Preserve our Heritage
HK Kejriwal's views on The Antiquities and Art Treasures Act, 1972
by Franck Barthelemy
HK Kejriwal, a philanthropist and life time collector, talked to me about the Antiquities Act at his Bangalore residence drawing room, surrounded by antiquities and fine art. His collection is probably one of the most interesting and precious collections I have ever seen in India. He is passionate about it. And always ready to share his passion with visitors, whether it is Warren Buffet or unknown curious inquisitor like me.
The Act is not perfect but does exist. It aims to prevent items of historical importance to be exported or traded without permission from the Archeological Survey of India (ASI). In principle, it is a good act. But it has a lot of lacunas. The main one is around the age. Many antique items are over 100 years. How can one understand what is of historical or cultural importance? There are very few people in ASI who are able to carry out such duties. In India, one can find antique items from 1st century to 20th century. We need experts who are aware and who can assess the importance of each item. And we need many more of these experts. For example, many of Jamini Roy's¹ paintings fall into the ambit of the Act. But Jamini Roy made hundreds of them. Do we need to protect all of them? Some of them? How do we make a choice? Moreover, there are a lot of copies around or supposedly copies whether we are talking about Jamini Roy's paintings, Moghul or Kangra miniatures, stone sculptures or bronzes. Who can assess the authenticity of those works? There is no staff. The Act is very difficult to implement.
Beside that difficulty, there might not be any interest for any governments to deal with antiquities because it is a concern for a rich country. It is a challenge for a country where the majority of the people has time to focus on culture and surely not a challenge for India, a country busy to fetch cloth and food to the majority of its people. The Act has a provision for pre-empting a sale for instance. Hundreds of sales are happening, nothing is pre-empted. So far, the government has never done it. Twenty years ago, it once recovered a stolen item from the USA. The bronze can be seen today at the Chennai Museum. It seems the country is not mature enough to fight for its culture at an institutional level. But who prevents the private players to do it? Who prevents the collectors to donate items to museums and raise awareness about the rich heritage of the country, a heritage that is at the center of many sales abroad? If you can afford, why don't you buy a heritage bronze abroad, bring it back to India and donate it to a museum to share it with your countrymen?
According to an article published in the Hindustan Times dated 10th October 2010, only two licenses have been granted to dealers since 1972. It seems that even the market forces are not really bothered about antiquities. Or could it be a way to say that few people are ready to deal officially with antiquities? It is fair to notice that nowadays, the market is more focused on modern art and especially paintings. Records are going higher and higher and capture the attention of the collectors and the general public.
So is it time to amend the Act? Why not? But for what? We still have to preserve our heritage to go abroad; there is a provision in the Act. We still have to keep track of pieces of historical value; there is also a provision in the Act. What can be added? A provision to authorize philanthropic collectors to bring back items to India? They don't need it. Those who want to do it can do it. A provision to donate pieces to museums? The museums' collections are always open to donation of items charged with history. Develop incentives to buy antiques? People who are interested can afford. There are better ways of using public money. Maybe the Act can be amended after another generation or two, when the country is ready to fight for its heritage in terms of finance and education. Why wasting time now to try to regulate a market where there might be two dozen known collectors with open books. It would probably be better to spend time raising awareness about art, generally speaking, in schools and universities. Doing so, the next generation or the one after, might be in a position to develop a sense of curiosity for antiquities. Scholars would then be interested to write books and circulate them. But at the moment, people who can spend are more into diamonds and gold!
Let's focus now on maintaining existing museums and making them interesting for the public. Let's organize debates and discussions about culture. Let's open new museums, private and public. Let's spread awareness about the Indian heritage. This is the way to prepare the next generation to discover an old and rich heritage. This is the way to encourage those with collections to share them with the public. This is the way to create passion!