David Nalin: friend or smuggler of antiquities?
Guest Post by Dr. Perween Hasan
I was surprised and angered to read a report in the daily Prothom Alo (March 30, 2013) entitled ‘ This country is destined to march forward: an interview with David Nalin, a friend from overseas’. Bangladesh has recently bestowed national honours on this American physician for his assistance in the liberation war of 1971. From 1967 to 1970, and again from 1972 to 1977 Dr. Nalin was associated with the Cholera Hospital (present ICDDRB) in Dhaka. A photograph accompanied the Prothom Alo write-up so there is no chance of any confusion regarding David Nalin’s identity.
David Nalin is well known to me. During his eight-year stay in Bangladesh he smuggled out a large number of antiquities which are treasured as part of our ancient heritage. (Source: Mohammad Shahjahan, ‘Smuggling of Antiquities worth one crore’ in Weekly Bichitra , November 18, 1977). In this manner he was able to build up a private collection of ancient sculptures of Bengal that during the 1970s and 1980s ranked as the largest collection of its kind in the western world. The ancient sculptures in question are stone, bronze, copper or brass images of Hindu/Buddhist deities and utensils used in religious rituals.
I was first introduced to his collection when I was a graduate student of Art History at Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts. At that time sculptures from the Nalin Collection were sent to the Fogg Art Museum of Harvard University for cleaning, preservation and for use as study material for students. The large number of sculptures as well as their high artistic quality amazed me, and I became concerned about the manner in which such a horde could have been removed from Bangladesh.
On opening an extra large crate one day we were amazed to find that the Vishnu image inside was none other than the famous Vishnu from Sialdi, (a village near Dhaka) that had been illustrated in Nalini Kanta Bhattasali’s Iconography of Buddhist and Brahmanical Sculptures in the Dacca Museum of 1929 (Reprint: Dhaka, 2008, Plate 31, facing p. 36). In 1929 the sculpture was still in situ in a temple and had been described as “A very beautiful image of Vis(h)nu in black stone worshipped at Sialdi in Vikrampur, Dt. Dhaka. A work of art of very great merit.” On enquiry by telephone, the Museum was informed that Dr. Nalin had no legal papers for taking these treasures out of Bangladesh.
According to the Bangladesh Antiquities (Amendment) Ordinance, 1976 (amended from The Antiquities Act of 1968) no antiquity can be taken out of the country unless a license is obtained from the Director of the Department of Archaeology, Government of Bangladesh. The late Dr. Nazimuddin Ahmed, who was then the Director of Archaeology of the Government of Bangladesh wrote a letter to the Professor of South Asian Art at Harvard University. This letter was published in the issue of Weekly Bichitra issue cited above. Dr. Nazimuddin wrote:
‘…… Dr. David Nalin, while working at the Cholera Research Laboratory had illegally collected and took away a fairly large collection of early medieval sculptures to the USA, a part of which is now on loan to your famous museum…..
…..The Department of Archaeology and Museums under the Ministry of Education (presently under the Ministry of Culture) is primarily responsible for the preservation and control of all archaeological relics in the country for which the Antiquities Act of 1968 is operative. Any clandestine traffic in antiquity or their export is strictly regulated under the above Act. I have thoroughly checked all my past records, but do not find any license or permit to have been issued in his favour by this Department that enabled him to export these valuable sculptures to the USA.’
Once this information was public, Dr. Nalin removed his collection from Fogg Art Museum. But in 1985 a catalogue of a part of his collection was published by his own publishing house Nalini International Publications. The catalogue was called Medieval Sculptures from Eastern India: Selections from the Nalin Collection. Out of the sixty-one sculptures and ritual objects entered in this publication at least forty-five are from Bangladesh, the rest are probably from Bihar or Orissa.
The famous Vishnu from Sialdi is also catalogued here (Plate 57, p. 85). As far as we know Dr. Nalin has subsequently sold this sculpture to the Australian National Museum in Canberra. I have also seen a Garuda sculpture from this catalogue in the Richmond Museum of Art, Virginia, USA. This valuable collection is now dispersed in museums all over the world.
Thus this friend of Bangladesh who is also a great admirer of her history, literature, art and culture has made a handsome profit by looting the treasures of Bangladesh heritage. Does such a plunderer and smuggler deserve national honours? It was the responsiblity of the Government of Bangladesh to find out the antecedents of this robber disguised as friend. This is an appeal to the Government of Bangladesh to revoke the state honour that has been bestowed on him.
Bio: Dr. Perween Hasan is a specialist in the architecture of the Indian subcontinent. After receiving her Ph.D. from Harvard University in 1984, she was professor of Islamic History and Culture at Dhaka University. She is currently Vice-Chancellor, Central Women’s University. She has been a Fulbright Scholar-in-Residence and Shansi Visiting Professor at Oberlin College, a distinguished lecturer at the V&A in London, and a consultant to the World Bank Cultural Preservation Program, and the Social Science Research Council. Her most recent publication is Sultans and Mosques: The Early Muslim Architecture of Bangladesh (London: I. B. Tauris, 2007).
References: David Nalin Wikipedia entry