believes that India should make it a part of every diplomatic conversation to take back what is rightfully hers. “If there’s guilt that other nations are dealing with, we might as well leverage it.” 

India also needs to invest in an agency that focuses on decolonisation, and education around the narrative of stolen heritage, he added. “This way, nobody will do this to us or anybody else again.”

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