More than three decades have passed since the government enacted the Indian Antiquities Act in 1976 to protect Indian art objects and prevent these from being smuggled out of the country. This law brought in sweeping provisions to cover all objects of stone, miniatures, paintings, bronzes and terracotta, etc., including coins, and imposed an onerous responsibility on collectors and possessors of Indian antiquities.
One such provision obligates every object covered under the Act, which is more than 100 years old, to be registered with the director general of the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI).
The framers of the law clearly showed their lack of familiarity with the great art tradition of India and our ancient culture. There are millions, perhaps billions, of art objects that are more than 100 years old and, as per the rules, require registration. The draconian provisions require declarations such as when, from where and from whom it was purchased; at what value and if there is any doubt about the provenance; and further information about when the seller had got possession of the item.
At any excavation site, millions of objects are unearthed and taken away by small-time dealers to sell to whoever is willing. These objects change hands several times and it is impossible to go into the origin of each item.
The laudable objective of the Act was thus defeated in the very first year. All serious collectors of the time, including B.K. Birla, Gopi Krishna Kanoria, Jagdish Goenka and many others, including myself, used to collect and approach scholars who would interpret for us and educate us on the philosophy of the sculptures and bronzes. Scholarly discussions and regular research between art historians and collectors were the norm.
Interest in Indian art grew since the writings of Ananda Coomaraswamy in the 1920s. The country had the privilege of hosting scholars such as Rai Krishna Das, Moti Chand, Karl Khandelwala, besides foreign scholars including Bill Archer, Robert Skleton, Carey Welch and Stella Kramich. But ever since the Antiquities Act was implemented, there has been no new scholar because there is no patronage for them. There is nobody today to refer an art object to for an opinion. Earlier, the National Museum was headed by eminent personalties such as C. Sivaramamurthy, R.C. Sharma, L.P. Sihare and others. Now, we only see bureaucrats or ordinary scholars there.
The government should realize that those who wish to smuggle art objects do not seek permission from the government. They have their own know-how and channels. This has resulted in great masterpieces being smuggled out of the country. I am amazed when I visit some Indian art galleries in London and New York, and see rare objects of Indian art available for sale. It is beyond ASI to keep track of billions of art pieces.
The only way the government can reverse this trend of decline in interest in Indian heritage is to repeal the Act through Parliament. It should rationalize certain rules and guidelines in order to protect our heritage.
The Gold Control Act provides a close analogy. Gold was imported into India through illegal channels, but since the Act was repealed, there has been no smuggling of gold.
Likewise, such control is detrimental to the growth of scholarship, and in arousing the interest of genuine domestic collectors. It only encourages smuggling, since there are no local buyers. Indian art should be freed from the shackles of the government.
Suresh Neotia is chairman, Gujarat Ambuja Cements Ltd. Comment at email@example.com