Earlier this month, some of Netherlands’ most famous museums, including Rijksmuseum and Tropenmuseum, supported a report proposing the repatriation of thousands of works of art to their country of origin, where they were forcibly taken from during colonial times.
“If it doesn’t belong to you then you must return it,” said lawyer and human rights activist Lilian Gonçalves-Ho Kang You, chair of a committee that produced a restitution report for the Dutch government.
While repatriation of colonial-era objects in European museums has often been under discussion and recurrent demand for their return raised, the Black Lives Matter movement has brought attention to the issue once again.
We look at the various parameters related to the subject, especially in the context of India, that has been asking museums world over to return artefacts taken away during colonisation or illegally post independence.
What India wants from the Netherlands
With museums from the Netherlands promising to return over one lakh artefacts looted from Sri Lanka and Indonesia, there is demand in Hyderabad that the Dutch should also give India 17th century miniature paintings from the erstwhile Golconda kingdom. There are also appeals for the return of a royal charter of the Chola kings, lost 300 years ago from Tamil Nadu, and now at the Leiden University in the Netherlands.
Some objects that have found their way home
In recent times, several significant cultural artefacts have returned to India from across the world. Here are some:
From the UK: Last month, Britain returned three 15th century idols of Lord Ram, Lakshman and Sita to India. Stolen from a temple built in the Vijayanagar period in Tamil Nadu, they were reportedly voluntarily handed over to the British police by a UK-based collector when he was informed that they had been stolen from India.
While this year also saw the handing over of Natesha Shiva statue stolen in 1998 from the Ghateshwar temple in Baroli, Rajasthan, to the Archeological Survey of India, in 2019, two antiques – a 17th century bronze idol of Navaneetha Krishna and a 2nd century limestone carved pillar motif — were also returned to India. The Indian High Commission also received a 12th century bronze statue of Gautam Buddha in 2018.
The US: In August, this year, US authorities returned a set of antiques to India, including a limestone relief of Shiva and Parvati and a marble Apsara.
In 2018, two 12th century antique statues — a Lingodhbhavamurti granite sculpture and a sculpture depicting Manjusri, bodhisattva of wisdom — were handed over to India’s Consul-General in New York.
In June 2016, during Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit, the US returned over 200 cultural artefacts estimated at $100 million to India. Among others were religious statues, bronzes and terracotta pieces, including a statue of Saint Manikkavichavakar from the Chola period stolen from the Sivan Temple in Chennai. Majority of the pieces were seized during Operation Hidden Idol, an investigation initiated by the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s Homeland Security Investigations in 2007, leading to the arrest of art dealer Subhash Kapoor in the smuggling racket.
Australia: The Australian Government returned three “culturally significant” artefacts to India in January 2020 — a pair of door guardians from the 15th century, from Tamil Nadu; and a sculpture of the serpent king, from Rajasthan or Madhya Pradesh, made in the sixth to eighth centuries.
In 2016, National Gallery of Australia returned three antiquities to India, following the significant 2014 return of two valuable and ancient statues — a Nataraja reportedly bought from Kapoor in 2007 and a 1,000-year-old stone sculpture of Ardhanariswara. In 2014, Australia also reportedly initiated an internal audit of the ownership histories of its ancient Asian objects.
A gallery for returned artefacts
Last year, over 190 antiques confiscated and retrieved by India went on display at a museum gallery in the Purana Qila complex. This includes a standing image of Sridevi from the Chola dynasty period that was seized by the US from Kapoor, a marble sculpture of Brahma and Brahmani stolen from a museum at Patan and recovered from London in 2016, and a 10th century sculpture of Durga as Mahishasuramardini stolen from Uttarakhand in 2018.
National treasures India wants Britain to return
There are several significant national artefacts that India has been pressing to be returned from across the world, especially from the UK. Topping the list is the world famous Kohinoor Diamond. On display in the Jewel House at the Tower of London, Pakistan, Iran and Afghanistan have also laid claim to the Kohinoor. Likewise, both India and Pakistan want the return of Tipu’s Wooden Tiger, currently on display at a London museum.
Reportedly shipped to England in 1861, India also wants Britain to return the 7.5-foot tall Buddha statue on display at the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery, and the throne of Maharaja Ranjit Singh taken away by the British as “state property” when Punjab was annexed in 1849.
The ASI had also appealed for the return of limestone carvings known as the Amaravati sculptures, that once formed the railings and gateways around an ancient Buddhist stupa in Guntur, Andhra Pradesh, and a four-foot high 11th century white marble statue of a goddess from Dhar.
British stand on India’s Demands
During a visit to India in 2013, when asked about restitution of the Koh-i-Noor diamond, then British Prime Minister David Cameron, had stated he did not support “returnism” since this would empty British museums.
Earlier this year, Subrahmanyam Jaishankar, Minister of External Affairs of India, reportedly stated, “I have a natural desire to see as many things which rightfully belong to India back in India.”
In June, another plea was initiated when the British Museum tweeted that it stood in “solidarity with the Black community throughout the world”. Several noted that it should return the contested objects to former colonies.
Also in Explained | Why Netflix film ‘The Trial of the Chicago 7’ is significant
📣 The Indian Express is now on Telegram. Click here to join our channel (@indianexpress) and stay updated with the latest headlines