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Sensitive objects in museums and university collections: Case studies

Collections off the grid, but in a net: In search for (de)colonial issues of South-Asian paintings

Collections hors réseau, mais dans un filet : À la recherche des enjeux (dé)coloniaux des peintures sud-asiatiques
Caroline Widmer
p. 103-113


Cette contribution part de l'observation selon laquelle les peintures et dessins de la région culturelle indo-pakistanaise sont rarement discutés dans le contexte de la décolonisation des musées et de leurs collections. Le discours médiatique est constitué en faveur des intérêts publics et nationaux et, plus encore, reflète une cécité institutionnelle systématique. Contrairement aux sculptures, les peintures et dessins étaient traditionnellement des propriétés privées et n'avaient pas de pratique d'exposition dans une sphère publique. Je soutiens que les changements de propriété conduisant à l'intégration de ces peintures et dessins dans les collections d'art (occidentales) et dans la recherche académique sont fortement liés aux problématiques d'héritage colonial et de déséquilibre de pouvoir. De plus, je soutiens que les musées devraient considérer non seulement la recherche liée à la provenance, mais aussi leurs pratiques d'exposition comme des approches de la décolonisation.

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1Discussions about the decolonization of museum objects and museums in general are imperative and necessary. Almost all museums in the Global North, collecting objects of the Global South, are somehow involved and required to participate. Some museums are more active than others. Though I am employed by a museum that is very progressive and has an extremely proactive approach to these issues, it is important to note that not all parts of the museum’s collections get the same attention within these discussions. That is, not all collections can be treated the same way, not in terms of research or publicity, nor in terms of finance or emotions.

2This contribution is meant to drop some notes and thoughts about a specific kind of object found in many art museums as well as in ethnographic museums, but one rarely on the top of the list of (de)colonial discussions: paintings and drawings from the Indian-Pakistani cultural area. I would like to raise questions about export, provenance, research, publishing, dealing, handling and exhibition practice, arguing that the discussions have to include the times both before and after the colonial era as being times of power imbalances and colonial precarity or consequences. These issues are embedded in a complex net of social, financial, political and legal questions that apply to many collections and objects around the world.

3I base my text on the experience of everyday work as a curator in a museum, and my comments are not meant to be complete or systematic. Nor is it my aim to complain or blame anybody. The concrete field of work is the Museum Rietberg in Zurich (Switzerland), and many examples are taken from this spot.

Rarely discussed objects

4What is meant by the statement that paintings and drawings from South Asia are rarely mentioned in discussions about colonialism and decolonization or are titled as being “off the grid”?

5Three recent examples drawn from public perceptions and media coverage illustrate the different perception of South Asian sculptures and paintings. The examples are simplified and not necessarily linked directly to a colonial context but can be taken as representative of the complex situation. All three examples are connected to legal export practices and provenance research.

6From the legal point of view, the situation is as easy as it is clear: Provenance is important to define a legal export. We have the UNESCO Convention of 1970, which is of course historically strongly linked with an archaeological background and does not focus on manuscripts. But there is also the Antiquity Act of India of 1972, which regulates the export of antiquities and explicitly includes manuscripts.

  • 1 See also: von Schwerin, U. (2023, November 28). Indiens geraubte Götter: Wie ein New Yorker Galeris (...)

7In 2011, a well-known art dealer with worldwide connections and a gallery in New York City was arrested at Frankfurt Airport by Fedpol. Subhash Kapoor was accused of stealing and smuggling art objects from India, Nepal and other Asian countries and of selling them illegally. More than 2,500 objects could be identified in worldwide collections. Not only private collections were involved but also public and private museums and galleries. Kapoor faked export licenses and provenance files. Buyers were deceived on purpose. Even today, museums (as well as private networks) are still identifying objects tracing back to Kapoor’s illegal practices. In 2022, he was sentenced to 10 years in prison in India. Newspapers all around the world reported extensively about this case, including examples and photographs of the objects in question. The story is complicated and provides crime authors with potentially a wide range of material, but the fact is only very few paintings are mentioned in the entire media coverage, mostly in two contexts. The National Gallery of Australia returned 14 works in 2021, including one painted scroll (Solomon, 2021). The Metropolitan Museum of New York also very proactively informed authorities of its search for “infected” objects in its collection, including paintings and drawings (Solomon, 2023). As a consequence, in March 2023, the Met announced the repatriation of 15 sculptures to the government of India1 (The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2023).

