Thursday, September 4, 2014

The other leg

The focal point of the bronze gallery at the Chennai Government Museum is the Natesha at the far end of the ground floor. But that is not the only statue of Siva as the dancer. One half of the first floor of the bronze gallery is given over to a display of about a dozen Nataraja idols. Despite all the irritants in getting a proper view of them, this is something that everyone should have on their must-see list. 

The Natarajas range in antiquity from sprightly 500-year olds to more solemn 1100-year olds. They have been collected mostly from Madurai and Thanjavur; with one or two from Nagapattinam, Kanchipuram and Tiruvallore. They are wonderful examples of Chozha bronzes, prized by collectors the world over. There are several more such, which continue to be present in their temples and shrines, being used as objects of worship even today. The ones in the museum were recovered from their hiding places; they were hidden from rapacious invaders and very often forgotten for centuries before turning up on a farmer's ploughshare. 

They are much sought after by "collectors" the world over and have attracted unscrupulous middlemen, who think nothing of bribing, threatening or browbeating temple-guards in remote villages and spiriting away similar idols across the world. One of the most notorious of such antique smugglers, Subhash Kapoor (who is now in the Puzhal prison, facing trial) had managed to get several of them out, over several years, selling them not just to secretive or unscrupulous collectors, but bizarrely, even to the National Gallery of Australia. That last one is now on its way back, but many of the others would remain out of reach. The returning Nataraja is 900 years old and is in the regular posture, with its left leg raised. It is reportedly worth $5.6 million. Imagine what this one, from the 9th century CE, in a rare posture of raising the right leg, would be worth - at least now, go take a look at it!

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