“Scattered Goddesses” with Padma Kaimal

“This is a book that is about a collection of sculptures that are now in museums around the world, mostly in Western Europe. At this point, there’s no hope in finding the place where they were housed on the ground. First, they go to Paris, then, from Paris they scatter,” Professor of Art & Art History and Asian Studies Padma Kaimal said of her new release, “Scattered Goddesses: Travels with the Yoginis.”

Thus began her ALANA (African, Latin American, Asian, Native American Cultural Center) talk on the mystery of an intriguing set of 19 South Indian goddesses, whose illegal exportation appears to have been part of an Indian-born European’s plan to save South Asian culture and teach Westerners how to appreciate it. Kaimal is continuing that effort, telling the story of the statues and showing pictures of the fierce, feminine nudes. She began with two very specific pictures from the collection.

“I’ve made a promise to myself that I would show these pictures every time I spoke about my book and ask, is either of these in your basement?” Kaimal said to the audience.

These two goddesses are missing, presumably part of an illicit deal that snatched them out from under the nose of the man who bought the rest. That man, Juveau Dubois, and his partner, C.T. Lu, were incredibly influential, according to Kaimal.

“At first, I thought Dubois was the classic European colonial marauder galloping around victimized Asia, but he was actually born in Asia, and he hated France. When he was in France, he spent most of his time wondering, ‘why am I not in India?'” Kaimal said.

His partner was of a similar mindset. “‘You guys have all the junk, cheap stuff for export,” Kaimal said summarizing Lu’s business strategy. “They, [the knowledgeable Asian collectors], have jade collections: stuff you don’t understand yet, but you should buy it anyway.’ He wanted Asian art to be represented by more dignified art.” The unlikely pair of saviors elevated South Asia in the art world.

“They were single-handedly responsible for almost every single piece of [South Asian] art on display in American museums right now. C.T. Lu paid Dubois’s expenses to live in India finding art, and he actually wrote important books [on Indian culture],” Kaimal said.

Of course, just as Lu and Dubois weren’t the villains Kaimal had imagined, they weren’t the perfect heroes either. In Kaimal’s words, they were both “right and wrong, thieves and idealists,” men who never visited the sites from which they obtained their artifacts and art-lovers who took great care with cultural preservation. Dubois and Lu managed to save most of the statues Kaimal has fallen in love with, but at a price; Kaimal can now only speculate about their original temple.

“As a set of goddesses, what might their home have looked like when they were made? I tried to imagine how they once might have filled a circular goddess temple, the roof open to the sky so that sunlight or moonlight and starlight might have filled the courtyard, and you sit down in front of one of the goddesses. As soon as you sit down and look at one of these goddesses, they look at you. Their eyes follow you,” Kaimal said, her passion for the story clear.

Contact Lee Tremblay at [email protected]