Tagore’s paintings under threat in Nepal

By Sudeshna Sarkar, IANS,

Kathmandu : As the 150th birth anniversary celebrations of Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore begins in India, some of his legacy lies unrecognised and unappreciated in neighbouring Nepal, in dire danger of theft and destruction.

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“There are at least three to four paintings by Tagore hanging in public places in Nepal,” says Sangeeta Thapa, art curator and director of Siddhartha Art Gallery in Kathmandu. “Very few people have any idea about their worth. I don’t want to say even where they are for fear they will get stolen.”

In the past, Thapa says, Kolkata, Varanasi and Allahabad were centres of culture, education and even politics where the who’s who, intellectuals and art lovers of Nepal went.

“The Rana prime ministers of Nepal were passionate collectors of art and went to Kolkata to buy the Bengal masters,” she says. “There are Tagores – both Rabindranath and (his nephew) Abanindranath in private collections in Nepal. But because of the volatile political situation here, no one is willing to talk about what they own.”

In the centenary year of the poet, musician, novelist and playwright, Thapa was approached by Prakash Rimal, the grandson of a famed Nepali politician, who said he possessed a Tagore painting and wanted it evaluated for a prospective sale.

“It was a serigraph signed Rabindranath Tagore,” Thapa recollects. “A Christ-like face that was gifted by Tagore to Rimal’s grandfather Surya Prasad Upadhyay when Upadhyay was living in Kolkata.”

Thapa put it on the Internet, asking for offers so that she could gauge what it was worth. What she received instead was a fuming letter from Visva-Bharati university, forbidding her to sell the painting. Visva-Bharati was founded nearly 100 years ago by Tagore.

“They said there was a stay on the sale of Tagore’s paintings in India and I could not sell it,” Thapa says. “I wrote back, saying this was Nepal, a sovereign independent country, where the stay did not apply.”

However, the ensuing debate and heat made the owner change his mind about selling the serigraph and that was the last time Thapa saw it.

“Since he shuttles between Nepal and the US, it could be in the US as well,” she says.

Thapa says that many prominent public buildings in Nepal were gifted to the government by the Ranas.

“The foreign ministry was handed over intact with priceless paintings and chandeliers,” she says. “Now part of it has become the president’s palace. I have been urging the foreign ministry to do an inventory before more invaluable items get stolen or damaged due to lack of preservation.”

She says she will disclose where the Tagore paintings are only if the Nepal government promises to remove them and put them in a museum protected by guards.

Nepal is a treasure trove of statutes, wooden carvings and paintings with its past rulers boasting of incredible collections. It is also a paradise for thieves due to the lax security.

There are regular incidents of priceless ancient statues being stolen from temples and public places and smuggled out.

“About four months ago, one of the most beautiful and sensuous statues of Uma and Maheshwar, showing the goddess sitting half in the lap of her consort, was stolen from the Sundari Chowk, (a public square near the old royal palace in Patan),” laments Thapa.

“It was of copper gilded with gold and all we had was one paragraph in the papers saying it was missing.”