Tuesday, October 19, 2021
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Bringing back our stolen sculptures – a talk by Anuraag Saxena


Anurag Saxena from the India Prides Project gave an INK TALK on the INDIA PRIDE PROJECT.

Here is the transcript of the snippet where he runs us through the work of IPP.

I am working on a secret project. So secret that this is the first time we are publicly speaking about it. Treasures have been looted for decades and centuries and we are working really hard with volunteers and governments across borders to bring them back.

But to really understand what we are doing today we have to go back a few thousand years to the Brihadeswara temple Complex on the banks of river Cauvery. Now, this was built by Raj Raja Chola of one of India’s biggest dynasties and it was so cool back in the day. Not that they employed priests, but they employed scholars, dancers, authors, philosophers; in a way it was kind of Ink talks of its time. The temple was so amazing that in 1954 when the Indian government issued a thousand rupees note they put a picture of the temple on it.

This is how the part of the complex looks today. In ruins! Dogs walk around where people like you and me should. But, why did this happen?

The reason is really simple.

The Nataraja, the main deity from the Garba Griha or the sanctum sanctorum was stolen and smuggled out of India, a few years back. And this was only one of many hundreds of thousands of antiques and treasures that have been stolen.

I won’t get into the details of how they did it but understand that raiders came in from New York, handpicked these statues, antiques, maps, manuscripts; smuggled them out of India, made fake papers in Hong Kong, sold them through a charity, through auction houses in London and the statue ended up in National museum of Australia, bought by the government of Australia not knowing that it was stolen.

Now there are couple of things you get out of being born in India.

One is that they don’t let you ask questions in school, so you kind of have to wait till the middle age to start asking them.

Two, every desi kid wants to be James Bond.

So some of us really got together and really started asking questions. Who is stealing these statues? Why and How are they getting sold? Who is buying them?

But, Most importantly, can we really ever get them back?

We did what any self respecting investigator would do, we went to Google, we went on to Twitter, and we started blogging, we started connecting with volunteers across the world. We said,”Hey, listen, you live in Sydney. We think there is a statue lying there. Could you take high resolution pictures and send it out to us, so we can make a match”. We reached to people in Germany, we reached out to people in India and really started getting the whole momentum going. Slowly, slowly, we had the best of the museums and art galleries across the world, realizing that they were sitting on what we can call chori ka maal or stolen stuff.

My friend, Vijay. He was the researcher who found the trail of Nataraja. He and I are not the only. There is a whole bunch of people, who are saying that let us put our time and effort. And, then the magic starts to happen when the right intent gets together.

First we had the international media waking up to the facts. Sunday times, guardian, New York Times and others, everyone started talking about it and started pressurizing their own governments. Everything was working well. We had museums realizing that they need to give back stuff, we had villains getting caught, we had media talking about us but then the statues weren’t coming back as yet. And that’s what we started to working within.

And the government had a role to play and we are really thankful that the current government, is realizing its duty.

Something magical happened September, 2014. Tony Abbot, Australian Prime Minister came to visit our Prime Minister and brought back the Nataraja.

That is when it started, Followed by Canadian Prime Minister, Stephen Harper (A 900-year-old piece of sculpture from Khajuraho temple) and very recently, Angela Merkel came to visit India and brought back another statue (The idol in Mahishasuramardini avatar that was stolen from a temple at Pulwama in Kashmir in the 1990s. The idol was spotted at the Linden Museum, Stuttgart.)

The real joy is not the political victory or geopolitical victory. The real joy is this.

The village that has lost its god, has lost its heart. This is how the village looks today once the statues come back.


Source-India Pride Project

Where are we now? 200+ statues ready for restitution but 70,000  are out there and we don’t know where we will get them and it is not just a volume game. Just in terms of value, here is one raid made in New York on one art dealer 100 million dollars, worth of antiques. Just, so you know how big the game is!

For centuries we have seen the destruction of culture. Nazis did it to the Jewish art. There are religious wars taking place all over the world, people are going with hammers and chisels, destroying it as part of cultural conquest. When hammers are not enough, they just drop bombs.

What’s different about us in India is this. We are not losing our heritage to terrorists, or bombers, we are losing to our own people who are doing it for plain, simple, Greed.

Ask yourself, are you willing to just sit by and let this happen?

Disclaimer-The lecture was delivered by Anurag  Saxena at Press Club of India.

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