R Devadas is the prime witness in the Tataguni theft case, and was a confidant of Devika Rani
His old, weary eyes light up as he energetically speaks about "Doctor" and "Madam'', referring to world-renowned artist-painter Svetoslav Roerich and his wife, the yesteryear actor Devika Rani. For 94-year-old R Devadas, Friday brought a flood of nostalgia after he read in Bangalore Mirror about the sensational case of theft of valuable articles, paintings and jewellery - totalling up to Rs 50 lakh - from Roerich's Tataguni estate in 1994.
The prime witness and the complainant in the series of theft, cheating and breach of trust cases registered in 1994 against three people, Devadas has physically aged but his memory remains razor sharp.
"She (Devika Rani) was one of the most beautiful women of her time. I was casually introduced to the couple and that evolved into a strong, wonderful friendship between my family and Madam's (Devika Rani's). Doctor (Roerich) was a busy man and he was in a different league. But Madam was our close associate who made it a point to visit our home once a week for lunch,'' recalls Devadas.
A qualified engineer, Devadas worked on a deep-sea tuna fishing vessel and often travelled abroad on work. In the early eighties, he spotted painter Svetoslav Roerich and his actress wife Devika Rani, who were well known in the city's social and artistic circuit.
A friend who knew the couple introduced Devadas to them and thanks to his interesting work profile, Devika Rani, who was said to be quite industrious with a textile designing background, evinced interest. "In 1982-83 I met the couple and Madam became close to me first and then my wife. We would meet regularly and she enjoyed spending time with my family,'' says Devadas as his face saddens. "She was perhaps lonely and loved my family.''Devadas now leads a peaceful but active life in his Cooke Town home, notwithstanding his hearing problem. An avid reader of newspapers, this nonagenarian was in high spirits after reading Bangalore Mirror's report on the city police writing to Director of Prosecutions to fast- track the Roerich case through a special court considering Devadas' ripe age - "Key witness' age spurs cops to speed up 1994 Tataguni case''.
It apparently opened the floodgates to old memories.
"Every time I was asked to attend the court, I have religiously gone, only to see the case getting adjourned for some reason or the other. I have gone to the court 18 times and with my age catching up, it was getting difficult to sit in the courtroom for hours on end, watching other proceedings.''
Twice he missed the hearing, and in January, wrote to the magistrate to excuse him from future hearings due to his age and health. His son Gerrard who used to accompany Devadas to the court, says it took a long time for his parents to get over the death of Devika Rani in 1994. "She was very close to my mother and used to confide in her. During her years of stay at Hotel Ashok, my mother used to send her home-cooked food. Even her last birthday was celebrated in our house.''
Post her death, the police instructed all those close to the Roerich family to return items in their possession that belonged to the Roerichs. Devadas had four books gifted by Devika "Madam" besides a couple of photo-copied letters she had written to various authorities (including to the CBI chief about the illegal goings-on at their property). In fact, how Devadas became the sole complainant in the case is interesting. "When the police commenced inquiry, they recorded my statements and I told them everything. I was also aware of the six-page inventory of their property that Madam had prepared that was sent to the CBI chief. After recording everything, I was asked if my name can be mentioned in the FIR. I did not realise the importance of an FIR then and said ok...and I became the complainant and prime witness. It was very taxing, considering my health.''
Amidst the flurry of conversation, Devadas cannot stop describing how beautiful Madam was. He also remembers her last wish, an instruction to him - a particular photograph of hers that she wanted framed and garlanded post her death. "She had given me her picture from the movie Achhut Kanya where she was dressed in a beautiful red-coloured sari...and she looked ravishing! She wanted that photograph to be framed and kept near her grave. But I was not allowed to do so. The security was so tight when her body was kept in Chitra Kala Parishat,'' says Devadas. As he gets up from the chair before bidding a bye to me, he says with a sad face: "Madam had told me a lot of things; but I will not be able to disclose it to you or anybody. It's confidential."
The story so far
For those who have missed out on the background of the case, internationally acclaimed painter Svetoslav Roerich and his wife Devika Rani (Devika Rani Chaudhuri, an actress acknowledged as the first lady of Indian cinema), made Bengaluru (then Bangalore) their home. They purchased Tataguni Estate where they lived. The house had Roerich's priceless paintings, Devika Rani's heirloom jewellery, gold and antique items. This celebrity couple led an active, social life visiting art exhibitions and cultural events; and Chitra Kala Parishat was close to their hearts. They had a battery of personal staff at the estate who took care of everything right from bank accounts to extracting linalool aromatic oil (the estate has rich Bursera plantation and an oil extracting factory).
When the couple's health deteriorated, they moved out of the estate and lived in Hotel Ashok, leaving back the day-to-day management to their personal staff. Devika Rani started realizing that some precious items were missing from the house and money was being withdrawn from their bank accounts.
She had once written about her fears and suspicion to the then chief secretary and alleged that her personal secretary and her husband were stealing.
Post her death in 1994, the then city police commissioner A R Infant took up the issue seriously and registered a complaint.
Investigations revealed that a lot of priceless items had gone missing and the police recovered them including Roerich's paintings that were clandestinely sold abroad. While the personal assistant claimed that Roerichs had willed the property in her name, government fought a legal battle which went all the way up to the Supreme Court, won it and recovered the 468-acre estate.
The property was brought under Roerich and Devika Rani Roerich Estate Board, which functions under the state government's revenue department, headed by a CEO.
By Kushala S, Bangalore Mirror Bureau, Jul 25, 2015