Heritage: Do we care?
Ahmedabad: The last week began on an outrageous note. On Monday morning, Jamnagar police station registered an FIR stating that artifacts and paintings valuing anywhere between Rs2.5 to Rs5 crore were stolen from the sprawling royal palace. The story gets interesting. it was discovered that not only were these invaluable stolen at least a month-and-a-half back and nobody knew about it, but that the thieves had seemingly spent a lot of time in the palaces, perhaps even days there. It was later reported that Jam Ranjisinh Jadeja’s revered bat, after whom the domestic cricket Ranji trophy has been founded, was perhaps not stolen.
Even if this incident may or may not have been very grave in terms of the value of theft, what it certainly does is throws light on the callous disregard we as a society, the government and the caretakers themselves have for the valuables that these palaces house.
To begin with, most of the palaces, except the Gaekwads of Baroda, do not have a precise and exhaustive list of the paintings and other antique items in their palace. A good deal of the properties are disputed, leading to no investment by the warring parties in maintenance – as in case of Jamnagar.
Anything (painting, artifact, memorabilia etc…) more than 100-years-old cannot be sold, leaving very little incentive for the family to spend the high amount required to maintain it well. The government on the other hand is taking no interest in helping them with any kind of allowances / aid for maintenance. Worse still, a long-standing lament of the heritage hotel owners’ association (read the erstwhile royal families) is that the authorities are not even helping with basic tourist awareness of their around 30 properties in Gujarat.
Last but not the least, would you and I pay money to see our ancient paintings and artifacts like the carpets, chandeliers, perhaps even the classical original paintings of Raja Ravi Varma, depicting India? The answer is often a ‘No’.
The outcome of all of this is that this ‘heritage’, which historians, heritage conservationists, social scientists and art connoisseurs feel are a part of our identity – is decaying, very soon, beyond recognition. These artifacts are a depiction of Indian culture of the bygone era, when European beaches and Uncle Sam’s muscle power did not dominate the Indian mind space, and how India a century back absorbed other cultures without losing its own.
A brief look at what we are turning away our face from will be appalling to being with. Reliable sources confide at least four Raja Ravi Varma portraits are lying unpreserved in a property in Bhavnagar. Several history books, map records, cutlery, furniture, jewellery, arms like swords, specially woven carpets, chandeliers, licensed trophies of wild animals… the list goes on. A rough estimate of these things has been put at over one billion US dollars. And this does not include several timeless artifacts like ace cricketer Ranjitsinh’s bats that were feared stolen. For a cricket enthusiast, it would be invaluable.
Many of these palaces in Saurashtra are close to the sea, leading to further degradation from the salt-laden air.
“The private collections of the former rulers of states are still there in these palaces. And these are perishable items. Some were specially commissioned works, some by imported artisans, some works by tribal artisans. These artisans are not there anymore; this work does not happen now. If it is not preserved, this part of our history will be lost forever,” says IPS officer Ajay Chaudhary, and a member of the state heritage policy committee.
Art collector Anil Relia says his heart bleeds when he hears of these things. “All artwork has to be fumigated at least once a year. Paper fish is generated naturally as moisture touches the painting. It is basically a very simple process. Sometimes these artifacts are not even properly documented. Our laws are not conducive to effective maintenance of such antique heritage,” he says.
But talk to those in the custody of these memorabilia, the response is pat – “Who will pay for it?” maharaja of Wankaner Digvijaysinh says, followed by a heavy pause. “Of course we know there is value to the memorabilia, but how does one value it? It is invaluable,” he says. Maintenance, armed security, et al, he feels depends on the owner. “I have no suggestions for this. Laws alone will not help. Laws are for the society, not individuals,” he finishes.