Early last year, a group of around 20 people gathered at the ancient monolithic temples of Mammallapuram just outside Chennai. Armed with drawing pads, pencils and little else, members of the Chennai Weekend Artists were quietly sketching the 6th and 7th century sculptures within the temple complex, when a security guard accosted them. He told them they were breaking the rules, but did not elaborate. A visit to the Archaeological Survey of India office at the site to find out more proved futile as well.

"They told us that it was against the law to sketch at sites protected by the ASI [a government agency], but not one of them could tell us the reason behind such a restriction," said Ganapathy Subramaniam, a member of Chennai Weekend Artists.

After some digging, Subramaniam came across the Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Sites And Remains Rules 1959, which prohibits copying and filming protected monuments across the country.

It states:

“The Director General may, by order, direct that no person other than an archaeological officer or an officer authorized by an archaeological officer in this behalf shall 'copy' any specified monument or part thereof except under and in accordance with the terms and conditions of a permission in writing by an archaeological officer.”

Subramaniam then reached out to artist groups in Bengaluru and Hyderabad in search of more answers. "Artists everywhere were facing similar problems and I realised that this is a concern in every city," he said.

He then decided to start a petition on Change.org, urging the authorities to get rid of the law that forbids sketching at monuments or historic sites which fall under the purview of the Archaeological Survey of India.

"When we say sketching, it is from an artistic point of view and not for a survey," said Subramaniam, stressing on the need for public art. "This rule preventing sketching is archaic and needs to go. There are people taking pictures using their phone cameras and DSLRs at these sites, but we are the ones being stopped from replicating what we see on paper. It's absurd.

Roundabout process

The law states that permission can be given under some circumstances to those who apply for it. However, Subramaniam found out that the process takes about a week and because the locations for the Chennai Weekend Artists’ excursions were generally not decided so much in advance, obtaining permission in time would prove to be difficult.

The process involves writing to the concerned ASI circle or the director general's office with details about one's identity and purpose, based on which a decision is taken on granting permission.

Sketches by members of Chennai Weekend Artists. Source: Ganapathy Subramaniam
Sketches by members of Chennai Weekend Artists. Source: Ganapathy Subramaniam

The Pencil Jammers, an artist group from Bengaluru, are well-acquainted with the procedure. Smitha Shivaswamy, co-founder of Pencil Jammers, said that they have obtained permission from the ASI on a few occasions for visits to places like the Tipu Sultan Summer Palace, but not without red tape. "You do get permission, but there have been instances where we got the confirmation letter after the date that we had applied for had gone, so we had to write to the authorities again," said Shivaswamy. "They say you can email the ASI office and get permission, but no one replies to these emails."

Subramaniam questions the need for any procedure at all. “It is cumbersome and meaningless. One cannot always plan these things," he said. If a tourist artist happens to visit an ASI-protected monument and wants to draw, he/she should be able to. Having to pay a fee is understandable, but nobody is going to run around on a holiday to get permission.

Last month, Subramaniam and a couple other artists made another attempt to visit Mamallapuram and sketch. “This time we were almost thrown out," he said. "We thought that if we were smaller in number and inconspicuous enough, then it might not be a problem. but we ended up having to sketch from outside the fenced area.”

An artist sketching from outside the Mamallapuram Temple complex. Source: Ganapathy Subramaniam).
An artist sketching from outside the Mamallapuram Temple complex. Source: Ganapathy Subramaniam).

Calling for change

The Change.org petition, which was started on February 29, has gathered nearly a 1,000 signatures over the past three weeks and artists from across India have used the comments section to express their support and jot down their experiences. “I’ve had several small skirmishes with ASI security guards about this from Hampi to Qutab Minar,” writes one artist.

A few have related incidents where their drawings were torn off by the security guards. "I am signing this because I am studying architecture and I have been through the inconvenience of not being able to sketch, and what little I had on the canvas being torn off,” writes Priyanjita Adhikari.

Subramaniam's email to ASI's director general's office is yet to be acknowledged. Shharat Sharma, additional director general, ASI, denied that the process of obtaining permission is cumbersome and said that permissions are granted within a day. However, he was unable to give a reason for the restrictions. He added that he was not aware of any petition in this regard.

Shivaswamy and her group said they have personally never faced rude behaviour from security guards at ASI-protected sites, they have always been told not to sketch. Shivaswamy said she will be signing the petition because she believes artists should be allowed to practice their art and as long as they are not making a mess, there should not be any objections.

The artists, however, are open to a compromise. "Maybe they could restrict the use of easels, but allow those with handheld sketchpads to sit and draw," suggested Subramaniam.