Blood Buddha: Not just about theft of antiquities, but a portrayal of much deeper malaise of societal apathy towards heritage

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I have watched Blood Buddhas four times. And it has shocked me afresh every single time. The first time I watched it at the Arth festival, I was admittedly sceptical about whether it would be worth the time. But I came out enriched and educated, even though the subject was not unfamiliar to me. I can only imagine the impact of the documentary on the ‘blank-state’ viewer, someone who doesn’t have any prior exposure to the issue of the theft of our gods and goddesses from right under our noses.

The issue is not just restricted to the theft of antiquities, which would have been a relatively docile beast to tame. The film rightly portrays the act of smuggling as a symptom of a much deeper malaise, namely the shocking apathy of Indian society towards its cultural and religious heritage. The narrative then navigates it’s way downstream and throws light on the consequences of this large-scale smuggling racket, which is when the alarm bells ring the loudest. Although the link between the stolen murti from the temple nearby and the funding of jihadi terrorism in Syria is not easy to imagine it is there nonetheless. It is hard to miss the painful irony that the theft of our gods is funding terrorist organizations whose raison d’etre is the hatred of our gods.

The film goes beyond merely raising awareness about the issue and the story has been painstakingly crafted to convey the gravity of the situation, leaving you to reconcile the contradiction between a clear intellectual appreciation of the problem and an uneasy feeling in the heart that comes from a sense of helplessness. But it is not just about narratives and emotions. The film copiously cites data and numbers that give us an objective understanding of the magnitude of the problem. For example, it gives us an idea of how much money is involved when we are informed that a single raid at one of the hundreds of antique art dealers all over the world yielded Indian antiquities worth 106 Million US$ or 650 crore Indian Rupees. The Indian government predictably has no official data on the number and total value of heritage items stolen from India in the decades following independence. However, as per one United Nations report, we have lost about 10,000 artefacts amounting to a value of 10 Billion dollars or 70 thousand crores in Indian Rupees.

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Although the documentary deals with a grim subject, it does give us many reasons to smile, primary among which is introducing the viewers to the phenomenal work done by India Pride Project in bringing the gods back home. This is significant because not only does the organization identify artefacts, track their current location and coordinate with intergovernmental agencies to bring them back to India, they are absolutely clear about the fact that getting the murtis back to India is only half the battle won if they end up being relegated to the neglect of dilapidated warehouses of the ASI.

We are given a glimpse of the disturbing apathy and ignorance of government officials who have not even been trained to carefully handle these immensely valuable items and as a result, artefacts worth millions of dollars are kept on the floor, exposed to obvious the risk of physical damage. Therefore, it is critical to have a mechanism in place for these murtis to be reinstalled in the same temples from where they were stolen in the first place. Because, as the film informs us, for the people of India, the murtis are not just valuable art but living deities who must be worshipped and adored in their own abode, which is the temple.

Another reason to smile, or maybe chuckle, while watching the film is to see two eminent politicians, Dr Subramanian Swamy and Dr Shashi Tharoor, both unequivocally endorse the work of India Pride Project, keeping their serious ideological differences aside for a change. In an age, where meaningful debates between political parties have become a myth of sorts, the fact that the issue has kindled the spirit of bipartisanship between two bitterly opposed individuals is itself a cause for celebration.

All in all, Blood Buddhas is a superbly crafted documentary that tells one of the most important stories of our times from a civilizational perspective and it is to the credit of the filmmaker, Nikhil Singh Rajput, that the film is able to cut through the indifference of the average viewer and deliver the message straight to the heart, without being self-indulgent like filmmakers of this genre often tend to be

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