Kolkata museum’s 2,000-year-old lion sculpture damaged during renovation
Incident draws attention to the lack of professional care for India’s monuments
By Bharti Lalwani. Web only
Published online: 14 January 2014
A 2,000-year-old Indian sculpture from the Ashoka period has been reportedly extensively damaged at the National Museum of Kolkata during renovation work. Questions remain about how the invaluable statue was harmed, and the incident has highlighted a shocking lack of professional procedures for handling antiquities at Indian museums.
A rare example of a Rampurva Lion Capital, the sculpture dates to the third century BC and originally topped a pillar in Champaran, Bihar, one of a series of such monuments commissioned by the Mauryan king Ashoka and placed throughout the subcontinent. According to local news sources, the seven-foot stone sculpture, weighing several tons, was being moved to another part of the museum using ordinary pulleys instead of a hydraulic lift, without any expert technical supervision, when it broke into two pieces. The work may have been already been damaged and repaired, making it even more necessary for the sculpture to be treated delicately.
The West Bengal governor M.K. Narayanan, who is also the chairman of the museum’s board of trustees, has so far denied any damage and no official statement has been released. A spokesman for the culture ministry did not respond to requests for comment. The National Museum of Kolkata has been closed for renovations since 1 September 2013, in preparation for its 200th anniversary celebrations in February.
The accident has drawn attention to the dire state of India’s monuments, which has been detailed in a recent report by the government’s Comptroller and Auditor General on the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI), the national body that oversees the country’s heritage sites and antiquities. It was the first comprehensive audit of the organisation in its 150-year history.
Among a number of frustrating issues, the report notes that the ASI does not have a reliable database of all the monuments and objects under its care. Out of the sample of 1,655 protected monuments selected for inspection, 92 were “not traceable”, meaning the ASI could not say where they were located. It also found that more than 150 antiquities had been stolen from archaeological sites and museums over the years, and that “the efforts of the ASI to retrieve these items were completely ineffective”.
“The conservation status of works in Indian museums is really very poor,” says Dr Naman Ahuja, an expert on Indian antiquities and the associate professor of ancient Indian art and architecture at Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, blaming this on the “hiring of ‘technicians’ and chemists who have inadequate training in art history and the lack of art historically trained curators”. He further warns that “Indian museums will continue on their downward spiral as there is no intellectual vision for the preservation of the nation’s history.”
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