Chennai: Vijay Kumar is a cost accountant on an audit of priceless returns — that of bringing India's idol heritage home safe and sound.
In 2013, Kumar, a Chennaiite who now lives in Singapore, started the India Pride Project (IPP), a completely volunteer-driven organisation that has been instrumental in tracking invaluable trafficked temple idols from India. His online movement #BringOurGodsHome has been gaining traction, his latest victory being the return of a 1000-year-old narasinee statue from an Australia gallery (they called it the lion lady), which was stolen from a temple in Vridachalam.
Kumar was in the city on Thursday for a talk organised by heritage organisation Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage on the IPP, its work and the 'Homecoming of our Heritage'. Although the IPP got its name only in 2013, Kumar had started documenting temple art in his bilingual blog 'poetry in stone' — writing extensively on sculpture in 2006. It was this that led to a movement to retrieve lost temple art.
"We need to document and build an online searchable archive of temple art to preserve it as well as prevent its theft. The IPP is doing this solely using the power of social media. People see an artefact and they click a picture and post it. We take it from there," said Kumar. The IPP's first big art save came in early 2013, when he and his team were instrumental in retrieving an Ardanari idol that belonged to the Vridachalam temple. "The theft was not reported for 12 years, but we spotted the statue at a gallery in New South Wales and then worked towards its return to India," he said.
"In the pre-IPP era, the idol wapasai happened with no dealers names ever mentioned, no one ever facing the consequences of having stolen idols from temples in India and smuggled them overseas," says Kumar. "The idols were returned to the country, the perpetrators went scot free and no questions were asked. A movement like IPP wants to change that. There needs to be a deterrent in place to prevent art theft," said Kumar, giving the example of how in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, one of displays is a Chandraketugarh artefact "presented" to the gallery by idol smuggler Subhash Kapoor in "honour" of his daughter. Kapoor is lodged in Puzhal jail, with just three cases lodged against him, despite police finding more than 2,600 stolen items in some of his warehouses in New York.
"I estimate that we are losing around 10,000 artefacts every decade and that's why I believe we need to work together to safeguard it," said Kumar.