Around the world, the calls for western countries to return stolen museum artifacts and artworks—the cultural heritage of oppressed people plundered by colonial armies, looted during war, or stolen by powerful white men—are growing.
Just last month, thousands of pieces of art deemed looted by Dutch colonists could be returned to their countries of origin like Sri Lanka and Indonesia, after a colonial repatriation committee in the Netherlands released a report that advised complete “recognition and rectification of injustices” borne out of colonialism. Also last month, an activist attempted to steal a sculpture from the Louvre museum in Paris as part of his group’s campaign on how “African wealth should return to and belong to Africans.”
When it comes to India, the popular notion might be that it’s just the Brits plundered, looted and stole from the country—and with good reason too. The British stole $45 trillion from India, which is 17 times more than the total annual gross domestic product of the United Kingdom today. But there have been other countries which have played a part in the looting too. Canada, though, is making amends now.
India will soon get back its unique statue of Hindu goddess Annapoorna that was stolen from a shrine in the northern Indian city of Varanasi over a century ago and transported to Canada.
The statue is a part of the University of Regina’s collection at the MacKenzie Art Gallery. It was a part of the original 1936 bequest by Norman MacKenzie, the gallery's namesake.
While going through MacKenzie's permanent collection and preparing for her exhibition, it was artist Divya Mehra who drew attention to the fact that the statue had been wrongfully taken over a century ago.
The University's interim president and vice-chancellor Dr Thomas Chase had a virtual meeting with the High Commissioner of India to Canada, Ajay Bisaria, to officially repatriate the statue, on November 19. Other people such as the representatives from the MacKenzie Art Gallery, Global Affairs Canada, and Canada Border Services Agency were also a part of the ceremony.
“We are delighted that this unique statue of Annapoorna is on her way home. I am grateful to the University of Regina for their proactive engagement for the return of this cultural icon to India,” Bisaria said in a statement. He later added that the move to voluntarily repatriate such cultural treasures shows the maturity and depth of India-Canada relations.
According to Mehra’s research, it was found that MacKenzie came across this statue in 1913 when he came to visit India. His desire to own the statue resulted in a stranger stealing it for him.
The statue was identified as the Hindu goddess Annapoorna (the goddess of food) by Dr Siddhartha V Shah, the curator of Indian and South Asian Art at the Peabody Essex Museum.
Annapoorna is considered as the goddess who helps in strengthening one’s body through food and the soul through enlightenment. She is portrayed holding a bowl of kheer (rice pudding) in one hand and a spoon in the other.
“The repatriation of the Annapoorna is part of a global, long-overdue conversation in which museums seek to address harmful and continuing imperial legacies built into, sometimes, the very foundations of their collections,” said Alex King, Curator/Preparator, University of Regina President's Art Collection in a statement. “As stewards of cultural heritage, our responsibility to act respectfully and ethically is fundamental, as is the willingness to look critically at our own institutional histories."
The University and the MacKenzie Art Gallery decided to take the decision to return the statue that was stolen when they were alerted about the real story behind the same.
“Repatriating this statue does not atone for the wrong that was done a century ago, but it is an appropriate and important act today,” Chase said.
Questions about the restitution of stolen art have haunted museums for decades. Greece’s pleas for the return of the Parthenon marbles from the British Museum and the reclaiming of Chinese artifacts and resulting museum break-ins have been discussed for years. A saber once owned by a leader in Senegal was returned by France in an emotional 2019 ceremony. France has also said it will return 26 artifacts—just several of the thousands requested by Benin—to the country by 2021. Belgium recently returned the tooth of assassinated Congolese leader Patrice Lumumba to his family, and the remains of Saartjie Baartman, a Khoisan woman kidnapped and abused by France in the 18th century, were returned to South Africa after repeated requests in 2002. Regardless, a lot remains to be done on this front.
The Annapoorna statue is expected to soon begin its journey home.
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