The Antiquities and Art Treasures Act ails India's tangible heritage; is the 2017 draft bill constructive?

  • Heritage represents an important part of a society's past, whose preservation then becomes the state's responsibility, as a land's relationship with its people is bound to have legal and cultural ramifications.

  • The Antiquities and Art Treasures Act 1972 is based on protectionism, but it is no longer serving its purpose.

  • According to art historians, the government should be concerned about access, and not ownership, so that more can access the 'richest aesthetic experience possible'.

Heritage represents an important part of a society's past, whose preservation then becomes the state's responsibility, as a land's relationship with its people is bound to have legal and cultural ramifications. In India, the Antiquities and Art Treasures Act, 1972, was formulated at a time when there was a need for it — the reserves of certain museums in Britain continued to swell, while the country struggled to protect its own fabled jewels and antiquities. Therefore, the act was based on protectionism. However, it is no longer serving its purpose.

Recently, in August this year, a group of artists, private collectors, art historians, lawyers and government representatives addressed the fallouts of the now-draconian law, at a convention hosted by the Piramal Museum of Art in Mumbai. The act is vacuous not only because it is based on laws first formed in the late 1800s and isn't kosher, but also because the new draft proposed by the Indian government in 2017 isn't an ideal handbook on the regulation of arts and antiques found in the country.

Section 14 of the 1972 act states that "every person who owns, controls, or is in possession of any antiquity shall register such antiquity before the registering officer." However, the definition of an antiquity itself reflects the absurdity of the law. An antiquity, according to the act, is an article or object over a 100 years old (75 years in case of manuscripts and documents). In a notification issued in 1980, the government laid out certain specifications pertaining to antiquities that must be registered if over a 100 years old. Although the notification includes sculptures in stone, terracotta, metals, ivory and bone, paintings, manuscripts, textiles have been left out entirely from the legal definition of an antiquity.

 The Antiquities and Art Treasures Act ails Indias tangible heritage; is the 2017 draft bill constructive?

A mango-shaped flask likely to have been sculpted during the rule of Shah Jahan is not required to be registered as an antiquity under the Indian law. Image via Facebook/@metmuseum

The Antiquities and Art Treasures Act falls within the purview of the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI), which, as the name suggests, puts archaeologists in charge of the law. This in itself is one of the major fallacies of the act, as heritage belongs to not one group, but a whole community. "Heritage is not something that is excavated. It is something that is communicated to the public by art historians, poets, writers, because it inspires artists and designers to reform the contemporary. However, these disciplines are not consulted when laws on heritage are framed," said New Delhi-based art historian and academic, Naman P Ahuja.

While Ahuja's claim about why the ASI's role must be changed resonates with the art community, the body should not be criticised unfairly for the poor execution of art laws in the country. The ASI is a short-staffed organisation, handling a responsibility that's practically impossible for it to fulfil all by itself. The government must, therefore, rethink its decision to single-handedly take on the tasks of conserving the country's heritage sites, recognising artefacts, and registering antiquities, because while our museums may not be capable of accommodating all antiquities and art treasures logistically, the discovery of cultural property has not paused.

Coins do not have to be registered as per the 1980 notification of the act.

Coins do not have to be registered as per the 1980 notification of the act. Image via Facebook/@metmuseum

The act has been rendered obsolete in view of India as a country moving towards being a liberalised economy. However, it is this very act that is keeping the art industry shackled, even as international demand for Indian antiquities continues to skyrocket. On the other hand, several exasperated art collectors have shifted base to contemporary art, because the process of acquiring a license, which is mandatory in the business of selling antiquities, is fraught with red tape. Several art collectors voiced their concerns at the conference and said that the practice of acquiring a license and registering antiquities under the act engendered corruption in bureaucratic circles.

The Centre proposed doing away with the requirement of a licence for selling antiques within the country in its draft Antiquities Bill dated 2017. "This was seen as a cumbersome process and the Ministry of Culture (under which the ASI functions) has now decided to smoothen the movement of such antiquities in the country," a senior ASI official told the Press Trust of India.

Art collectors rejoiced, but the draft bill ended up digitising the process of registration, which is an impediment to a flourishing art market. As suggested by Ahuja, in a country like India, where one can't dig without finding pottery shards, the reasons behind needing a registration process still remain unclear and unaddressed.

This tent panel likely to have come from the interiors of Raja Jai Singh l of Amber falls under textiles, which have been left out entirely from the act. Image via Facebook/@metmuseum

This tent panel, likely to have come from the interiors of Raja Jai Singh l of Amber, falls under textiles, which have been left out entirely from the act. Image via Facebook/@metmuseum

As per the draft, the government wants to set up an expert advisory committee, which will take the decisions the ASI has been taking so far. "The draft doesn’t put a number on the committee. There could be one in every state, or one acting for the whole country. The authority for appointment of individuals to the committee has not been delegated to the ASI and rests entirely with the central government. So the government is essentially moving the ASI into a minority about stamping the genuineness or authenticity of an antiquity," Siddharth Mehta, managing partner at Mumbai law firm, Mehta & Padamsey, pointed out. The new draft, in its vague description of the registration process, also puts the onus of providing the details of an antiquity on the person who wishes to register it on a web portal that the government plans to set up, in order to ease the process.

That brings us to the crux of the argument: in a country, where excavation as a practice is often exploited by private contractors, and its canon of ancient art and antiquities is far from flagging, should a single act or committee be endowed with the responsibility of protecting its cultural properties? Or do we sacrifice urbanisation and development to protect sites that are known to have rich archaeological histories? "What should matter to the government is not ownership, but access – that more people get access to the richest aesthetic experience possible, which is the objective of nationalising antiques," concluded Ahuja.

Updated Date: Sep 07, 2019 09:23:02 IST