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Friday, June 28, 2013

Lord Nataraja exhibited at Canberra Gallery ~ the injustice that we do to our Gods.....

The National Gallery of Australia in Canberra  is the national art museum of Australia as well as the largest art museum in Australia, holding more than 166,000 works of art.  It was established in 1967 by the Australian government as a national public art museum. The geometry of the building is based on a triangle, most obviously manifested for visitors in the coffered ceiling grids and tiles of the principal floor  ~ and we are reading more of this because of a 1000 year old Nataraja of Chola dynasty.

Chola dynasty ruled our land well and  for long. The heartland of the Cholas was the fertile valley of the Kaveri River.  Under Rajaraja Chola and his son Rajendra Chola  the dynasty became a military, economic and cultural power in South Asia and South-East Asia. The Cholas left a lasting legacy. Their patronage of Tamil literature and their zeal in the building of temples has resulted in some great works of Tamil literature and architecture. The Chola kings were avid builders and envisioned the temples in their kingdoms not only as places of worship but also as centres of economic activity. The Chola period is also remarkable for its sculptures and bronzes.

The idols were sculpted intricately not for being admired for their beauty but were ‘the ones meant for worship’ in the big temples decorated by them…………… and sadly, we read about the news of a  1000-year-old Nataraja sculpture stolen from a temple in Tamil Nadu and allegedly sold to the National Gallery of Australia (NGA) in Canberra. The entry details in the Art Gallery describes the statue of ‘dancing Nataraja’ as :

Chola dynasty (9th-13th centuries)India
Shiva as Lord of the Dance [Nataraja] 11th-12th century
bronze lost-wax casting : 128.5 h x 106.0 w x 40.0 d cm
Purchased with the assistance of the National Gallery of Australia Foundation 2008 : Accession No: NGA 2008.1

The God is further described in their website as :   *** Shiva as Lord of the Dance is probably the best-known sculptural image in Indian art. The powerful Hindu god Shiva appears encircled by flames, representing the boundaries of the cosmos, as he performs his dance of destruction and creation. The iconography for this popular depiction developed early in the Chola period (ninth to thirteenth centuries) in south India. It was during that time, under the patronage of the rulers of today’s Tamil Nadu, that bronze casting reached its pinnacle for temple and shrine. The graceful elegance and delicate intricacy of this sculpture is matched by the striking animation of the dancing figure. Locks of hair and waist sash flying, Shiva beats the rhythm of creation on the drum in his upper right hand. His raised left leg symbolises the potential for liberation from the cycle of birth and rebirth. During this dance of bliss, Shiva’s right foot quashes darkness and ignorance in the form of a demonic dwarf. The swaying hood of a snake can be seen wrapped around one of the god’s right arms, while another serpent appears in his tresses on the left. Opposite, the upper torso of the river goddess Ganga (Ganges) nestles in his matted hair which, in dance, has been likened to the spray of the sacred river.

Ron Radford (ed), Collection highlights: National Gallery of Australia, NGA Publishing, Canberra, 2008  Text © National Gallery of Australia, Canberra 2010

Earlier, the NGA had been denying any wrongdoing and had even stated that they had not been approached by Indian Police / authorities. Now following pressure,  NGA has  released a detailed press release explaining the process of acquisition and the documents it had consulted. Here is an extract of the Press release dated 13th June 2013

***  Information on purchase of works of art from mr subhash kapoor through his gallery art of the past, New york and the 11th – 12th century bronze sculpture of shiva as lord of the dance [shiva nataraja] purchased in 2008 ** In light of recent stories in the media, the National Gallery of Australia, Canberra wishes to make a statement in relation to the purchase of works of art from Mr Subhash Kapoor through his gallery Art of the Past, New York.

Mr Subhash Kapoor is an American citizen born in India who has operated the Art of the Past gallery for over 30 years in Madison Avenue in New York City. Indian objects acquired from Art of the Past are held by at least 18 major galleries and museums around the world including the Metropolitan Museum New York, Smithsonian’s Sackler Museum, Washington; Museum of Fine Arts, Boston and Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Richmond. Works of art purchased from Art of the Past.  The National Gallery of Australia owns 21 works of art from Art of the Past collected between 2002 and 2011:

13 sculptures (2 of which are in 2 parts) from South Asia
1 sculpture from Southeast Asia
1 painting
6 photographs

These acquisitions have been funded through a combination of Government allocation and private donations. Mr Kapoor is currently facing criminal proceedings in India. As a result considerable attention has been given to the 11th – 12th century bronze sculpture of Shiva as Lord of the Dance [Shiva Nataraja] in the Gallery’s collection purchased in 2008. When the Gallery became aware of the situation in July 2012, a meeting with the Indian High Commission in Canberra was immediately arranged and the Gallery has stated publicly its willingness to cooperate with relevant authorities on this matter.