8In May of 2023, newspapers spread the information that the Indian government was preparing “the largest repatriation claim faced by the UK” (Harris, 2023). This piece of information has quickly been challenged by official sources, but it created quite some turmoil. The examples mentioned included many sculptures, jewelries and bronzes – but in this case not a single painting. Recently realized repatriations of Indian art to India, effectively put on stage by the media, are closely linked to a personal and political commitment of India’s prime minister, Narendra Modi, making the broad decolonization of India and the repatriation of India’s artifacts a major priority. Since Modi’s inauguration in 2014, the number of repatriated antiquities to India has increased extensively (Oehler & Schaffer, 2024). The handover of 200 stolen artifacts by the US to the Indian government in 2016 was accomplished by a ceremony with the prime minister. Again, however, the images published were only of sculptures and bronzes.

9One of the rare big news items dedicated to Indian paintings with problematic provenance occurred when the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford rejected the collection of Indian paintings from Howard Hodgkin, a British artist who passed away in 2017. His art collection included a famous and very exquisite collection of about 120 Indian paintings. His dream of the Ashmolean being home to his entire Indian painting collection failed because of provenance concerns. Despite intensive research, a considerable portion of the collection remained unclear in terms of origin. In July 2022, the Metropolitan Museum of Art acquired 84 of these paintings and took the rest with unclear provenance on long-term loan from the Howard Hodgkin Indian Collection Trust. In the ensuing press release, India’s official perspective is given by Randhir Jaiswal, Consul General of India in New York:

We warmly welcome the Howard Hodgkin Collection to The Met – an institution with deep and engaging ties with India. This special bond has been nurtured through its rich and varied collection of Indian art and heritage, and the conversations that have happened over decades. With the Howard Hodgkin Collection coming to The Met, a new chapter is being written in this ever-flowing cultural engagement. What makes this acquisition even more special is that it is happening at a time when India celebrates 75 years of its independence and democracy. I am sure visitors to the Museum are going to enjoy the collection and enrich their understanding of India, its people, and their history. (Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2022)

10Although the question of the legal property of Indian painting is on stage, pushed by the issues of the Ashmolean Museum’s decision, issues of repatriation, legitimacy and colonial heritage are neither discussed nor mentioned.

Context for institutional blindness

11One reason for the “off the grid” state of South Asian paintings and drawings may lie in their historical context, the circumstances of their production, holding, audience and viewing practices.

Origins of Indian paintings

12What are usually called “Indian paintings” are paintings and drawings from the Indian-Pakistani cultural area, usually pigment paintings on (burnished and layered) paper. The average sizes are comparable to standard-A4, sometimes smaller, sometimes bigger, but rarely much bigger. In the Western context they are often described as “miniature paintings”, a label that is completely unknown in the original context but borrowed from European book illustration and matching with the small size of the paintings – the figures depicted are small, the heads usually only as big as a human thumbnail.

13We can roughly distinguish between Mughal painting, produced in the context of the Mughal courts with attached workshops, and the courtly paintings circulating in the Hindu kingdoms of the region which is now India and Pakistan. Both Mughal and courtly painting influenced each other and lived side by side. The oldest paintings on paper date back to the 14th or 15th centuries, and the tradition is still living. It is important that this kind of painting was traditionally restricted to a courtly context. Once the paintings left the artist and his atelier, only the members of the court, their families, friends and guests had access to them. They were not meant for public. Paintings were private property, circulated as gifts, on private and political levels, and were spoils in violent conflicts. They were viewed in privacy, by single persons or in small and well-chosen groups, taken out on purpose from a well-kept and supervised storage (see figure 1). This means that paintings had a totally different viewing practice, property situation, audience and locality than sculptures and bronzes or archaeological pieces. Sculptures usually come from the much older religious and ritual context of a temple, relate to a wider community and can be treated as core objects for establishing a religious and national identity. Paintings were never in the public interest in the way that idols were, and they were never inscribed with the glamour of jewelry.

Figure 1: Purkhu from Kangra (attributed), Maharaja Sansar Chand contemplates paintings with his courtiers.

Figure 1: Purkhu from Kangra (attributed), Maharaja Sansar Chand contemplates paintings with his courtiers.

Photo © Rainer Wolfsberger, Museum Rietberg, Inv. No. 2005.9

How the paintings came to Europe

14Another reason for a relative blindness to (de)colonial issues around Indian paintings may be the way Indian paintings came into European or general Western collections. It seems at first to be unproblematic: being portable and private property for generations, the paintings were sold or donated by members of princely states. Especially if this happened before 1970 or 1972, there seemed to be no legal reason to intervene or to be alarmed.

