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Updated: April 17, 2014 04:31 IST

Waiting for the Nataraja

Nirupama Subramanian
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The Nataraja idol
Special Arrangement The Nataraja idol

National Gallery of Australia has until April 26 to press claim for ownership

The Australian government may take a decision as early as next week on returning to India a bronze Nataraja stolen from a temple in Tamil Nadu controversially acquired by the country’s premier art institution from the antiquities dealer Subhash Kapoor who is now on trial for idol theft and smuggling.

The National Gallery of Australia bought the 11 century bronze from Kapoor for $5.6 million as the centrepiece of its collection of Indian art in 2007, four years before his dramatic arrest and extradition to India. Kapoor is being tried by a court in Tamil Nadu.

The gallery, which has defended its purchase, has 30 days from the time it received a notice under the Australian Protection of Moveable Cultural Heritage Act to press an ownership claim for the idol.

The notice was served on the gallery on March 26, the same day the Australian Attorney General’s department announced it had received a request from the Indian government for the return of the idol.

The Attorney-General’s office is processing that request. Unless the NGA makes a claim of ownership by April 26, the idol will be forfeited by the government. The decision on returning it can be expected soon after.

Exhibit removed

The idol, removed by the NGA from public display on the day it received the notice, has been seized by the authorities.

Should the NGA decide to press a claim, it will get four more months to provide supporting evidence, and a decision can be taken only after the expiry of this period.

But all indications are that the NGA has stepped back from its once most-prized possession. The government has seemed eager to draw a line under the controversy that has burnt the image of the prestigious gallery, and earned it unfavourable international attention.

Last month the Attorney General, George Brandis, who is also the Arts Minister, said that the “due diligence standards of the NGA, which are very high, in fact are world’s best practice, were in my view not sufficiently complied with on this particular occasion.”

Though no government or NGA official has directly conceded that the gallery bought a stolen item, Mr. Brandis’s remark, made to the state-funded television channel ABC last month and the swift removal of the idol thereafter, were seen as a tacit admission, and the strongest indication yet that the government was preparing to return the item to India.

At the NGA’s Indian subcontinent section, the spot where the Shiva stood is empty. It has not been replaced with any other exhibit. A stone Nandi, also from the Chola era, which the Gallery placed in front of the Nataraja, remains in its spot.

The section has on display other items bought from the fallen dealer. In all, the NGA, housed in a sweeping modernist building of raw concrete, bought 22 items from Kapoor. The total cost of the acquisitions was $11 million over 10 years. They include a pair of Vijayanagara dynasty dwarapalas from Tamil Nadu about which the state police’s idol wing is now seeking information from the public in order to get a fix on which temple it came from and when it went missing.

Another Kapoor-provenance item is an exquisite 18th ivory carving of Christ from Goa, about 2.4 ft, and apparently a crucifix. In a collection otherwise heavy on Hinduism, Buddhism and Islam, the crucifix is meant to show the spread of Christianity in the subcontinent.

The NGA sold another smaller Nataraja from its collection, this one without a ring of fire around it, to the Louvre to raise part of the funds it needed to buy the Dancing Shiva.

The Gallery has maintained it did all the due diligence that was possible before the controversial acquisition, and that until his arrest, there was no whiff of scandal around Kapoor. Ron Radford, the director of the museum who is stepping off in September this year, said that if the bronze was indeed stolen, the NGA was “a victim of an audacious fraud”. His resignation is said to be unrelated to the controversy.

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