Chennai

‘What about idols stolen before 1992?’

(Left): The Somaskandar idol which was stolen from Sivapuram in 1957 is still on display in Norton Simon Museum in the US; The Tiruvelakudy Natarajar idol was returned by the Kimbell Museum after India instituted a case in London in 1980s.

(Left): The Somaskandar idol which was stolen from Sivapuram in 1957 is still on display in Norton Simon Museum in the US; The Tiruvelakudy Natarajar idol was returned by the Kimbell Museum after India instituted a case in London in 1980s.   | Photo Credit: SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

Art enthusiasts question HR&CE department’s claim; say numbers could be very high

While the Hindu Religious and Charitable Endowment (HR&CE) Department has come out with figures that 1,204 idols belonging to temples in the State were stolen between 1992 and 2017, art enthusiasts are raising questions about the numbers and status of idols which were stolen before that period.

Recently, the HR&CE Department filed a counter affidavit in the Madras High Court listing out idols which were stolen from temples in Tamil Nadu. According to the department, between 1992 and 2017, as many as 1,204 idols — 372 stone and 832 bronze — belonging to 387 temples were reported to be missing.

Art enthusiasts say the number of missing idols could be much higher if enumerated from the period prior to 1992.

‘Massive loot’

S. Vijayakumar, a heritage enthusiast of India Pride, said, “By simply stating that of the more than 1,200 thefts reported, only 56 had been solved and the possession of stolen items were restored only in respect of 18 cases, the HR&CE Department’s counter wants to brush aside the massive loot under the carpet.”

Mr. Vijayakumar said that among the few notable cases of theft was that of the Thiruvelakudy Natarajar stolen in 1978 which was returned by the Kimbell Museum, US, after India instituted a case in London in the 1980s.

Since the case was not pursued properly it had led to over 281 idols remaining abandoned in London despite being seized from the now-defunct gallery Emerald.

These included several from Tamil Nadu temples.

Accord with museum

Somaskanda Same is the case of Sivapuram bronzes stolen in 1957 wherein only the Nataraja was returned by the Norton Simon Museum after India signed an agreement, which allowed the museum to acquire without any audit over 500 items of Indian art. This list includes the Sivapuram Somaskanda that is still listed as “missing” in the police records.

“The statement pertains only from 1992 to 2017 but before that period, many idols were stolen and smuggled out. Unless a high level investigation and auditing is conducted the actual numbers of missing idols cannot be ascertained,” said another art enthusiast R.Venkataraman.

A report of the United Nations Social Defence Research Institute titled ‘The Protection of the Artistic and Archaeological Heritage’ which was released in 1976 stated that between 1969 and 1973, as many as 240 idols were stolen from Tamil Nadu. Another study by the State government published in 1967 shows that idol thefts and illegal exports had come to the attention of the authorities as far back as 1920’s and 30’s. Several of these early cases involved the illegal export of idols to France often stolen via Puducherrry. The number of reported thefts rose steeply in 1940 to 49, and this trend continued from 1950 to 1959.

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Printable version | Jul 10, 2020 11:17:21 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/news/cities/chennai/what-about-idols-stolen-before-1992/article22548433.ece

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