With an empire on which the British once proudly claimed “the sun never set upon”, the British museums are full of artifacts that were “acquired” from the natives. Some of these acquisitions, such as the Elgin Marbles, are subject of bitter dispute.
From the Indian subcontinent the list of “acquired” valuables would be endless with the most famous Indian objects would range from Koh-i-Noor , Ranjit Singh’s throne, Shah Jahan jade wine cup, Sarswati idol to Sultanganj Buddha ( kept in the Birmingham city museum).
Usual argument put forth for retaining these cultural/historic artifacts , to put in a simple fashion : 1) We got it “legally” 2) The display of these artifacts is towards the project of building “universal” institutions presenting the art and history of the world.
Additionally the museums often decry that their relationships with foreign governments have increasingly become contingent on giving in to “unreasonable and sometimes blatantly extortionate demands”. For example, it is claimed that as China and India grow on the geopolitical stage , so have their demands for restitution of artifacts ( often by private group and individuals rather than the government)
While strolling through the V&A museum, I came across a rather plain exhibit, a small red box with a set of tiger claws: a close combat weapon which is designed to be concealed under and against the palm and is designed to be slashed through the skin and muscle.
To my astonishment, the rather plain box was inscribed ,”The ‘Wagnuck’ of Sivajee With Which He Killed the Moghul General. This Relic was given to Mr. James Grant-Duff of Eden When he was Resident at Satara By the Prime Minister of the Peshwa of the Marathas”.
A small card on the left stated: “This weapon is reputed to be the one used by the Maratha leader Shivaji to kill Afzal Khan, the Mughal commander of the opposing Bijapur army in a famous episode that took place during the complicated political upheavals of 17th century India. During a protracted military engagement in 1659, the two men arranged a truce in order to meet in a tented enclosure, virtually alone. Both came armed: Shivaji wore mail under his clothes and metal skull protection under his turban. He also held metal “tiger claws” of this kind concealed in his hand. The two men fought and Shivaji disemboweled his opponent. ”
Artist’s depiction of the encounter where Shivaji is shown disemboweling Afzal Khan ( on left) with the tiger claws
What an pithy uninspiring reduction of an event that still reverberates in the cultural history of Maharashtra. It was an event that demonstrated the ability of the nascent Maratha kingdom to stand-up to an established hegemony and unequivocally prove on the battlefield the strategic, tactical genius of Shivaji along with his ability to inspire and lead a previously demoralized people. It was an event that heralded the arrival of an young napoleon who would go on to shake up geopolitics in South Asian continent; cause the downfall of the mighty Mughal empire.
There were no crowds thronging to see this “historical artifact” in V&A after all it was just a plain functional metal weapon acquired in the colonial days.
I wondered would it be the same if these tiger claws were displayed in a museum in Maharashtra/ India?
I wager not. For these bits of metal are not just an historical artifact, rather they are physical validation of cultural memory. There would be eager kids queuing to see these tiger claws and make a connection with their cultural history; to behold a physical reminder of great endeavors done by men who have walked before.