Diaspora Dilemmas

12 December 2019

I’ve started asking my relatives at family dinners a particular question each meal to provoke discussion around the table and punctuate Nani’s buffet of dishes. My latest question:

“What crime would you commit if you could get away with it, one hundred percent?”

There are always some interesting answers, from breaking and entering to stealing supercars. However, my answer has more or less remained the same.

I’d break into every museum around the world, the Tower of London included, and take back all the stolen artefacts from India. I’d target every heavily decorated museum shelf around the world, especially in places like Europe.

I’m aware that this makes me sound like some kind of desi-vigilante-cat-burglar, but if you look at the shelves of any museum, especially in their “antiquities” section, it makes you wonder why we glorify theft. We often pay ungodly entrance fees just to gawk at it, yet severely punish those who steal if they lack the cocktail of institutional and governmental alibis.

The underlying idea behind the continued possession of blatantly stolen historical items is a sense of entitlement to them by the institutions these artefacts reside in. This sense of entitlement can be traced back to colonial times, where that same sense motivated the British Empire to forcefully occupy almost 24% of the world. That, because of their relentless imposition on indigenous communities worldwide, in addition to the facades of progression set up, that they have somehow ‘earned’ the artefacts that are so boldly on display.

In an age where we can barely last the year without
buying a new smartphone and throw ageing possessions before they have a chance to decay, it’s puzzling why we still refuse to throw away the remnants of the toxic colonial mindset.

And in the world of academic history especially, due to this sense of entitlement, European standards of achievement are forced upon non-white countries with regularity. Conveniently, these standards fail to take into account the trail of death and devastation that the Empire left behind, and how most modern independent countries have been rebuilt again from the ground up.

These European standards of ‘success’ are forced into almost everything. We see it in politics, in beauty standards, and especially in the field of fine art. Why do most children learn about Michelangelo and Botticelli as the default? Where is the celebration of our global diversity, of great artists that match the colour of the earth, as opposed to the colour of the Coles milk section?

It’s not as if non-white countries don’t have our fair share of great artists, my great-grandfather, Sukumar Bose, among them. His work hangs in the Vatican, has donned the walls of the Indian Presidential Residence, Rashtrapati Bhavan and is part of the Obamas’ private collection. It is a privilege to walk past his artwork that dons the walls of my grand- parents home and to see the beauty of his works up close. The kind of talent he was gifted with, the ethereal beauty that emanates from his work is a phenomenon that needs to be shared, for the benefit of the world.

It pains me that, without family stories and a niche community of mostly Indian artists, his talent and stories are lost to the art world.

Imagine, like that, how many Sukumar Bose’s are out there, revered in ethnic halls of history around the world. The craftsmanship, expertise and beauty of art all around the world, no matter the form, should not be shelved and conveniently mushed together to “spice up” a reference or reading list.

The process of reclamation starts with shifting the emphasis back on indigenous art forms, and by extension, indigenous culture. We need to let go of the learned behaviours we have internalised and consciously replace them with elements of our culture. Recently, the move by French President Macron to expatriate 26 artefacts to Benin represents a landmark decision in this process, and one that I hope heralds change across Europe.

To no one’s surprise, the British Museum of Natural History
has said that they have no plans to expatriate any items in their collection. Until that day arrives,
you can find me making preparations for a flight to London, wearing an all-black outfit. And, to be honest, how can I steal something that was never theirs in the first place?

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