Print Edition - 2015-04-25  |  On Saturday

Remembering the stolen gods

  • Joy Lynn Davis’ exhibition of paintings, which come from her years of researching sculptures that have been stolen from various parts of Kathmandu, analyses the significant impact such theft has on the lives of local inhabitants
- Rachana Chettri
Remembering the stolen gods

Apr 24, 2015-

I suppose sculptures were never meant to be art objects in Nepal. They were always made to be physical representations of divinity that generations of women and men would worship and bow before. Our gods are found in stone, their faces and limbs carved into hard, black limestone by the hands of artists who probably lived hundreds of years before us. We touch the feet of our deities in obeisance and in doing so join the millions who have done the same before us; the same act repeating itself through different individuals through the ages. Our sculptures are central to worship and religion, to society and communal life.

Remembering the Lost Sculptures of the Kathmandu Valley, an exhibition of paintings by Joy Lynn Davis that come from her years of researching sculptures that have been stolen from various parts of Kathmandu and found in private and museum collections in Europe and America to be either returned to Nepal or kept in the collections of their new owners, analyses the significant impact such theft has on the lives of local inhabitants. Davis’ large-scale paintings are accompanied by explanatory panels that feature old photographs of the stolen sculptures in their original settings. They also contain excerpts from Davis’ interviews of locals who speak of their memories of the now lost sculptures. These explanations and interviews prove crucial in making the exhibition-goer realise the significance of Davis’ paintings. The lost sculptures appear in 23-karat gold paint while the original location is rendered in colours representational of everyday reality.

There is a woman walking past an alcove that once contained a 12th century sculpture of Uma-Mahesvara in Dhulikehl in one of these paintings; A dog is sleeping in front of a temple in the Patan Durbar Square, from where a 17th century Maha Laxhmi statue was stolen in 2010. Children walk past a statue of an 18th century Ganesh in Bhaktapur, and a devotee ready to offer worship stands in front of a 15th century Laxmi Narayan in Patan. Life punctuates these paintings; these are not representations of inert stone statues but entities that were part of the lives of the communities in which they were originally made and placed.

The painting I found the saddest to look at is of a beautiful 12th century Saraswati in Pharping. The sculpture’s head was stolen in the early 1980s, brutally severed from the rest of its body. The thieves who got away with the head also broke one of Saraswati’s legs. In Davis’ painting only the head, which was returned to Nepal in 1999 and is currently on display at the National Museum in Chhauni, appears in gold. The artist has chosen to keep the leg—a replica that locals from the area got a sculptor from Patan to make—dark grey. In the painting, as in the picture that accompanies it, one can notice how the foot does not rest as smoothly as it once did. The statue’s head as seen in a contemporary photograph (a replica of the head was also made by the Patan sculptor who made the new foot) seems almost a shadow of the original. Saraswati’s bearing and expression—pensive and yet present, as if somehow heavenly although bound to earth—in the original, is harder to read in the new one. The body tells one story, the head another.

And yet other replicas are much sadder. Glorious dancing Ganeshas—surprisingly nimble for their girth—are replaced by miniature, sometimes concrete copies, that seem to fumble through their steps. To those who worship these stone gods, the physical representation itself is only a medium through which to commune with divinity and yet it is sad to see that the scales and proportions of the new gods are not quite as right. Worship continues, communities learn to accept loss and change and move on but a gaping hole is left behind by the sculptures that leave them.

As works of art, these sculptures (as seen in accompanying photographs in the explanatory panel) are exquisitely carved pieces produced by ancient civilisations—emblems that record the history of past cultures and their artistic history. In photos put up by large, multinational brokerage agencies (Sotheby’s appears again and again as a seller), these sculptures take on a tone very different from the one they have in their original settings (mostly as photographed by Lain Singh Bangdel for Stolen Images of Nepal and by Jürgen Schick for The Gods are Leaving the Country). In temples and temple entrances, in settings where these sculptures were part of the community, they are covered in vermillion. The intricate detailing in the deities’ faces and bodies are not as visibly seen; many pairs of hands touch them each day. They bring with them red powder and colourful flower petals. The sculptures are beloved symbols valued more for their presence as gods and their history as godly representations than as emblems of artistic excellence and craftsmanship.

Lynn’s work reminds us that Kathmandu’s sculptures are more than fine specimens of stone art. They are emblems that bring communities and generations together. They are part of life in Kathmandu.

The exhibition will continue at the Nepal Art Council, Babar Mahal, till May 22

Published: 25-04-2015 09:00

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