Pradeep Bhagat, retired principal of Chandigarh College of Architecture (CCA), who is in the three-member team constituted to identify Chandigarh’s heritage furniture, in an interview to the Indian Express, offers suggestions to curb the unabating incidents of thefts of heritage items which are then sold by fancy auction houses around the world.
What reasons are behind the thefts of heritage furniture items from government buildings in Chandigarh?
I do not see the theft of heritage items only in the purview of Chandigarh. Such cases are reported from other states as well. In October 2015, a heritage bell was stolen from the premises of Indian Institute of Advance Study in Shimla. The condition of heritage buildings is also dilapidated all over India. Personally, I feel we Indians lack the sense of pride about our heritage items. We should be proud about our heritage legacy. At the same time, I will say there are several reasons behind the increasing incidents of theft of heritage furniture items from government departments in Chandigarh. The prime reason is improper security arrangements. Secondly, unawareness about the importance of these items even among higher officers of the departments, in which these items are lying.
Do you think there is a lack of interest on the part of the authorities concerned about heritage items in the city?
We cannot say this. Since 2004, when reports started emerging about how Chandigarh’s heritage furniture items were being auctioned in France, a number of preventive steps were taken and also implemented. These days, we know about all the departments, which possess heritage furniture. We have the inventory lists of thousands of heritage items. We know that there are around 130 drawings of furniture items, on whose pattern thousands of furniture items were manufactured. All these details emerged with the sincere efforts of local authorities. Indeed, a lot of work remains to be done. We should have a fool-proof system to protect the heritage furniture items. Coordination with central investigation agencies is also needed to be strengthened.
Do you think the steps taken by UT administration are enough?
There is always a scope for improvements. A dedicated Heritage Protection Cell is already here. People involved in thefts of heritage items are also being arrested by Chandigarh Police. The administration has managed to identify most of the departments where furniture items are lying, and also make a detailed inventories of these items. But we still have to do a lot of work. Look, half a dozen FIRs were registered in connection with thefts of furniture items since 2012. But not in a single case, we managed to trace the men, who purchased these items from thieves and transported them to France.
Personally, I believe, local administration has also failed to take up this issue in a proper way with the French authorities. Stolen items from Chandigarh are being auctioned in France. We only become conscious about these items in two situations. First: When these items were stolen from Chandigarh, and second: when these items are auctioned abroad. In between of these two situations, we do nothing.
A recent development, in which custom department seized a cache of 14 chairs designed by Corbusier and Pierre Jeanneret in Delhi in June this year has provided a sigh of relief. It was for the first time when Corbusier-Jeanneret designed furniture was recovered at home before it was shipped off abroad. This was the result of Heritage Protection Cells’ efforts, which is taking up this issue repeatedly with central agencies. One of the recovered chairs was reportedly stolen from Panjab University (PU).
What are the solutions according to you is needed to curb such theft incidents?
I have three suggestions. First: Reuse all the heritage furniture items after repairing them in a systematic manner and under the direct supervision of experts, who have in-depth knowledge of all the designed furniture of Swiss-French architect Le Corbusier and Pierre Jeanneret. Second: We should also explore the possibility of organising open auctions of the items that cannot be reused, here in Chandigarh after getting all the approvals from authorities and following all rules and regulations. These items were sold for thousands of dollars equivalent to lakhs of rupees in Indian currency at offshore auctions. Why can’t we auction these items in our country? Third: awareness at grassroot levels about heritage items is also required. The local administration should include at least at school level a curriculum related to the heritage of Chandigarh. If it is not possible, lectures should be organised in schools, colleges and at Panjab University.