Two years after the Australian National Gallery gave a stolen sculpture back to India, it remains in police storage — and the south Indian villagers awaiting its return say they still do not know when their prized Dancing Shiva will come home.
In Sripuranthan’s temple, the village’s Hindu priest recites a hymn and makes offerings to the god Nataraja — the dancing Shiva — seeking the blessing of village elder Subramaniam.
But where the town’s prized, 900-year-old bronze Shiva statue should stand is a mere poster.
Outside, Subramaniam says villagers’ pleas for its return have so far been ignored.
“We’ve asked the Government to have the statue back. It is very sad that the Government has not returned it to us,” he says.
The idol sits locked in police storage, as evidence against the man accused of masterminding its theft, Subhash Kapoor.
Subramaniam says Sripuranthan feels less prosperous without the god’s watchful absence.
“Nataraja is a very powerful god — while this statue was there, we got more rain and we could plant three crops a year and live very well,” he says.
Statue used as evidence in a complex case
Thieves broke into the temple in 2006, making off with the valuable icon.
Kapoor, who is in prison in India awaiting trial after being extradited from the US, then allegedly forged documents about its origin, and ultimately sold it to the Australian National Gallery.
Last month, fresh questions emerged about other items of Indian origin in the gallery’s collection, also supplied by Kapoor.
The Dancing Shiva’s theft was traced with the help of records kept in the former French colonial outpost Pondicherry — now Puducherry.
“We provided about 28 images to idol wing CID,” says historian N. Murugesan, from the French Institute in Puducherry.
“One of them was this Nataraja, which they located in the National Gallery of Australia. Because of this documentation only we were able to get back the stolen artefact.”
Hopes rise before being dashed
During a visit to India in 2014, then prime minister Tony Abbott returned the statue, and that raised Sripuranthan’s hopes.
But two years on, another villager, Selvan Radhakrishnan, says they are still waiting.
“We feel so unhappy; we need the statue. We have to bring [it] again in our temple,” he said.
The idol was brought back for one festival, but police then took it away again.
With fresh allegations still being made against Kapoor, the case against the accused thief is likely to drag on for years.
Subramaniam says what he cannot understand is why the Dancing Shiva must remain in police custody for the case’s entirety.
“They’re saying it may take a few more years,” he laments.
“But this is our property, and we will safeguard the statue.”