In Search of Our Missing Past

By Abhinav Sridhar

The phrase brings to one’s mind myriad images from the past -mythological stories that we were fond of growing up, images of kings and queens ruling the country, our rich and unique cultural heritage … our train of thought sees no end. One’s heart instantly swells up with pride as we dwell upon this, because we, as a nation, have a unique past incomparable to any other country!

Have you ever wondered how our posterity would be made aware of this extraordinary past? Will the efforts of our ancestors be valued a few years down the line? What remains to signify the identity of our nation? Pause, think, wrap your minds around it. Here’s some food for thought.

The 49th convention of the CIC kickstarted amidst a vibrant crowd at the Madras School of Economics, Chennai. The event was headlined by some of the best minds about antiquity and archaeology – S Vijay Kumar, Anica Mann, and Dr. G.Thirumoorthy. Badri Seshadri, CIC member, distinguished entrepreneur and columnist moderated the panel discussion. S Vijay Kumar set the ball in motion for the evening by humorously quipping that he’d left behind the concise version of his presentation. As the evening rolled out, I, along with the rest understood why.

Shocking revelations were made. Over 10,000 pieces of priceless Indian artefacts had been reported missing. They were replaced by poorly crafted duplicates. The originals had been stolen, packed away for display at popular art museums, auction houses and were traded in upscale markets. Vijay Kumar informed us about the existence of an “Art Mafia”, with over $10 billion being looted by operations in the dark side of the upscale market. These artefacts are a matter of pride to the nation and are a testament to our culturally rich ancestry. Anica Mann and Dr. G Thirumoorthy joined in as they revealed that 90% of art that had been acquired had been looted. “Much to the enthusiasts’ dismay, most of our Indian art lines the bedrooms of art collectors”, lamented the panel.

Law states that stealing from a temple will only carry half the penalty of stealing from a house. This was an Act passed in specific for Tamil Nadu, by our very own lawmakers. “Public heritage is being plundered by organized criminals and yet lawmakers make it easier”, bemoaned Vijay Kumar. He went on to say that antiquity trade was an evil nexus of criminal gangs and terrorist networks fenced by auction houses and traders. Questions were being asked, revelations were being made, the enormity of the issue at stake slowly started dawning on the people present within the MSE. A solitary question loomed over the audience, rapt with attention, “How can antiquity theft be curtailed?”

Actionable solutions/ takeaways from the panel discussion

1. We, the people, are accountable. Everyone needs to be a “citizen custodian”.

  • Cataloguing of antique items via crowdsourcing is a key protection strategy.
  • A simple photograph of the stolen artefact is all it takes to be able to retrieve it.Suggestions by the panel – Newspapers can run campaigns that offer rewards to people who click
  • Pictures with ancient artefacts. These kinds of triggers will promote citizen action in retrieving ancient artefacts.

2. The collection lobby is working hard to dilute the Antiquities Act that safeguards our ancient Indian artefacts. We need to work towards preventing this from occurring, awareness regarding this must be spread.

3. Google and Tata Trusts are currently working towards using satellites, machine learning, and blockchain technology to document antique sites of importance using GlobalXplorer.

  • GlobalXplorer is an online platform that uses the power of the crowd to analyse satellite images and to find, protect, and monitor archaeological sites.

4. Over 3,400 dedicated enforcement professionals have recovered more than one lakh stolen objects in Italy. Antiquity protection is indispensable and can be achieved in our nation as well.

“No passage of time justifies stolen Indian history”, concluded the distinguished panel. Artefacts from our past defines our national identity and shape the way our culture evolves over time. The problem at hand may not seem urgent, but it is akin to a Damocles Sword hanging over our heads. Immediate awareness and action are the need of the hour.

With that note, another eventful evening at the CIC came to an end. Panel members felt hopeful that they’d initiated change and provided sufficient intellectual fodder to the assembled gathering. The atmosphere was still abuzz with remnants from all the debate and discussion. I presume it would be the same until the next convention at CIC.

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