Will the tenth-century Mahishasurmardini remain in Delhi as a story of theft and recovery or will it find its way back to its home in J&K?
For art enthusiasts and culture aficionados it was a moment of great joy when the German Chancellor Angela Merkel brought with her to India the tenth century statue of Durga. The grey market as we all know is big and areifacts not just from India but also around the world are stolen, lost and then found in galleries, private collections and museums decades later. Though UNESCO has a 1970 Convention on “Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property”, with 129 countries signed in, unfortunately not much has been achieved to tame the growing grey market.
The stealing and selling of areifacts, which was rampant in the 20th century when neither such instruments existed nor was there enough awareness, has resurfaced today in a new avatar. As new wars broke out in the 21st century in Iraq, Afghanistan and now in Syria, looting of museums and archaeological sites began in the name of destruction of conflicting beliefs. Countries affected by natural disaster like Haiti and Nepal became increasingly vulnerable to theft by art dealers after the earthquakes. The National Museum of Iraq was vandalised and looted in 2003, archaeological sites and monuments were demolished in Afghanistan during the war and Syrian sites are being demolished, plundered and looted as we speak.
Perhaps some would argue that there is nothing new about the plundering in war; histories of war have recorded details of the plunder that each warrior undertook. Later, in the days of colonisation, a different kind of syphoning off took place in the “commonwealth countries” when cultural properties were transported and found place of pride in thrones, crowns and collections of the respective royal families ruling the nations.
The move by the German Chancellor, therefore needs to be lauded, it sends a strong statement to not just those delving in the theft and looting of cultural property but also to those who continue to debate the return of areifacts that were acquired more than half a century ago. In the wake of the Syrian war when the country’s treasure is being illegally excavated, looted and smuggled, this would come as a huge support to those who are working towards recovering the lost items.
One may recall the case of the National Museum of Iraq, which sent out a word in the community to return the looted treasure and how they managed to recover it from mothers returning what their sons had stolen. areifacts surfacing in garbage bags or finding their way on the Museum shelves, the whole community being involved in bringing back the treasure. It was almost a movement and much was recovered without major raids being made. However, this effort was made soon after the pillaging took place, when the areifacts were still in the country and in the hands of the people who still attached their identity to those items.
The case of Syria and areifacts such as the one brought back by the Chancellor is different. Once smuggled out, they become a precious item for sale, identity and religious beliefs are no longer attached to those dealing in its sale and purchase. International laws and procedures have to be adhered to, while seeking restitution. And areifacts in the grey market are often difficult to track and mange to slip out.
It is for this reason that most of the areifacts that are pillaged from museums, archaeological sites, libraries or galleries do not find their way back to the place of origin. It, therefore, also remains to be seen whether Mahishasurmardini will remain in Delhi as a story of theft and recovery or will it find its way to its home in Jammu and Kashmir to tell the story of the victory of good over evil.
By SHAGUNA GAHILOTE | @sgahilote