A gripping documentary by Nikhil Singh Rajputt sheds new light on the global black market for antiquities, whose origins can be traced back to the imperial era, writes Bhumika Popli.
A lot of money changes hands in the global market for antiquities. But more often than not, deals are made in black money and they involve stolen artefacts. Antiquities that are smuggled from one country to another find buyers in the black market willing to shell out huge amounts in expectation of lucrative returns.
Blood Buddhas: Bring Back Our Gods, a documentary directed by Nikhil Singh Rajputt, has this dark underbelly of the art world as its subject. The film was recently screened at Delhi’s Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts, as part of a three-day cultural festival named Arth.
The documentary draws our attention to the illegal export practices in the antiquities market. It throws into relief the seriousness of this problem, and brings to the forefront the work of those campaigning for stricter regulations and a more effective policing network.
There are several challenges involved in this area. One of them has to do with the fact that many of these cases of theft took place decades, if not centuries ago. The serial theft of Indian antiquities, for instance, by the British imperialists. How does one right the wrong in such case?
One answer is by restoring the artefact to its original site. A prominent part of the film focuses on the India Pride Project, a group campaigning to bring back stolen Indian antiquities that are in foreign lands.
A well-researched film that presents facts and figures in support of its thesis, Blood Buddhas also shows how the black market for antiquities has financial networks extending to terrorist groups and armed insurgents around the world. “According to a 1989 report by the UN, since independence, India has lost 10,000 artefacts of which we have repatriated only 28 till now. Some of this theft is also funding violent activities such as all kind of armed insurgencies and terrorism,” says Nikhil Singh Rajputt, director of Blood Buddhas.
Member of Parliament Subramanian Swamy is featured in Rajputt’s documentary, making the same point. “The exposure to this truth came when I was the [Law & Justice] minister in 1991 and I was dealing with the LTTE terrorism in Tamil Nadu. I came to the conclusion that it is no more narcotics alone, antiques are much easier to do because all you have to is bribe people and get a certificate and then export or smuggle it out. And then circulate it in some foreign country, like Italy. And with a fresh bid, take it to London and auction it there,” Swamy says in the film.
Also featured in the documentary is Congress leader and MP Shashi Tharoor. He is of the opinion that museums in the United Kingdom have over the years become hoarding sites for stolen artefacts. “The problem is that most of London museums are chor bazaars,” Tharoor says in the film. According to him, pretty much everything in those museum has been looted from the colonies that the British conquered and ruled.
“How the heck can you be proud if your grandfather stole something from mine?… But we have countries doing it all along,” Anuraag Saxena, founder, India Pride Project, says in the documentary referring to the debate on stolen antiquities.
The documentary also touches upon the case of Subhash Kapoor, the New York-based art dealer who is now on trial for allegedly smuggling millions of dollars’ worth of antiquities.
The Delhi screening was followed by a panel discussion which featured many key personalities who have been engaged with this issue. Amish Tripathi, an author who specialises in mythological fiction, expressed his pleasure on seeing that a lot of people are coming forward to safeguard the country’s heritage. He said, “Civilisations die when the children of the motherland stop caring. It is fashionable to blame the foreigners but many of the crimes are done by our own people. For us, these artefacts are our Gods.”
David Frawley, an expert in Hinduism, talked about this very distinction between an idol and an artefact as perceived by people from various cultures. He said, “The Westerners feel that these are objects of beauty, cultural idioms to inform people what goes around in the world. But in the Indian context these are sacred objects which are energised by long periods of worships, special rituals. They are priceless, they are not simply works of art. And they are nothing that can be owned or taken over by some other party. They are not just cultural objects but a connection with the divine and the infinite. So they are also holding the soul and the spirit of India. They also sustain the sacred geography of the country. It is further cultural destruction to remove them from the country.”
Rajputt added his viewpoint by saying that the real culprit is the commercial demand for such objects. “It is a demand-driven market, like any other illicit trade,” said Tess Davis, executive director, The Antiquities Coalition. “These temples were safe for hundreds of thousands of years before there was a commercial demand for things that were never meant to be bought and sold.”
Anuraag Saxena spoke about how many countries are connected with each other through such lost heritage objects and how India can learn from the others. He said, “Art Crimes Database is a database run by the Interpol where nations can share information on artefacts, either located in their countries or lost by their countries. Here nations can look into each other’s inventories and law enforcement agencies can work with each other. But India refuses to be a part of it. But hopefully, if we make enough noise, India will choose to participate in this.”