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Return of the Nataraja from Down Under

September 18, 2014

It is a coup of great significance.... the return of the Sripuranthan temple Nataraja and other sacred artifacts by Australia. The Modi government has achieved this without waiting for a prolonged legal battle. Even the fiery Melina Mercouri could not get the marble sculptures of the Greek Parthenon from the British Museum where they are displayed grandly as the 'Elgin Marbles.' Kudos to the Australian government.... They have understood national heritage diplomacy!

I have always maintained that security for our temples and the icons and sculptures housed in them is sadly inadequate. For more than six hundred years, our temples have been plundered and defaced mercilessly. First by invaders, who wiped out precious jewels and gold. Later by ruthless traders who saw a profitable business in selling an array of temple sculptures and artifacts to collectors. The trade has been going on without abatement, with the culprits aided by poor villagers looking for meager gains. Yes, the impoverished caretakers, even priests, were and still are hand in glove with the greedy exporters of Nataraja icons, and a host of other temple statues. We need to put an end to this now.

Like human beings, Aadhar cards have to be issued for ancient bronze images! Poor temples need help to protect their possessions. It is possible to simply carve the name of the temple on the base (peetam) of statues. Wherever thieves attempt to take them, people will see the identification mark and refuse to buy them for private collections and museums. Sometime in the early twentieth century, Indian collectors started aiding thieves by buying anything and everything stolen from temples. I use the word "stolen" because no temple will throw away their possessions, be they statues, carvings or 'Vahanas.'

Our so called art collectors are unfortunately people who are neither religious nor superstitious. If they had seen and understood the significance of the grand processions which are conducted even today in a grand manner in many big temples, they will realise how brazenly insensitive and corrupt they have been in acquiring and selling these majestic Vahanas.

We see bronzes of great variety in many temples. Many are one of a kind, with mystic powers endowed in them by years of ritualistic worship. They have no place in museums. But our museums house many which were unearthed by departments like the Archaeological Survey of India. When temples feared invasion, they buried their gods, and left them there for decades if not more. Instead of restoring them to their original glory and worship, they were placed in our museums. The reasons cited often is that they are safe.

The great Raja Raja Chola recorded everything that the Tanjore temple owned, as epigraphic data carved on the walls of the temple itself. Today when we read those details we must hang our heads in shame because with all the modern facilities available we can do better. Yet we have not even started a process of enumeration. Alas, the Tanjore temple which was one of the richest in its heydays has lost everything except one unique Nataraja.

During the celebrations for the thousandth year of the Tanjore temple built by Raja Raja, the then chief minister of Tamil Nadu, tried rather tentatively to get back the sole surviving statue of the king known to be in a private collection in Gujarat. Can the present prime minister oblige us by sending back not only Raja Raja's statue but also other superb bronzes in the said collection, such as the Devi, consort of Shiva missing from the Konerirajapuram Umamaheswara temple, and identified by experts as the one in the possession of the Ahmedabad collector. If Australia can do it, Ahmedabad should do so even more obligingly.

It is time for "ACHE DIN" to come to our temples, like a new dawn, a renaissance of caring devotion. It is time to work towards a new national policy for temples and their icons. Let us educate our people to be aware of their own cultural wealth in dusty villages and remote temples. After all they are savvy with computers and cell phones and can be enlightened. They only need some inspiration and proper instruction. Let us show the world that we can be proud that we not only inherited great icons of beauty, but also that we can care for them as they are worth it.

In silent joy, I sing a Mangalam to welcome our Nataraja back from His overseas sojourn. Look closely at this Nataraja, and you will notice His approving smile. For us dancers, Nataraja is the most beloved icon. We only want to see the image come out of the temple on the day of Tirvadirai festival in splendid festive mode. That captures our imagination like no other event. Like Nandanar, we can dance with joy at the sight. Seeing the image in a foreign museum does not inspire me at all.

Lakshmi Vishwanathan, a prime disciple of Guru Kanjeevaram Elappa Pillai, is an exponent of the Thanjavur style of Bharatanatyam. She is also a trained vocalist. She is the author of several acclaimed books: Bharatanatyam - the Tamil Heritage, Kunjamma - Ode to a Nightingale, Kapaleeswara Temple, Women of Pride -The Devadasi Heritage. Her film 'The Poetry of Dance' was commissioned by the Festival of India. The Mamallapuram Dance Festival started in 1991 was Lakshmi's brainchild. She has served on several arts committees. She has served as Vice President of Music Academy (Chennai) and is a member of South Zone Cultural Centre.

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