Sunday, September 7, 2008

A View from India

This month's Art Newspaper at page 59 has an interesting article from an Indian academic, Dr. Naman P. Ahuda. It is entitled, “India: a Tale of Two Markets”.

The article is a synopsis of a larger report prepared for the Task Force on Cultural and Creative Industries, Planning Commission of India.

Ahuja is a highly respected scholar of art history. He first explains economic development/urbanism is now a far greater cause of site destruction than art collecting:

The biggest irony of all is that, in any case, a desire for the possession or art objects is no longer the driving force for the desecration of or pillaging of ancient sites. The Indian government has built dams … knowing that the archaeological context will be sacrificed. It is the advance of man – urbanisation, the cutting down of forests, the construction of roads and dams, and expanding agriculture --- that is now the biggest source of destruction.

Like Cuno, he also understands that:

(laws controlling export of archaeological material) were passed in the interests of nationalism… designed to foster a belief in outside cultural imperialism and are both a symptom and source of deep emotional feeling. And although these laws have proved remarkably ineffective, their emotional basis makes it difficult for the relevant authorities to adjust them.

He also explains that in practice such laws do little but promote public corruption and perverse results:

The law invests officialdom with powers that risk engendering corruption. It is widely known that bribes have been paid to get a license to sell antiquities, to get "non-antiquity" certificates to be able to export them, to even register an antiquity with the authorities.... [U]nsympathetic laws will continue to result in the destruction of the archaeological record unless a proper system of reward exists, since finders usually channel such objects into the illicit market. Anecdotal evidence suggests that the costs of bribes or adhering to the law are potentially so damaging that finders are deliberately destroying pieces rather than run the risk of being caught with them.

As a result, Ahuda suggests that a fundamental "adjustment" in such laws is what is needed:

An adjustment of the present laws to encourage legitimate domestic trade would be effective in restricting the smuggling routes on which the illicit international trade depends. The easing of the sale of such items within India will go a long way in preserving national heritage as awareness of art, history and heritage increases.

It is interesting to find that an academic from a "source country" is advocating the same things authorities like James Cuno and the AAMD have been advocating in this country. Hopefully, authorities like Ahuda will encourage other academics from source countries to also challenge the outdated nationalistic orthodoxy in their own countries. Perhaps, then even the archaeologists behind the new Penn Cultural Heritage Center will notice.

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