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Rediff.com  » News » Why the British Museum won't return the Harihara

Why the British Museum won't return the Harihara

Last updated on: July 18, 2018 10:47 IST

'It is vital that objects such as the Harihara -- and collections from South Asia generally -- remain here,' the British Museum tells Vaihayasi Pande Daniel.

This sandstone Harihara circa 1000 was once situated perhaps in Khajuraho, Madhya Pradesh before it reached Major General Charles Stuart's collection. Photograph: With kind permission courtesy British Museum

This sandstone Harihara circa 1000 was once situated perhaps in Khajuraho, Madhya Pradesh before it reached Major General Charles Stuart's collection. Photograph: With kind permission courtesy British Museum.

Historian William Dalrymple told Rediff.com in an earlier interview on the Koh-i-noor, "My personal feeling is that I would certainly support apologies for atrocities and education made (available) about the empire and all its enormous, varied brutalities into curriculums, but I am actually against in principle the idea of emptying of museums across the world and sending everything back home to where they came from."

He buttressed his view with this explanation: "In the 12th century, famously, the (South Indian dynasty of kings) Cholas, an army from India, destroyed Anuradhapura and Poḷonnaruwa in Sri Lanka. They burnt the temples and the city to the ground."

A bronze Shiva Nataraja, Lord of the Dance circa 1100 of the Chola dynasty at the British Museum. Photograph: Kind courtesy Brooke Sewell Permanent Fund © The Trustees of the British Museum.

The Anuradhapura Chronicles says the Cholas broke the idols and took all the jewels back to India. Should Sri Lanka start suing India for the return of the jewels?

Dalrymple went on to say, then: "It happened throughout history and not just during colonial times. Should we start suing the Italian government for what the Romans did in the first century? It is never ending."

"History is full of violence. Where in the world hasn't there been violence or a conquest at some point?"

Michael Liversidge, emeritus dean, department of history of arts, University of Bristol concurs.

"What we need to recognise is that history is full of mistakes, as well as of good things. They are all part of a narrative, some of which is frankly awful from our own 21st century perspective," he says.

"But we have to acknowledge that the context for what happened in, say, 1690 may explain what occurred then, but would be totally unacceptable now. We can't judge the past by our own standards of now," Professor Liversidge explains.

"So putting events in context helps to explain why some wonderful artefact from Africa or the Pacific has found its way to London or Paris or wherever it may have ended up."

 
The British Museum replies

When Rediff.com contacted the British Museum for its comment on this controversy, this was what the Museum stated:

This sandstone sculpture of Harihara (Vishnu 'Hari; and Shiva 'Hara') dates to about AD 1000. It is likely to have come from Khajurahao, Madhya Pradesh.

Most of the Hindu and Jain temples at this site were constructed between c. 900-1150 by the Chandela dynasty, their ministers and Jain merchants.

The sculpture belonged to Major-General Charles Stuart (1757/8-1828). He travelled from Ireland to India as a young man, and spent the rest of his life there as an East India Company soldier.

Contemporaries gave him the nickname 'Hindu' Stuart because he studied Indian literature, languages and religion, championed Indian culture and values, and publicly practised Hindu rituals.

He collected many Hindu sculptures which were cared for by two Brahmins whom he employed.

He displayed his extensive collection in his house in Calcutta which was open to the public.

He was buried in South Park Street Cemetery, Calcutta, and his tomb is embellished with sculpture from his collection.

The circumstances around the acquisition of the Harihara sculpture, including how, when, by whom and precisely where it was collected, are unclear because few of Stuart's documents survive.

On Stuart's death, his collection was sold at two auctions in London -- in 1829 and 1830.

Most of the sculpture was bought by John Bridge (1755-1834; partner in famous jewellery firm Rundell, Bridge and Rundell). Bridge established a private museum in his house in Shepherds Bush, London.

After his death and that of his brother George Bridge, Bridge's relatives donated the collection of sculpture to the British Museum in 1872.

The museum's position is: We feel there is a huge public benefit to visitors in displaying the whole world under one roof.

The strength of the museum's collection is its breadth and depth, which allows visitors to compare and contrast cultures and understand our interconnectivity.

It is vital that objects such as the Harihara -- and collections from South Asia generally -- remain here.

This is because we share, in a wider geographical and temporal context, the history and culture of South Asia not only with our international visitors, but also the UK's South Asian Diaspora.

To clarify: We have not had an official request to return this object and we have very positive relationships with colleagues in Indian museums, we have recently worked on an exhibition with the Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya in Mumbai and the National Museum of Delhi.

Professor Liversidge, while carefully only partially putting forth a case for returns, suggests that museum collections should be archived properly online so all the world can view them.

Additionally he suggests amends can be made in other ways.

The British government has a dedicated international aid budget of £11 billion a year or so that he feels can be utilised used to modernise existing museums in Commonwealth and other countries, or to build new ones.

He suggests under the umbrella of the Commonwealth since there is a shared history.

Further, he says money could be allocated for consultants, training expert curators, conservators and museum managers in UK institutions, and to create exchanges between museums.

"This would build genuine heritage collaborations, create jobs in both the overseas nations and in the UK, help to develop local economies and contribute to education," he says.

"The same budget could pay for moving artefacts, documenting and recording them using the most advanced digital techniques so anyone anywhere in the world can see them online."

"They (the Elgin Marbles) don't just stand for Greece -- they are emblematic of Western values in the widest sense, so there is an argument for saying they are as relevant where they are now as they would be in Athens," the art historian argues.

"They have always been on view since they were acquired for the British Museum, and more people go there than visit the Parthenon -- and whether they were legally purchased in the first place will probably earn lawyers a lot of money."

