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Indian art: Lost and rarely found
By Indrajit Basu

KOLKATA - Vaman Narayan Ghiya's shop was just another downtown souvenir store in the Indian city of Jaipur, one of hundreds to be found in the country's many tourist-frequented cities, which are usually expensive traps where unsuspecting visitors are conned into buying something at several times its true value.

But besides owning a local nondescript arts and crafts shop in what is known as the "Pink City" in the Indian state of Rajasthan - a popular destination for foreign tourists - Ghiya had another flourishing trade: he was one of the world's top antique thieves. That is, until his luck ran out in the middle of last year when art writer Peter Watson made the police aware of Ghiya's activities in his stunning book Sotheby's: The Inside Story. Ghiya was arrested soon after on charges of stealing 20,000 Indian antiques and artifacts from various Indian museums, ancient temples and homes, and smuggling them out for sale through global art galleries, dealers and auction houses. In fact, he himself marked 700 pieces of ancient Indian art that were smuggled out to eventually appear in the catalogues of the prestigious Sotheby's and Christie's.

But although Ghiya's arrest revealed the reality of art smuggling flourishing under the garb of art and handicrafts exports - revelations which rattled the global art market as well as the Indian government's Department of Culture - little has changed in the country since then.

The ugly head of art smuggling resurfaced again two weeks ago when, in a daring heist, the medal of India's Nobel-prize winning poet Rabindra Nath Tagore was stolen from the museum in his abode in Shantiniketan - roughly translated as the abode of peace - in West Bengal. Along with the medal, the thieves took some of his "priceless collection" of personal effects that included antique jewelry, watches, paintings, citations and memorabilia. The police were helped by the top sleuths of India's Central Investigative Department, which happened to go berserk after the Nobel-medal theft. Incidentally, this is the first-ever known theft of a Nobel medal, and authorities are still clueless as to the whereabouts of the loot.

Indeed, as works of art and artifacts continue to disappear from Indian temples, smaller museums, art galleries, and from the country's numerous palaces, often with the help of local communities, India is fast turning out to be a rich and inexpensive picking ground for antiques. It is easy to get hold of a piece of Indian history: all one needs to do is visit the souvenir shops of Jew Town in Cochin, Udaipur and Jodhpur (both in Rajasthan), Agra (Delhi) and Benaras (Uttar Pradesh), and go "pssst" for antique miniature paintings or stone sculptures from a specific period or region.

Ghiya, for instance, was the mastermind behind a complex smuggling network. Folklore has it that Ghiya's men would hang around near temples and museums under the guise of being tourist guides, and any foreign tourist appreciating a piece of art, say a stone carving in a temple, was instantly offered a "plucking out" service for that piece, and transport to foreign shores, for a commensurate price, of course. Antique pieces also disappear regularly from tiny villages in India and travel by road to neighboring countries like Bangladesh, Pakistan, Nepal, Myanmar and even Thailand, from where they are shipped out to appear in the collections of the super-rich in Manhattan penthouses and London lofts.

Experts say illegal antique trading is flourishing in India because the country doesn't have adequate legislative clarity and/or its bureaucratic norms are too stringent, making adherence difficult. For instance, "middle-class homes are bound to have at least some items dating back two generations or more", says a local antique dealer. "The blanket rule is that all things over 100 years old qualify as antiques, and have to be registered with the Indian government. Where are the professionals to undertake such a task, or qualified to tender advice to households about the contents of their attic rooms?"

Moreover, the government, too, lacks priorities, say others. Admittedly, the government's apathy towards the protection and upkeep of Indian treasures is unnerving. "Millions of rare and antique pieces, dumped or displayed in as many as 659 museums across the country, may have had a huge significance in packaging India's history and culture," says R D Chowdhury, vice chancellor of the National Museum Institute, "but they are grossly undervalued in government's plans and priorities. Poor security arrangements in most of the museums reflect the sheer neglect of these jewels of Indian heritage."

According to Chowdhury, in some state museums, there is no security arrangement whatsoever, while in many others, there are no more than a few guards, who don't even possess the basics, like surveillance equipment. And most state governments don't allocate the necessary funding to support a modern security setup for museums within their states.

A good instance to highlight the plight of most Indian museums is the Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya (formerly known as the Prince of Wales Museum of Western India) in Mumbai, which attracts a million visitors annually, second only to India's famous Salar Jung, in Hyderabad. According to its director, Kalpana Desai, despite the fact that the museum was formed with an act of legislation, there is hardly an adequate security arrangement in place, and an application made long ago for a one-time grant "for enhancing our security system" from the state government, which provides a paltry grant of US$3,400 a year, is still pending. Desai says the museum has to run on a yearly fund availability of $460,000 - that comes mostly from ticket sales and other internally generated revenues - whereas, the museum requires more than $1 million a year to "run efficiently".

Yet another fact that aids antique smuggling is the sheer neglect of most private owners who possess antiques within in their families. A good example of this neglect are the exquisite havelis, palatial buildings owned by clans and forts that are centuries old, which lend splendor to the sandy desert state of Rajasthan, which is considered to be the treasure trove of India's colorful and exquisite cultural heritage. These havelis are adorned with frescoes and carvings, both intricate and exotic, which were crafted way back in the 18th century at the behest of nouveau rich local businessmen trying to outdo their neighboring counterparts. Today, most of these havelis are dilapidated, even bruised and battered due to "plucking out" by antique smugglers, and ignorant trespassers. This is despite the fact that some of these belong to the richest Indian business families like the Goenkas, the Dalmias, the Birlas, and their ilk.

Most of the havelis are either kept locked, or left guarded by a distant family member who, after a period of time, has claimed their ownership rights. Roadside vendors, too, have invaded the verandas of many of the locked havelis, while the interiors of those rented to commercial organizations like banks have been redesigning to suit their convenience. "Though a few have restored their havelis, most others don't seem to be interested," says Mukesh Gupta, project director of the MR Morarka Rural Research Foundation, which is engaged in the preservation of the "Morarka Haveli". With the state budgetary allocation for tourism being a meager $1.1 million, the least the government can do is to protect the heritage, if not promote it, he says.

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Apr 16, 2004

Indian art paints a global picture (Apr 1, '04)


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