Gandhi memorabilia auction: a wake-up call for India?
“Delighted and relieved,” is what the great-grandson of India’s iconic freedom hero Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi said once news came in that a collection of Gandhi memorabilia sold to tycoon Vijay Mallya will come home.
Indians, who view the items as part of their national heritage, have said government intervention at a much earlier stage would have perhaps prevented the last minute dramatic build-up over the bidding.
Seller James Otis’ last minute change of heart to withdraw the items — Gandhi’s trademark wire-rimmed glasses, leather sandals, a pocket watch and a metal bowl and plate — failed and the auction went ahead as scheduled.
The one thing the controversial auction brought to light is the need for a clear mandate to bring home items of national heritage, spread out all over the world, in possession of collectors or individuals, before it escalates into a full-scale commercial ball game.
The interest generated over merely five of Gandhi’s items of daily use drove its price over the last two weeks to a staggering $1.8 million from the reserve price of $20,000 to $30,000.
Here’s the thing.
A man, popularly called the “Mahatma”, who himself shunned material possessions and believed in simple living, has given away in his lifetime many personal items to people he thought upheld his principles.
It may prove to be a monumental task to track all individuals or organizations in possession of Gandhi memorabilia and bring them back to the country to display in a museum. But it must be done if the government wishes to prevent them from appearing time and time again at auction houses.
“There is really no record… there are unthinkable numbers of people who have been in contact with the Father of the Nation over the long span of 78 years.
It is almost an impossible task to have an inventory,” minister for tourism and culture Ambika Soni said at a press conference hours after the auction.
She said the government has put in place a small group constituting leading Gandhians and instructed its missions across the world to keep an eye open for anyone coming forward with items connected with Gandhi.
Gandhi’s great-grandson Tushar Gandhi said all historical heritage must be protected.
“It’s not just about Bapu’s (as Mahatma Gandhi was affectionately called) personal items, but I think it’s time that the government formulated a comprehensive law to protect our national heritage.”
The Director of the National Gandhi Museum in New Delhi said the auction might have set a dangerous precedent.
“Gandhiji wrote thousands of letters and gifted (some of his belongings) to people. Once you open up this kind of buying and selling, then you can never know in future if something is original or fake or a replica,” said Varsha Das, who is part of a committee set up by the culture ministry for looking at items that come up for sale and auction.
Is this then a wake-up call for India to protect its national heritage and prevent its commercialization?