WELL-KNOWN historian and epigraphist Dr R Nagaswamy, the first director of the Tamil Nadu Archaeology Department, has assisted in restoring numerous historic monuments. Having supervised excavations in temple towns to discover priceless bronzes, he was an Expert Witness at the London High Court in the now famous London Nataraja case in the 1980s, where he was described as “an unequalled expert in Chola bronzes” by the court, and was instrumental in bringing back to Pathur its famed dancing Shiva in 1988. Author of numerous books and the Kalaimamani award winner, the 86-year-old talks about India’s lost artefacts, misinterpretation of history and the need for more stringent laws to preserve our heritage:
Last month, you accompanied the raid team in Tamil Nadu during the arrest of M Deendayal, who has reportedly smuggled artefacts worth millions. Do you think his arrest, and that of Subhash Kapoor (New York-based art dealer under trial for running an international smuggling racket) mark an achievement for India, or is it too small a victory?
Deendayal worked from India, smuggled our ancient treasures, and was possibly linked to Subhash Kapoor. Many of the idols found with him are centuries old. But he is just one of the several people involved in the nexus. It was the American investigation that lead to the arrest of Subhash Kapoor, not ours. Thorough investigation should be done to arrest others like them.
Do you think we have the required laws for the persecution of heritage criminals?
We have the Registration Act (Antiquities and Art Treasures Act, 1972), but the implementation is not satisfactory. When the Act was passed, punishment was Rs 2,000 and six months imprisonment for not registering antiquities. But that needs to be amended. Today, one Nataraja goes for five million dollars. In the name of renovation, structures that need not be pulled down are being pulled down. Permanent irreplaceable damage is being caused and people should be punished, but our laws are not stringent enough.
What should be the role of museums if the idols belong to their original home and should remain there?
To answer this, we need to understand history. In the beginning of 14th century, in India, there was large scale invasion, some of whom felt that by destroying local region they could control better. That led to fear among people that their gods and goddess will be desecrated, so these were buried for safety. Some of them turned up centuries later, accidentally, while digging. In cases where they are within temple premises, the temple can claim they belong to them. But in places where there are no temples and the owner is not known, the Britishers decided to put them in museums. Another source for the museums were the damaged stone sculptures that were immersed in water years ago, and are now emerging due to drying up of water. In both of these circumstances, the decision to keep the artefacts in museums makes sense. But if the sculpture is complete and has an owner, it should be at the place where it belongs.
In your recent book Tamil Nadu — The Land of Vedas you have made an attempt to contemporarise the Vedas, with chapters dedicated to education and elections.
The education system propagated in the Vedas was very dynamic, it encouraged inquiry, not blind repetition. We need to reconstruct history by looking into our written material, both ancient literature and the inscriptions on the walls of hundreds of temples. This book focuses on the continuation of the Vedas, how the society centered around it through the centuries. In modern times, people talk about alternative history but there is no such thing. There is only factual history. History is in the life of people, their literature and art, and needs to be reconstructed from there.