The clarifications have raised more dust… and reports question the the claims made by the Gallery earlier. Last year, the Idol Wing of the Tamil Nadu Police unravelled the role of an international network in the theft of 18 ancient bronze sculptures from two temples in Suthamali and Sripuranthan. Their investigations led to Kapoor’s arrest in Germany. He was extradited to India in July, 2012. The police, which found a visual match between the stolen Nataraja and the one displayed in the NGA, sent a letter rogatory about six months ago, seeking information. Amazingly, however, the NGA denied receiving it. This was reported in The Hindu.  When the newspaper’s sources got in touch with the Australian Attorney General’s Department that handles international requests for assistance, it refused to either confirm or deny the receipt of a letter rogatory. A spokesperson, citing Australian laws, said they could not disclose details. However, newspapers across the world and blog sites that track illicit antiquities, kept the pressure on and highlighted how various museums including the NGA had purchased artefacts from Kapoor without verifying the provenance certificate — a record of its successive ownership.

The gallery claimed it had verified a certificate issued by the Art Loss Register, which mentioned that the Nataraja was not in its register of stolen objects. The gallery consulted Tamil Nadu police websites and liaised with a certain Chola bronze expert in India, it further stated. The Hindu reports that the NGA refused to reveal the names of the experts consulted and when correspondent of The Hindu  spoke to some well-known experts in ancient sculptures in Chennai; all of them denied any knowledge of the Nataraja. The NGA had not contacted them. Police sources too confirmed they were not contacted either. The most damaging evidence challenging the claims of the NGA was published recently in ‘Chasing the Aphrodite’ (, a blog site run by Jason Felch, a reporter with the Los Angeles Times,  and reports that the “The story of the Washington owner was a fabrication, the records show,” the blog says. The Idol Wing of the police had stated on their website that one of Kapoor’s accomplices had shipped a consignment containing a stolen Nataraja to the U.S. in November 2006. Another claim by the NGA that it had checked records of the Archaeological Survey of India before purchasing the Nataraja is not verifiable since the gallery does not provide names of the persons it consulted.

The idol smuggler Subash Kapoor was arrested in Germany last October for smuggling antique idols allegedly stolen from temples in Tamil Nadu and Kerala. He was extradited to India two weeks ago and is in custody in Chennai.  It is further reported that last week, US federal customs agents seized $US20 million worth of Indian temple statues from four Manhattan storage units allegedly leased by Mr Kapoor. They found dozens of ancient carvings and bronze and sandstone religious statues that they believe were taken from temples and other spiritual sites.

The New York Post quoted the Tamil Nadu deputy inspector general, A.G. Pon Manickavel, as saying: “From what Kapoor told us, he earned more than [$US11 million] by selling ancient idols stolen from temples in Tamil Nadu [state].” The allegations have reverberated around the international art world. “Some of the artefacts seized during this investigation – which are stolen – have been displayed in major international museums worldwide,” the Immigration and Customs Enforcement division of the Homeland Security Department said. “Other pieces that match those listed as stolen are still openly on display in some museums. HSI will aggressively pursue the illicit pieces not yet recovered.”

It is often assumed,  that all antiquities in museum collections or on the art market were illegally removed from their country of origin. To put it simply the Cholas or any other dynasty for that matter – were great believers of Hinduism [Saiva or Sri Vaishnava agamas] and the idols of God were only made to be kept in places of worship. Sadly, in some places over the years when the villages lost their economic sheen, people moved out or villages were destroyed by nature and other means, there by the temples became somewhat neglected. Ruthless criminals have exploited these and have stolen the antique idols and have shipped them abroad illegally making huge money……… all those involved, those who stole, those who abetted, those who assisted in moving them and those who bought fully aware that they were not acquired legally – all needs to be punished.

For us the idols are Gods meant to be worshipped – kept properly Temples, offered poojas ritualistically………..  Aside, the following should pain the Asthiga [believers] ~ the next time you visit a bigger temple down South in Tamilnadu  [be it a Sri Vaishnava  Divyadesam or a famous Saivaite shrine] you can observe that the Temple would house number of Murthis [vigrahams of Gods]……….. the explanation offered would that ‘it was considered unsafe keeping them in their original temples’ and hence kept here………… the idol of God for sure was earlier installed in that temple following agamas and practices. It serves absolutely no purpose when a Murthi is taken out of His temple and housed elsewhere  - at best it would be a exhibit – and its tremendous injustice to God, to our ancestors who promoted our culture and built temples and to our innerself.

With anguish – S. Sampathkumar.

Photos of Nataraja : source :

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