Art of the Loot: Antiques & Repatriation

Art of the loot: Conversation with S. Vijay Kumar and Hussain Zaidi

Conversation with S. Vijay Kumar and Hussain Zaidi

MUMBAI: On Wednesday, August 29, 2018, Asia Society India Centre hosted S. Vijay Kumar, a Repatriation Activist and the Author of The Idol Thief, in an engaging conversation with Hussain Zaidi, Author and former Investigative Journalist, on the theft and illegal trade of Indian art.

Mr. Kumar began with an  illustrative presentation that provided confounding evidence on the number of Indian art objects that have been repatriated since the year 1972. He claimed that between 1972 and 2000, 19 objects were brought back into the country, however from 2000 to 2012 not one single object was repatriated. He went on to introduce the controversial case, Subash Kapoor, a New York based antiquities dealer turned art smuggler, who plays a pivotal role in Kumar’s The Idol Thief. He characterised Kapoor as the ‘Janus figure’ in reference to the ancient Roman God, symbolising duality. 

Mr. Kumar went on to discuss some of the most contentious cases in the smuggling of India idols. One that particularly caught the audience’s attention was the case of the iconic Suthamalli Nataraja, which was repatriated from the National Gallery of Australia in 2014. The case was a success, primarily because of the photographic evidence recovered from the French Institute of Pondicherry. Stressing on the need for a national photographic archive, Kumar described his personal experience as co-founder of the India Pride Project, a citizen supported archive.

In the conversation that followed, Mr. Zaidi spoke of the author’s ‘craft’ in investigative writing and questioned him on his motivations. He asked Mr. Kumar why he termed his work as ‘Bhagwan ka kaam’ (work for God) to which the author responded by saying that these idols were not merely works of art but rather, acted as bodies of guard and therefore were taken care of as living bodies, especially in South India. He elucidated on the socio-cultural relevance, which made the idols more than just artefacts. He concluded by speaking of the current necessity for greater awareness and education on Indian cultural heritage and conservation. 

As reported by Swati Gopalkrishnan, Programme Intern, Asia Society India Centre

Watch the full programme below (1 hour 15 minutes)