A canvas of many possibilities

Heritage

A canvas  of many possibilities

The serene Tataguni estate on Kanakapura road in Bangalore, once owned by famous Russian painter Svetoslav Roerich and his film actress wife Devika Rani, has been in the news in recent times for all the wrong reasons.

The bio-rich estate spread across 468 acres lost about 20 green trees (in place of removing dead and fallen trees of eucalyptus and silver oak). Sizygium cumini (Jamun) trees were axed by a contractor without a valid permit from the forest department. Later, a fire broke out on the fringes of the estate. Luckily it did not cause extensive damage. Bursera trees (lavender) which have brought a unique identity to the estate, were not affected. There is an estimated 9,000 trees in the estate. It falls under the Elephant Corridor and a paradise for a variety of birds.

Protecting such a vast area in Bangalore is a tough job. The estate is spread on both the sides of the Bangalore-Kanakapura stretch. While the 327 acres where the bungalow and studio are located have been fenced, the remaining 141 acres are yet to be fenced. The strength of the police personnel assigned to protect the entire property is a measly four.  The real estate value in the area, located about 18 km from Vidhana Soudha, is not less than Rs two crore per acre. One can imagine the immense value of this place which also has great heritage value.

Legislation
The estate, though taken over by the Karnataka government, is out of bounds for the public. When M C Nanaiah was the law minister, The Roerich and Devika Rani Roerich Estate (Acquisition & Transfer) Act, 1996 was enacted to facilitate taking over the property in public interest. Roerich passed away in 1993 when he was 89, while his wife died in 1994. The childless couple had neither left a will nor had named an heir.
Since 1996, the legal battle for rights over the property is going on. A private company, KT Plantations, and Mary Joyce Poonacha, who was the PA to Devika Rani, have claimed shares in the estate. They have challenged the legislation in the Supreme Court after the Karnataka High Court upheld the Act. The matter is pending for disposal before a constitutional bench of the apex court since 2004.
But how keen is Karnataka in preserving this heritage centre which has emotional and cultural significance to both India and Russia? How can the rich legacy left by the couple be showcased and preserved for  posterity?

A walk around the bungalow, studio and the lake area shows the tasteful life led by the late couple. They had made this their home for nearly five decades. There is a laboured effort by the government to keep the place tidy. The vintage structures, where artifacts and other belongings of the couple are stored, are sealed by the police. The rejuvenated 11-acre lake is a feast to the eyes, thanks to the Lake Development Authority.
When S M Krishna was the chief minister, the birth centenary of Roerich was celebrated. The estate was kept open to the  public for a couple of days. He had declared that the estate would be protected and developed as a mark of respect to the world of art and the lasting cultural and human ties between India and Russia.
The government had announced that it would like to develop the estate as a cultural centre, establish a museum and a centre for learning art.

More to be done?
Probably these and more could have been achieved if the government had overcome the legal hurdles. Surprisingly, and sadly too, the law department is not aware of the status of the case. Advocate-General Ashok Harnhalli said that as the matter is being heard by the court, nothing much could be done at this point.
Sanjay Hegde, who appeared for Karnataka in the apex court, when contacted by this newspaper to know the latest on the case, disconnected the phone line after saying that he disliked receiving calls over his cell phone. 

According to Mujeeb Ahmed, chief executive officer, Roerich and Devika Rani Roerich Estate Board, the case was referred to a constitutional bench in 2004 and from then it is pending for hearing. The Chief Secretary is the chairman of the board. Former minister Nanaiah feels that the government should file an application before the court pleading for an early hearing. Karnataka must take special interest in this regard, he insisted.
The board is doing its bits to keep the bungalow, the studio and their contents clean as was done during the centenary year in 2004. Chief Executive Officer Ahmed has taken the initiative do dust and classify the old letters, files and photos of the Roerichs. He has classified the valuable papers and photos under seven heads.

Conservation
Now efforts are on to subject nearly 4,000 letters  / documents to chemical treatment  for which the services of  Photolam of Chennai has been sought. Nearly Rs four lakh will have to be spent to fumigate and laminate the papers. There are 241 paintings of Roerich at Venkatappa Art Gallery.  The Regional Conservation Laboratory of Mysore has been approached to restore the paintings. The estimated cost is Rs 4.3 lakh.
Plans are afoot to provide air conditioning equipment to the hall where the paintings are displayed in the Gallery. A 1947 Chevrolet, owned by the couple, is in the government’s custody. It is planned to bring back this antique beauty to the estate.
Ahmed says Russian Ambassador to India Alexander M Kadakin, during his recent visit to the estate, expressed his happiness over the maintenance of the place.
Pending legal and police cases, the least the government can do is to increase budgetary allocation to the board from the current Rs 17 lakh.

This may help in taking up more conservation programmes at the couple’s property. Occasionally the government can organise art and culture related programmes performed by small groups here so that there will be accountability from the government’s side too.

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