(An edited version of this piece was published in Vol. 23 / Issue 3 of ART India.)
Visions of the future draw sustenance from how civilizational memory is constructed. As a country that projects itself as one of the fastest growing economies in the world, India needs to take a serious look at how its cultural heritage is defined, preserved and circulated. This can happen only when scholars and practitioners put their minds together to build some consensus on the way forward, and the roadblocks that need to be eliminated. A promising effort in this direction was made by the Mumbai-based Piramal Museum of Art, which hosted a conference titled ‘Art Laws of India: Deconstructing the Antiquities and Art Treasures Act, 1972’. The line-up of speakers included Naman P. Ahuja, Aditya Ruia, Tasneem Mehta, Alka Pande, Annapurna Garimella, Ashvin E. Rajagopalan, Pramod Kumar KG, Tejas Garge, Sarover Zaidi, Vaishnavi Ramanathan, Girish Shahane, Siddharth Mehta, Pradeep Chakravarthy and Deepthi Sasidharan, among others.
This rare congregation of art historians, curators, art dealers, collectors, anthropologists, lawyers, archaeologists, museum administrators, cultural theorists and government representatives examined various aspects of the current law governing the free movement of art objects within and outside the boundaries of India. They had a productive set of conversations on August 9 and 10, understanding the law in terms of its historical significance for an independent India trying to recover from the damage caused by the British Raj as well as the Partition; and then articulating a critique based on how outdated, redtape-ridden and impractical this law has become amidst rapidly changing ideas about nationalism, cultural ownership and territorial sovereignty. There was a clear objective behind these deliberations: to document the perspectives of diverse stakeholders, and gather solid recommendations for a white paper on suggested amendments to the law that would be submitted to the Government of India’s Ministry of Culture.
The specific law under consideration was enacted with the intention to regulate exports of antiquities and art treasures, to prevent smuggling and fraudulent dealings, and to acquire these specimens of material culture for preservation in public places. The definition of an antiquity is wide-ranging but is framed broadly in relation to what is construed as being of national importance. It includes coins, sculptures, paintings, epigraphs, objects detached from buildings and caves, as well as articles illustrative of science, art, crafts, literature, religion, customs, morals or politics in bygone ages. Art treasures, on the other hand, are defined as works of art that do not fall under the umbrella of antiquities and are declared by the Central Government as art treasures owing to their artistic or aesthetic value. Such a declaration needs to appear in the Official Gazette, and it cannot be made as long as the author of the work of art is alive. It is illegal for any person, other than the Central Government or a third party authorized by the Central Government to export these antiquities and art treasures.
There seemed to be unanimous support at the conference around the need to amend this law which has hindered the growth of a domestic market for antiquities. At present, Indians who wish to own antiquities are expected to register them with the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI). It is a government agency that has the right to enter an owner’s house to inspect these antiquities. In the event that there is a change in the ownership of the registered antiquities, the ASI must be notified. The state is also entitled to acquire antiquities from private owners if these are deemed to be of national importance. Instead of encouraging individual citizens and the private sector to help preserve India’s cultural heritage, the law disincentivizes them. Licensing procedures involve extensive paperwork, and the urge to circumvent them has fostered illicit trade of Indian antiquities in international markets.
The speakers entered the dialogue through their own areas of expertise, demonstrating an appreciation for the complex universe of personal, social, cultural, economic, historical and political meanings associated with these artefacts. They initiated discussion on a variety of topics including frameworks to enable personal claim to cultural property, public-private partnerships for heritage conservation, codified rituals surrounding the disposal of temple objects that can no longer be used, provenance check protocols for new acquisitions, the archaic legalese of registration documents, intellectual property rights, cultural chauvinism strengthened by the media’s continued focus on historical wrongs, the tension between iconography and iconoclasm, and the role of digital databases in creating national inventories.
The conference ended with a commitment to wider outreach and public education on some of these issues through an exhibition that would focus on the nuances of the Antiquities and Art Treasures Act, 1972. It was rich with insights but also left some lingering questions. Can an artefact lay claim to being classified as cultural heritage if it becomes private property, and is not communally owned? Can we enquire into the patriarchal origins of terms such as ‘patrimony’ and ‘repatriation’ to examine how the ownership of heritage is gendered through cultural norms, property laws and inheritance rights? Can cultural heritage be viewed using a lens that rejects xenophobia, and celebrates human migration across borders? An honest engagement with these questions could inform new developments in policy, practice and pedagogy.