15In fact, and rarely mentioned, not all the paintings were produced for Rajput families or the Mughal emperors. From the 17th century onwards, the market for paintings opened up, and selected noblemen or Europeans could buy and commission from the same artists as could the members of the different Indian courts. Important collections and albums were put together in the 18th century, at a time when the colonial power was not yet established in India, as for example the well-known album of Antoine-Louis Henri de Polier. The Schlegel Albums held in Dresden are dated from that time and the Museum Rietberg received in 2023 a then-unknown collection of Indian paintings bought by a trader and pharmacist from Yverdon (Switzerland) before 1770.

16The argument for unclear provenance of Indian paintings and drawings that is often stated is that in former times the question of provenance or acquisition context was just not of interest for collectors and institutions. This may be true for some cases, but by no means for all. Especially for Indian paintings, as many collections were established at a time the legal conditions were set already, this argument does not work at all. And even before, there were many real efforts for a collaborative exchange of goods or a correct export. An early example: It was in the 1960s when Elsy Leuzinger, then director of the Museum Rietberg, tried to acquire the first paintings for the museum. The correspondence with Alice Boner, a Swiss artist and collector living more than forty years in India, shows that they not only discussed style, value and subjects of paintings but also the process of legal export. Later in the 1980s, it was the legacy of Alice Boner, including not only Indian sculptures but also more than 250 paintings, that initiated today’s collection of Indian paintings in Zurich.

17But if we have a closer look, there are problematic aspects of property-change strongly connected to colonialism. I want to touch on three points.

  • 2 Bangladesh would be included as well; however, it plays a minor role for this field.

18First, the often-used label “Indian painting” is questionable. As mentioned before, the objects discussed here have their origin in a cultural region that has undergone major political and national changes. The places where the paintings and drawings were produced and circulated belong now to different nation states: India and Pakistan.2 The differentiation of these states is the result of their decolonization and independence processes in the 1940s. If we talk only about “Indian” painting, therefore, a considerable portion of the objects, collections, painters, workshops, etc. are excluded. Within the process of the national partition, collections have been partitioned as well. Paintings and painting sets have been distributed, for example, among the two countries’ National Museums. Nowadays, rules for exporting art works are different in India and in Pakistan.

19Second, shortly before and during colonial times, most of the formerly ruling families in India lost not only power and influence but also income. Selling property was one possibility to gain money and, in the end, to survive. However, art was also sold or donated to friends, and possibly some royal offspring simply lost interest in these old things. The financial decline, caused or accelerated by the colonial rulers, was a considerable reason for selling. Some of the early European collectors – that means the collectors interested in South Asian drawings and painting before, during or shortly after Indian Independence – were undoubtedly somehow connected with the colonial powers. They were part of the ruling system and had access to the social, financial and administrative elite and only these connections enabled them to get in touch with those possessing, collecting and enjoying art – and also dealing with it.

20Third, a narrative which remains strongly present in the memories and perspectives of some royal families is the fear of seizure and confiscation of property by the Indian government. In 1947, when India became independent, the Privy Purse was remitted. It was a payment made to the ruling families to integrate the princely states and end their ruling rights after independence. Explanations of this law do not explicitly mention it, but following the narrative of the formerly ruling families, the law included or was connected to a seizure. In the early 1970s, during the prime ministership of Indira Gandhi, the royal families were heavily pressured. Around the same time, the UNESCO Convention and the Antiquity Act of India were adopted. To save their property, royal descendants turned their art collections into trusts, sold artifacts or sent them abroad. The sudden and massive appearance of Indian paintings on the Western art market was the consequence. Meant as a decolonizing and inclusive strategy in a state-building process of independence after decades of colonialism, the law turned into a catalyst for the distribution of historical and cultural artifacts. Today, the typical provenance of an Indian painting or drawing starts around 1970/72, as being part of a (private) Western collection (meaning the object was out of India).

Academic profile and qualification as art object

21Another, completely different aspect of colonial heritage in collections is their academic profile and scholarship. First of all, in a Western perspective the academic interest in a subject is crucial to create and construct a so-called authoritative and objective knowledge about this subject. The language, categories and vocabulary used by scholars to describe, value and categorize certain objects have to be consistent with the academic system of the Western World. And it has often had major effects on the art market.

