Prime Minister Narendra Modi on September 26 reached India with 157 artefacts and antiquities that were handed over to him by the US during his visit to that country. An initiative called India Pride Project played an instrumental role in tracing these items, which were once smuggled out of India and sold in the international art market.
In an interview with Moneycontrol, Vijay Kumar, founder of India Pride Project, talked about the modus operandi of the smugglers and how his organisation traced the stolen artwork.
Tell us about yourself and what was your inspiration behind starting India Pride Project?
I am a native of Chennai, Tamil Nadu. I work with the shipping industry, that’s the day job. After about 15 years in India, I moved to Singapore in 2006 to head a large shipping line. While I was young, I was introduced to the amazing world of history, art and architecture by reading a book of historical fiction. It was a Tamil book written by the great novelist Kalki, it was historical fiction on the life of Rajaraja Chola. So, a lot of us enthusiasts, we got invested in understanding Chola history. At some point, I decided that my academic knowledge was not enough because I was not trained to be an artist, but even what I read in school was not enough so I embarked on a journey as a novice expedition explorer, trying to look at sites around India. And then when I moved out of India, I did a comprehensive survey of Vietnam, Cambodia and I started writing in Google Groups and Yahoo groups. I decided to start blogging about it so I created a blog called ‘Poetry in Stone’ basically like a dummies’ guide to Indian art, getting people like us to understand the nuances of Indian art and the Indic influence across South-East Asia. But luck would have it that this blog became quite a big hit even among serious temple goers and heritage enthusiasts that it gave me introductions to my core team. We've been running this since 2007. We gave it the name India Pride Project in 2014. But then, when we initially got together, it was purely an effort to document India’s heritage which we wanted to put up on the internet for free. We all had good day jobs so our decision was not to take any funding, rewards or awards, purely to volunteer for our passion; document India's heritage sites and offer high-resolution images for free to any scholar. So that was the objective. And then we started doing a lot of trips. And that's when, around 2007-08, we realised there was something amiss. Because what should have been there was not there. When we asked some questions, the answers were not forthcoming. That’s when we realised that there was something amiss. And we also realised that a lot of Indian art was openly auctioned in the art market. And technically the pipeline was supposed to be closed in 1970, because the UN statute comes in which prohibits the sale of cultural property. So even though the tap at the origin was closed, the markets continue to have their hands into the pipeline. And that's when we changed our focus to publicise the fact that India is losing a lot of artefacts to the dollar-driven collectors.
What started as documenting Indian artwork soon transpired into a full-fledged fight to get those artefacts back into India. Can you please explain how the artworks are stolen and smuggled out of India?
Well, it was still not a fight. I think that's where we started creatively using social media. So what we basically did was, thanks to the IT boom, every major city, every major capital had our guys there. So what we simply did was we just found focus groups on Facebook and Twitter. For example, we have volunteers. We have a group on stone sculptures, etc. and we will tell these enthusiasts, without even knowing that becoming volunteers for us, we would tell them ‘take an image whenever you see anything in the museum, or coming up for sale on a shop floor on auction, take a photograph and send us a photo.’ And for a few Facebook likes without spending even $1 we managed to create the largest collection or archives of dispersed Indian art the world over. What was missing was the last step where India was lacking. India did not have a proper loss register. So, most of the FIRs (first information reports) were closed as untraceable. The local public thought that our loss was never going to come back. So there was a loss of belief among the population, saying that the current custodians and law enforcement were not capable enough to solve these crimes so that's where, I think, India Pride Project filled the gap. We cracked cases going back to 1960. For example, the Nalanda Buddha, which was stolen from the Nalanda Museum in 1961. It came up for sale in the Netherlands in 2018. After so many years, our volunteers managed to crack it and got it back. We have the support of law enforcement worldwide, for example, we work closely with the District Attorney's Office in New York, Metropolitan Police, Europe Police. While there's a tremendous amount of goodwill, what's lacking is the proverbial last mile. The prosecutor is not keeping track, our law office is very slack in terms of heritage crimes. We are not looking at the financial crime involved. Most of these artefacts have been smuggled out of the country flagged as garden furniture, newly made brassware at very miniscule invoice values to meet the customs bracket. So they are shipped to intermediary holdings in Hong Kong, Bangkok and Singapore.
There are specific art companies that have warehouses in these ports, the buyers come, inspect, make sure it is genuine, not fake. And then the money is transferred back to the ultimate smugglers in India via hawala plus then these objects require any amount of restoration they are then sent to temporary spots like the UK where the restoration job is done and then sent to the market. Similarly, we found that a lot of money laundering happens to this.
If you use the art market to invest in art, it is such an opaque grey market that you can hold millions of dollars of art in safe deposit lockers and move from one locker to another, moving a million dollars with no records. ...we're talking about a high level of sophistication that comes in.
Unfortunately India is not propped up with the increased regulations of the art market, we still rely on IPC (Indian Penal Code) Section 380 which is basically housebreaking theft under which temple thefts are being classified. In principle what happens is all over India, temple theft and housebreak is classified as one, you get a maximum penalty of 6-7 years. I think there's a need for a large-scale revamp and tightening of breakage laws with stricter punishment. Plus, India needs to invest in a Natural Arts Squad like what Italy has so that this can be done in an organised manner.
Is there an estimate of the number of Indian art that has been looted and smuggled out of India? How many has India Pride Project identified so far and has succeeded in bringing back?
As per the CAG reports between 1970 and 2000, India had brought back 19 antiquities in all. And from independence to 2000 the same. So, for 30 years, India successfully brought back 19, and from 2000 to 2012, we got back 0. From 2012 till Sunday morning, the numbers stood at 157. So what we've done basically is, most of it has been seized, or is in the process. And I would say with this 157 we are already crossing 200 since 2021. And I would confidently say about 90 to 95 percent have been objects that have been identified by us or investigated with law enforcement (agencies) globally by us wherein we offered our expertise. So there are two ways we work. One is we receive inputs from sources. The other way also works in the sense that, for example, our volunteer receives an object, then we work backwards. What we do is then we reach out to our local volunteers in that state to find out if something was reported and we work our way around. The third way we work is these robbers, what they do is they take pictures, as soon as these are robbed and send it out to the network saying “hey I have this for sale and the dealers bid on it.” As per my estimate India is losing about 1.000 major works of art every year, when you say major more than $20,000 but of course for us they are priceless, but in the art market they do carry a value and most of them are unfortunately unreported thefts.
What is India lacking that makes it such an easy target?India has always been a target, I would say we are called a source nation. The Western world and dollar-driven collectors call us source nations. So they target us clearly because one has colonial roots, so the colonial mindset to display. So we have seen our murtis being kept in a swimming pool so there is an object... we should stop calling these returns as some benevolent gestures. These were stolen objects and they are forfeit to India. So somebody giving our goods back is not to be celebrated with the photo op. We just need to strengthen our systems to make sure that they should go back to locations from where they were stolen.