"But the controversy over the Harihari sandstone in London is different in an important detail: It is not on display. Greece was never part of Britain's empire, so the sculptures can't be said to have been acquired in the same way as the Harihara -- another difference," says Professor Liversidge.

"This is what I mean by having to weigh up the circumstances of history."

Standing Vishnu as Keshava, one of the 24 names for Vishnu, created by Dasoja of Balligrama of the Hoysala period, circa from the first quarter of the 12th century.
Found probably at Belur, Karnataka, and now located at New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Next to him are his consorts, Shridevi and Bhudevi. Photograph: Kind courtesy Rogers Fund, 1918/www.metmuseum.org

Kavita Singh, professor of art history at the School of Arts and Aesthetics, Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi, looks at the problem from a fresh, unique angle: "But should we think of 'barbarism' only in relation to the British general who carried away the sculpture in the 19th century?"

"What do we know or imagine to have been the conditions under which the sculptor laboured to make this sculpture, or the quarry worker before him who quarried the stone?," Professor Singh asks.

"How did the Chandela kings, who presumably were the patrons of this sculpture, gain the surplus that allowed them to sponsor such mighty monuments? Was there some measure of exploitation, looting, violence behind this?"

"If we start asking questions of this kind, about who is the 'rightful' owner and what are the moral circumstances around the production and ownership of almost any cultural treasure from history, we will end up with many answers that will discomfit us," Professor Singh states.

"How do we think our way out of this trap?"

"We inhabit a particular situation, and we have to try to use our circumstances in the best way possible in line with whatever seems most ethical to us to do," she adds.

"Is asking the British Museum for the return of this and other Indian artefacts the most ethical thing to do?"

"If you think so, why do you think so? What makes it ethical?"

A two-sided limestone relief from the Great Shrine at Amaravathi, Andhra Pradesh, carved first in the 1st century BC (featuring the Buddha as an empty throne), and then turned over and carved in the 3rd century AD (featuring a corporal Buddha standing in front of the shrine). Photograph: With kind permission courtesy © The Trustees of the British Museum.

When the Kohinoor controversy started up again a few years ago, Britain's then prime minister David Cameron commented: 'If you say yes to (returning) one you suddenly find the British Museum would be empty'.

Philip Stephens, the Financial Times's chief political commentator, in a column on repatriation of historical artefacts, in April, points out the kinds of inconsistencies that abound, about the case for it or against it: 'History, it seems, is double-edged. No one would stand against the restoration of property stolen by, say, the German armies in Europe, during the Second World War.

'But riches seized in Africa nearly a century earlier? Apparently, (Emperor) Tewodros's treasures are fair game'.

Tewodros II once ruled in what is present-day Ethiopia. But his gold crown, chalice, royal jewellery and religious vestments are in the Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

A Bikaner ink, watercolours and silver on paper painting of Mahadevi, the great goddess circa 1725. The Mahadevi is the supreme devi or devi of all devis. Photograph: Kind courtesy Fletcher Fund, 1996/www.metmuseum.org

Professor Liversidge is perturbed about the nationalistic narratives, of which urges for repatriation are often part and parcel of.

"I understand the national point of view, even if it worries me. It worries me because while cultural identity is specific to every nation (our own arguments around Brexit illustrate this, but then 'British' consists of English, Scots, Welsh and Irish and they all have their own nationalisms), I believe it can create conflict where culture ought to be an inclusive means to understanding difference."

"But that means we should discuss these issues constructively: It may mean sometimes we disagree, but we should know why," he adds.

He feels history is a sum of its good and bad parts.

"What we need to recognise is that history is full of mistakes, as well as of good things. They are all part of a narrative, some of which is frankly awful from our own 21st-century perspective," Professor Liversidge explains.

"But we have to acknowledge that the context for what happened in, say, 1690 may explain what occurred then, but would be totally unacceptable now."

"We can't judge the past by our own standards of now. So putting events in context helps to explain why some wonderful artefact from Africa or the Pacific has found its way to London or Paris or wherever it may have ended up," Professor Liversidge adds.

A carved granite figure of Nandi at the British Museum is originally from the Deccan circa 1500s AD. Photograph: Kind courtesy Osama Shukir Muhammed Amin FRCP(Glasg)/Wikimedia Commons

Vijay Kumar -- or VJ, as he calls himself, who researches the ongoing illicit artifacts trade, tracking thefts of gods from Indian temples and the continuing thievery of priceless treasures from our historical sites -- naturally disagrees.

"The concept of colonial collections and encyclopedic museums is thankfully going through a reinterpretation in the West," says VJ. "They are now increasingly been seen as objects of colonial loot and plunder that they essentially are."

"France has taken the lead in this and is seriously considering returning objects illegally removed from Africa by colonial forces back to their original owners," he adds.

"The British museum is still holding on to its colonial past, as in the case of the Benin bronzes and the Parthenon sculpture. Sadly the case of similar Indian objects in British collections have not evinced similar emotions (as France) even through India has more cause to seek the return, for these are part of a continuing living tradition and these religious objects were forcibly removed by the then colonial masters," says Vijay Kumar.

A granite sculpture of Shiva and his wife Parvati from Odisha circa 1100-1300 at the British Museum. Photograph: Kind courtesy Steve F-E-Cameron/Wikimedia Commons

Will the Khajuraho Harihara ever go home?

The reality of the deity's eventual future, who ironically also stands for the unity of Vishnu and Shiva as different aspects of the same philosophical Ultimate Reality or Brahman, is a question mark.

Vaihayasi Pande Daniel / Rediff.com