22For a very long time, Indian and Pakistani paintings and drawings played a minor role in the context of Indian art. In introductory books about Indian art (published in the Western world in books far too expensive for many Indian libraries or students), painting was (and still is) – if represented at all – in general reduced to a small chapter which focuses on Mughal painting and maybe a comment on mural paintings. Penguin Random House, for example, included only in the 1980s manuscripts or paintings in their introduction to Indian art, which can be interpreted as a reaction to the presence of paintings from the Hindu courts on the Western art market in a considerable quantity. This is remarkable, because the academic interest in Indian painting (not only focused on Mughal folios) started in 1916 at the latest with A. K. Coomaraswamy (1877-1947). Born in Colombo to a Tamil father and an English mother, Coomaraswamy was mainly educated abroad. Being interested in philosophy and philosophy of art, he was the first scholar to establish elementary categories for the classification of Indian paintings and to publish about it internationally. In his work, he used not only Western concepts of art and philosophy but also references to Indian sources and vocabulary. Since Coomaraswamy, South Asian painting as an academic field has always been strongly influenced by Indian and Pakistani scholars. The most important developments and findings have been due to the efforts of Indian and Pakistani scholars, authors and artists such as Karl J. Kandhalavala (1904-1995), M.S. Randhawa (1909-1986), B.N. Goswamy (1933-2023), F.S. Aijazuddin (*1942), Vidya Dehejia (*1942), Kavita Singh (1964-2023) and many more.

23Still, terms originating from Western art history are used not only for description but for qualifying paintings and drawings from South Asia. Styles not matching the Western claims are – to exaggerate a little – labelled as “more Indian” or “more original” or “Indigenous” or “without Western influence” or “naïve”. Is that the reason for the early appreciation of the paintings from the Mughal courts (and later paintings from the Pahari region as well), with their more realistic style, color gradients and environmental compositions? Indian painting is often described as highly emotional, lyrical, leading the audience to fantastic or mystical realms – a world of dreams and visions. Whose perspective is this? And how to combine that with Indian aesthetic philosophical terms in Sanskrit? How many Western connoisseurs understand Sanskrit?

  • 3 See auctions, referring to the collector, celebrating his or her artistic taste, e.g.: https://www. (...)

24Of course, there are many Indian collections, extensive and published, public and private. But the Indian world of art is still not easy to access, and it works as an internal market. Publications of Western museums and collections are still very important for provenance, identification and prizing. These publications ennoble objects and are sometimes even name-giving. The same painting is more interesting for the market if it comes from a well-known Western collector, has a parallel in a Western museum or is part of an according object-group.3 This is of course not news, not at all singular to the field of Indian and Pakistani painting and not even all-encompassing or absolute – but it is still relevant for an effort toward a broad decolonization of collections.

25A further aspect goes again back to the origins of the paintings and drawings. At court they were not only used in contexts of entertainment but also in educational processes and practices. Some of them had a deeply spiritual context. They were painted in sets or series and viewed as such by people trained or being trained in culture, literature, religion and aesthetics. Reducing them to objects of art in a Western sense and dispersing them to collections worldwide is depriving the paintings of an essential part of their meaning. While it is not possible to bring back the original context of the paintings, it is important to attempt to reconstruct it, communicate it and take it into account.

Exhibition and viewing practices

26Finally, decolonizing collections includes decolonizing exhibition practices and means to provide visitors with information about the context of production, use and history (including provenance) of an artifact. The way they are presented to the audience can vary, and this variance is essential for their perception. I will finish with two examples connected to the viewing practice of Indian and Pakistani paintings and drawings in their historical context.

27As already mentioned, the paintings were originally viewed by single persons or small groups on specific occasions. When not being viewed, they were wrapped in fabrics and stored in wooden boxes or trunks. They were not meant to hang on walls, not for months (during an exhibition) or years (at home for decoration). While contemplating a painting, the connoisseur held it in his hands, moved it in the light and could go very close with his eyes. He or she was sitting comfortably and may have enjoyed music, drinks, food or a hookah (see figure 1).

28For several reasons a museum cannot create such a situation of art contemplation, but it makes a huge difference to look at an Indian painting hanging on the wall rather than at an angle which is at least close to the way one would look at it while holding it. That was the way they were meant to be seen; they were painted for this perspective, and it is possible to construct showcases for such a presentation (see figure 2).

Figure 2: Park-Villa Rieter: showcases for Indian painting at Museum Rietberg, Zurich.

Figure 2: Park-Villa Rieter: showcases for Indian painting at Museum Rietberg, Zurich.

Photo © Caroline Widmer.

