Anuraag Saxena© Getty Images

Meet The Man Who Is Bringing Home India’s Stolen Art From All Around The World

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Vishwaveer Singh

Based in Singapore, Anuraag Saxena founded India Pride Project (IPP) with one sole aim in mind — to identify and bring back many of the statues that had been stolen, smuggled and sold on the international market, for sometimes millions of dollars. The trade in Indian art, particularly temple statues, Chola bronzes and other items of holy significance, had reached such a crescendo that at one point, the government had to step in to curtail it. This plague of sorts has now been stemmed, but not entirely annihilated. With the arrest of such smugglers as Subhash Kapoor in 2011, the world has become aware of the growing problem and finally started creating laws and reforms to curb this widespread abuse. Saxena has been steadily involved in creating this community of like-minded individuals, who campaign en masse to create awareness and pressure authorities the world over in this very pursuit. Here’s a look at our tête-à-tête with our antithesis to Indiana Jones.

HELLO: Tell us a bit about IPP and how you started it. What’s the journey been like... The highs and the lows?

Anuraag Saxena: You know, I love this line: “History belongs to its geography.” A friend, Padma awardee Ananda Shanker Jayant, came up with this, and nothing describes IPP better. In short, India Pride Project is a volunteer network spread across the globe that does research and advocacy, bringing about on-ground action to ensure that Indian heritage comes back home.

H: With a lot of the ancient art and artefacts being repatriated, many are finding their way into godowns and storage facilities controlled by the Archaeological Survey of India. Do you feel they should be more appropriately showcased? Should they, in the case of temple statues, be returned to their respectful temples?

AS: Absolutely! Heritage belongs to the community it was intended for, not a showcase or a museum. Especially so with public heritage and faith objects.

H: What’s been the biggest challenge in bringing history back to its geography, as you called it?

AS: I think the biggest challenge was the terrible narrative around the cause. Most people didn’t even question ‘institutionalised kleptomania’, as I call it. What else do you call it when someone takes away your heritage without your consent, and proudly displays the loot? Shifting the conversation has been our biggest success. Ten years ago, no one even thought about the subject. Today, you have the party in power and the opposition raising the question in parliament. Today, you have media across the ideological spectrum, from Washington Post to the BBC to The Diplomat, all intrigued very positively. Today, you have a polarised world coming together and recognising this as a common cause. Getting people to see things the moral way has been our biggest challenge, and now our biggest success.

H: How much support have you received from the Indian government in your efforts to bring back some of these pieces?

AS: This really is a government-to-government effort. We are blessed to have a government that prioritises such a cause. And this is not a political statement. The numbers speak for themselves. In the first 65 years since independence, India brought back only 13 objects. Just 13, for a country like ours, whose main identity is our amazing heritage. Imagine! In the past 5 to 6 years, the figure spiked to over 200. Moreover, I’m proud that Prime Minister Narendra Modi chooses to personally be present at most of these return ceremonies. This is a huge show of commitment from the government. Very recently, a murti of goddess Annapurna brought back to India was sent on a ‘Shobha Yatra’ to Kashi. Culture Minister G Kishan Reddy flagged off the pilgrimage and Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath personally reinstalled the murti. These large visual displays are significant signals both domestically and geopolitically.

H: What’s currently on IPP’s radar? Are there any marquee pieces that you’d like to see returned home immediately?

AS: In a flatter, more transparent world, nations will have to give up the aggressive, snatch-and-scoot view of another’s heritage. Every object removed during colonisation needs to come back. The denial and whitewashing of colonial loot is as evil as colonisation itself. Our people have given their lives to protect their gods. It’s high time we paid our respects to their legacy and demanded these back.

H: China has taken a more aggressive stance when bringing back their stolen idols and art. Do you think India could ever undertake the daring feats the Chinese have, in extracting their antiquities from colonial institutions abroad?

AS: You see, the Rajinikant syndrome is overrated. We don’t have to undertake daring feats. We don’t have to be heroes. We don’t need the attention. We have to go about this quietly. Any action premised on noise and aggression is unsustainable. The smarter, strategic, sustainable way is premised on morality. That’s why changing the conversation is important. Building narratives is critical. Make a behaviour immoral, and nobody will want to engage in it. That’s what we are focused on. We’re ensuring the world reframes its lens to illegitimate stolen heritage. In fact, Washington Post had written a very interesting report comparing the Chinese and the Indian way, which everyone interested in the topic should read.

H: There’s a strong lobby of people wanting to regulate and legalise the export of ancient art. What are your views on this regulation and the people supporting it?

AS: Well, we do need regulation in place, absolutely, but nothing that interferes with the original purpose of these objects. I’m really open to conversations about this, as long as public objects maintain their dignity.

This story has been adapted for the website from a story that was originally published in HELLO! India’s June 2022 issue. Get your hands on the latest issue right here!