May 17, 2013

Padma Kaimal, author of "Scattered Goddesses: Travels with the Yoginis" traveled to museums to study the legacy from a lost temple in South India



Kait Murphy (ARCA '11) in front of 10th
century 
Kanchipuram yogini
at the Sackler Galleries of Art in
Washington D.C. 
Kait Murphy (ARCA 2011) interviews Padma Kaimal, the Author of “Scattered Goddesses: Travels with the Yoginis” which examines the cultural history, theft, and reunion of South Indian temple sculptures.

What happens to sacred objects lost over the centuries? What stories can they tell? Does their meaning change? Padma Kaimal, professor of art and art history and Asian studies at Colgate University, dreams of reuniting 10th century goddesses from a temple in South India. She chronicles the journey of these objects and their collective meaning.  Their creation, dispersal, theft, sale, and museum acquisitions paint a colorful history that has been pieced together to explore how and why objects travel around the globe.

In Kaimal's new book, "Scattered Goddesses: Travels with the Yoginis," we can look at the storied past of most (but not all) goddesses that once graced a now-lost temple in Kanchipuram, India.

Through Kaimal’s outreach to museums and scholars around the world, 19 sculptures re-emerged from the original 64 in museums and private collections planting the beginnings of a reunion and telling the tale of their travels, theft, sale, and current locations.

Some highlights from an interview with Padma Kaimal:
KM: How did you get involved in this project? 
PK: I became involved while looking at another 8th century monument in the same region and noticed the goddesses were really important.  Starting in 2003, I emailed museums and a bunch responded and invited me to look at their files. They would email scans of their images and I started diagramming and mapping where they all were. 
KM:  What is the history of the statues? 
PK: The only information to go on for dating them is from their style and comparison to carved objects in northern Tamilnadu in the first 3 quarters of the 10th c.  Sometime between the 10th c -19th c, the temple was broken into and each of the goddesses was damaged to some degree with features hacked off like their noses and hands.  Evidence from other research shows that all other religions were afraid of this sect of Hindu tantric goddesses.  This was a secret sect so most people viewing seductive powerful women were frightened and didn’t understand their message. 
At some point in the early 20th century, seven goddess sculptures were salvaged and reassembled into a new temple.  In 1926, a poor laborer reported to a French archeologist about interesting objects he found.  This archeologist sent photos and descriptions to an art dealer back in Paris, which traced the objects directly from India to France. 
Back in Paris, France, C.T. Loo was the single most important art dealer with access to Asian art. His markets were Europe and the United States.  He had high standards for the works he acquired. He re-educated museums on what they needed to be buying in terms of high art.  He got the museums on board and changed the collections.  His goal was about the art preservation and education in addition to being a profitable businessman.  Loo was behind the French archaeologist’s research in India and he paid his travel and room and board to find art.  Also perhaps involved in the acquisition of these objects was the British director of the Madras Government museum.  He was probably aware of the extraction and was able to retain two of the objects so that they would stay in Madras (now Chennai), India.  In 1926, Loo began to sell the objects to various collectors and museums with the last one sold in 1960. 
With the dispersal of the objects, the book exposes fragments along the path and helps   connect the vectors to figure out where the objects were and ended up.  There are still two goddesses that haven’t been found and it is thought that they are in private hands somewhere.  Further research will help continue the chase.  There is theft and rescue in this story but there is no separation between the good and bad guys.  The same people were acting with motives we admire as well as those we deplore. The goddesses will always be somewhere else, even if they are some day repatriated to India.  All trace of their original home has been lost. 
KM: What is the status of the project?
PK: I am continuing to travel around to the different museums I went to for the research where the statues are located. Now some of these museums want me to return to share with their communities the stories of these objects on permanent display. But they are displayed by themselves and have lost their context. 
One of my current projects is to go to each museum and re-contextualize the objects for curators and communities and those who support their museums.  I want them to be on board and know they have amazing objects.  Since government funding is disappearing and museums rely more on local buy in, that education is important. 
Some places identify the museums as the bad guys in cultural property theft appropriation, which is an unfortunate tendency of the blame game.  Museums are the last stop and we have to think about the whole chain of transport and extraction as well as the museums themselves. How do we support the museum’s responsibility and their response to the histories? We need to support them so they take care of the objects.  We also need to convince them to tell the journey of objects in the display.  Adding photographs and describing the long road of their history are important factors in leading to a reunion. 
KM: What's next?
PK: I will continue to speak to museums as long as they want me and I would be happy to help to broker some trades to begin to reunite the objects.  Each museum has one or a few object from various sites.  It may be possible to facilitate some switches to reassemble the goddesses in an historical recreation.  When you see these goddesses with each other, it is very exciting and they mean something different together than apart.  They are variations on a theme and share the same basic physical format but with different objects in hand, seated on platforms, different hair and eyes.  When the pattern emerges, it makes clear that visualizing Shakti, feminine force/power, was the part of the intent of the artists. 
The Freer and Sackler Galleries of Art in Washington DC, have put together an exhibition on yoga as a tantric practice which will open this October 2013. Kaimal is a consultant on which sculptures might join the Sackler Gallery’s Kanchipuram yogini. The exhibition will be open October 19, 2013 through January 26, 2014. 
Details on the exhibit can be found: http://www.asia.si.edu/exhibitions/future.asp

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