29Paintings and drawings from the Indian or Pakistani cultural area are almost always composed with a border. The loose folios can be grasped at the border, paintings can be enlarged with borders, albums are characterized by borders – borders have a wide range of functions and information. Museums and publishers have the choice to present a painting showing only the painted section or the entire folio including the border. The significance of the border is something which has been dismissed for a long time and still goes on (see figure 3).

Figure 3: Not yet identified master of the Mughal workshop, Portrait of a Mughal Prince, detail and full folio.

Figure 3: Not yet identified master of the Mughal workshop, Portrait of a Mughal Prince, detail and full folio.

Photo © Rainer Wolfsberger, Museum Rietberg, Inv. No. 2023.326.

Tentative conclusion

30Discourse of media, origins, provenance, use and property, academic profile and viewing practices are the aspects taken from daily work as a curator for “Indian paintings” in a public museum, all of which are linked to the question of decolonization of collections in museums and academic institutions. This list is far from being complete and we could also talk about questions traditionally treated in art history as style developments, subjects, techniques, materials and workshop situations, among others. Collaborative projects with scholars and artists and connoisseurs from the countries of origin are necessary and have been initialized in many institutions for years.4 A collaborative approach to research, collection management, acquisition, publishing and exhibition planning seems to be the only way not only to work on colonial heritage but also to find an inclusive and future-oriented handling of collections. It is important to take as many perspectives into account as possible; to step back from monopolizing knowledge and to approve knowledge (including terms, categories, languages etc.) rooted outside the Western academic scholarship, and to concede non-Western aesthetics. However, the projects have to be independent in structure and politics and need to take into account that colonial aspects or workings are not restricted to colonial times. The question of power is still relevant: who pays, decides, selects projects and people working on them? And for what reason? Collaboration is not needed for reasons of manifestation of ideologies or because it is en vogue. Shouldn’t the goal be the intrinsic motivation – in my case about the paintings and drawings of the Indian-Pakistani cultural area – to negotiate joint knowledge and historiography?

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Harris, G. (2023, May 15). Indian government challenges British newspaper report that it is making ‘largest repatriation claim’ against UK. The Art Newspaper.

Oehler, M. & Schaffer, S. (2024, January 3). Wie der umtriebigste Kunsthändler der Welt indische Götter stahl und bis nach Zürich verkaufte. [Podcast]. NZZ

Solomon, T. (2021, July 29). National Gallery of Australia returns artifacts bought from disgraced dealer to India. ARTnews.

Solomon, T. (2023, March 17). Investigation links more than 77 Indian antiquities in the Met’s collection to prolific trafficker Subhash Kapoor. ARTnews.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York (2022, July 21). The Metropolitan Museum of Art acquires more than 80 paintings and drawings from the Howard Hodgkin Indian Collection. [Press release].

The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York (2023, March 30). The Met to return 15 sculptures to India. [Press release].

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1 See also: von Schwerin, U. (2023, November 28). Indiens geraubte Götter: Wie ein New Yorker Galerist gestohlene Skultpuren bis nach Zürich verkauft hat. NZZ.

2 Bangladesh would be included as well; however, it plays a minor role for this field.

3 See auctions, referring to the collector, celebrating his or her artistic taste, e.g.: (visited in April 2024).

For objects named after a Western collection see: or or, as an attempt of renaming (visited in April 2024)

4 To mention only one example related to Indian painting:

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Table des illustrations

Titre Figure 1: Purkhu from Kangra (attributed), Maharaja Sansar Chand contemplates paintings with his courtiers.
Crédits Photo © Rainer Wolfsberger, Museum Rietberg, Inv. No. 2005.9
Fichier image/jpeg, 140k
Titre Figure 2: Park-Villa Rieter: showcases for Indian painting at Museum Rietberg, Zurich.
Crédits Photo © Caroline Widmer.
Fichier image/jpeg, 488k
Titre Figure 3: Not yet identified master of the Mughal workshop, Portrait of a Mughal Prince, detail and full folio.
Crédits Photo © Rainer Wolfsberger, Museum Rietberg, Inv. No. 2023.326.
Fichier image/jpeg, 947k
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Caroline Widmer, « Collections off the grid, but in a net: In search for (de)colonial issues of South-Asian paintings »ICOFOM Study Series, 52-1 | 2024, 103-113.

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Caroline Widmer, « Collections off the grid, but in a net: In search for (de)colonial issues of South-Asian paintings »ICOFOM Study Series [En ligne], 52-1 | 2024, mis en ligne le 03 juillet 2024, consulté le 16 juillet 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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Caroline Widmer

Museum Rietberg – Zurich, Switzerland
Email: caroline.widmer[at]

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