Dr. Gautam Sengupta: Director General ASI
A Conversation between Seema Bawa and Dr. Gautam Sengupta
SB: What is the ASI stand on the Antiquities and Art Treasures Act, 1972?
GS: The ASI stands by the Act. But we are in the process of reviewing the Act under the Chairmanship of the noted art historian and scholar R N Mishra. The review committee includes representatives from Museums, Collectors, Archaeological department and the Private sector.
SB: Given that many of the artifacts and antiquities are in the control of private players, how representative is the committee?
GS: We have tried to create a fairly broad based committee keeping all interests in mind. It includes experts such as S Neotia, Kalpana Desai and R Nagasamay who run non-governmental museums and cultural institutions and who are experts in the problems related to the retrieval as well as export of Indian Antiquities.
SB: When can we expect to see new Antiquities Act?
GS: The committee is working on the Act and the report is in the process of being finalized. We expect that in the next couple of months we should be able to submit it to the government for consideration.
SB: The current Antiquities Act was notified in 1972. What prompted the ASI and the Government to rethink the Act?
GS: The effort is to make the system simple, transparent and user friendly, especially the system of registration and to ensure the free mobility of antiquities within the country. I repeat and emphasize mobility within the country. And we need to ensure that there is stringent system in place to stop the flow of Indian antiquities abroad.
SB: An integrated data base seems to be essential not only for the restricting the illegal trade in antiquities but also for enabling research.
GS: Developing an effective user friendly data base is important and should not be difficult in this age of digitization and mass use of information technology when we have effective registration system. The review committee is seriously looking into registration. Many of the private museums have been exempted from registration. Registration is done by state government and not just by ASI and there is a shortfall of registering officers. The Archaeological department does try to register through its Zonal centres and state Archeological surveys.
SB: People perceive registration as a cumbersome and unnecessary process. Also there is a conception that any antiquity discovered by them has to be deposited in the local police station or archaeology office so there is an attempt to conceal the same.
GS: I would insist on the need for simplification. But still the process is fairly simple. All you need to do is fill up a form and provide three photographs of the antiquity; these need not be high resolution pictures just sharp readable images. In this day of internet, it is not difficult or time consuming. At lot of times people think it is part of our family inheritance so why bother to register. People must realize that there is no need to register coins. Mainly paintings and sculptures are considered to be antiquities along with jewellery and arms.
SB: Registration shall perhaps check the trade in fake antiquities that seems to be quite widespread. I personally was offered patently fake Chandraketugarh terracotta.
GS: Well no system can be one hundred foolproof, and we are confronted with the immense innovativeness of fake makers.
SB: Can a collector or buyers get an object authenticated by the Department?
GS: Well identification is a problem area, because when an object is brought in for registration, the registration officer may not be trained or equipped to correctly identify the object. There are only a handful of experts in the field who can unerringly detect a fake just by looking. And then we must not forget that given the vastness and variation in cultural production, one cannot be an expert in all antiquities.
As far as scientific approach goes, it is difficult to subject stone sculptures to tests to determine their antiquity. Terracotta can be given the Thermo Luminescence (TL) test but it is difficult to get all samples tested as the facilities and expertise are limited. In fact there is only one real expert in the subject who has an enormous load as it is. Metal composition and fingerprinting for bronzes is an elaborate and involved process. It can't be done at an hour's notice. In the end, most of us are not equipped to combat the innovativeness of the fake maker.
SB: But how can one stop the outflow of Antiquities to other countries where private collectors covet Indian objects?
GS: I would like to call this an illegal trade in Antiquities as under the Indian Antiquities Act there is no provision for the sale of objects abroad.
SB: Can the ASI put a stop to all such illegal activities?
GS: Contrary to popular perception ASI is a professional body not a law enforcing body. We cannot keep peace or adjudicate on matters; we work only according to professional norms. Without the cooperation of law enforcement agencies ASI alone cannot stop the illegal outflow of Indian Antiquities. As a rule, the Customs are very helpful. But India is a big country and collectors in villages are unaware of registration processes and requirements.
SB: There is an argument made by foreign collectors and auction houses that the Antiquities Act which prohibits the export and trade of Indian objects to foreign individuals is unfair and detrimental to the preservation of Indian cultural heritage. It is pointed out that often antiquities do not receive the care or protection or conservation required. To play the devil's advocate would it not be better to let some export take place so that at least these objects are preserved for posterity.
GS: Well this is an argument that is being made in the globalised world but if we extend this argument then nothing will be left in the country. This is a larger question as to who owns the past. If only rich nations have the right to other people's past then no country can claim its cultural past or present. As of today most of Benin bronzes are not in Benin. People of the country are the natural inheritors of India's past not individuals. In a civilized discourse the issue of Indian antiquities being permanently taken out should come up at all.
SB: So many of Indian artifacts are indeed already abroad. Of a particular series I was researching of the 11 pieces only three were in India.
GS: If we allow export of antiquities even those three won't be there. In fact the retrieval of cultural past is on the agenda of all civilized nations. We have also been addressing this issue, with some successes such as the recovery of Shivakashi and Pala bronzes. Of course there are stories of 'non success' also.
SB: Most of the important and significant pieces such as remnants of the Amaravati stupa were lost during the pre independent era.
GS: That is a difficult matter. But first we must stop the looting and illegal export to private auction houses and collectors. If we lose our priceless pieces then we will lose the contributing factor that attracts foreign and domestic tourists. There are long queues in front of Khajuraho site museum, what to say of National level museums. Ultimately Indian antiquities are the patrimony of the Indian people.
Image Courtesy: ASI