THE life of Nicholas Roerich (1874-1947) is the stuff of legend. The son of a highly educated lawyer in tsarist Russia, Roerich pursued his legal studies to please his father the knowledge later came in handy when he drafted the Roerich Pact to protect the cultural heritage of nations. He also learned art formally, for he knew that it was an undying passion in his life. Today, 62 years after his death, he is known primarily for his visionary paintings: 7,000 of them are formally catalogued.
A belated but nevertheless heartfelt tribute was paid to his genius in Delhi by The Academy of Third World Studies, Jamia Millia Islamia, on the occasion of a seminar on Nicholas Roerich, His Legacy and Quest. It was made possible through the tireless efforts of Manju Kak, who managed to bring on board the Lalit Kala Akademi and its enthused Chairman, Ashok Bajpai, and the Russian Centre of Science and Culture.
Roerichs wide-ranging interests would these days be called cross-cultural studies. The Central Asian expedition under his leadership started in Sikkim in 1924 and ended in the same place four years later. Says Roerich scholar L.V. Shaposhnikova: This circle comprised India, Chinese Sin Tsian, Soviet Middle Asia, Siberia, Altai, Mongolia and Tibet the expedition mapped unknown Himalayan passes and peaks, studied monuments of culture and history, gathered flora and fauna, and wrote down folklores. It was in the course of this journey that Roerichs genius as a painter became apparent.
Roerich developed an undying love and reverence for the Himalayas then and came to accept them as the repository of spiritual wisdom the likes of which could not be found elsewhere on the earth. His paintings, with or without human figures, have an other-worldliness that can move even the most sceptical of viewers. They are suffused with a glow, and the colours sing. Looking at a canvas by him on a Himalayan motif, one gets the same pleasure as from a Dhrupad Dhruvapada rendered by a realised master.
It is not surprising, in retrospect, to find that Roerich the artist is barely a footnote in any 20th century history of world art. His work does not easily fit into any of the categories created by the West. He was not a cubist, fauvist, Dadaist, surrealist or any other -ist. He celebrated spirituality and invited everyone else to do so, a trait that must have left Western artists, connoisseurs and scholars squirming, they who had rejected publicly both God and even the possible existence of spirituality. Western society, especially its intellectuals and artists, had wholeheartedly embraced materialism and with it attendant problems such as alienation of the individual from his/her environment. Roerich, for serious Western art historians and critics, was at best a charming anachronism who could draw and paint well enough the physical world that was already being captured so much better by still and cine cameras.
Western philosophy in the 20th century had cut loose from its spiritual component that had been nourished by the Jewish and thereafter Christian traditions for many centuries. It was drawing sustenance increasingly from physics and mathematics as borne out by the formulations of Martin Heidegger and Ludwig Wittgenstein, two of the most respected philosophers of the occidental world in the past 100 years. There were a few individuals though willing to concede ground to the spiritual force in life, most prominently Romain Rolland. In art, Pablo Picassos Women of Demoiselles (1906) and Marcel Duchamps Nude Descending a Staircase (eight years later) completely changed the concept of optically perceiving a painting on a two-dimensional surface. Picasso introduced the idea of depicting the human figure or an object from several angles at the same time in a painting, while Duchamp attempted to capture on canvas the continuous motion of a cine camera by showing multiple renderings of a single figure coming down a staircase. There was nothing here of the spiritual quest for the unknown found in Tibetan Buddhism or in the Upanishads. It was quite simply the artist trying to rub shoulders with the scientist, pragmatically, without any spiritual connotations. How then in such an environment would an artist like Roerich be regarded as anything other than a master of oriental sleight of hand!
Spirituality in the first three decades of the 20th century in the West was regarded as the province of middle-aged to old ladies, both those well-heeled as well as not so. The former had too much time on their hands and the latter too little money. The world had already experienced an economic depression, the likes of which had never happened before. In popular perception God had not intervened to keep the wolf from the door. There was massive unemployment, even starvation. Roerichs life and work was meant to lead one away from a world of mindless consumption and crass materialism, as if to echo Mahatma Gandhi that there was enough in this world to satisfy everyones need but not everyones greed.
Picassos engagement with the Spanish Civil War (1936-39) resulted in the 40-feet-long (12-metre-long) Guernica, which depicts the horrors of the senseless death of innocents opposed to fascism. Around the same time, Juan Miro did a mural, called The Reaper, comparable in emotional intensity to Guernica. Unfortunately, it was destroyed when General Francos right-wing air force bombed Madrid. Roerich, along with his wife Helena, a thinker of renown, and two sons George and Svetoslav, a very talented painter, was in India. He had by then realised both the vanity and futility of war, which invariably sprung from human greed. The Roerich Pact at least had an impact. The cultural heritage of warring nations was to a noticeable extent protected though England and the Soviet Union and, in the last years of the Second World War (1939-45), Germany, suffered crucial losses.
Roerichs spiritual search intensified, however, in 1923. In the words of the Tibetan scholar Ringee Eden Wangdi: In December 1923, Nicholas Roerich, with his wife Helena and son George, arrived in Darjeeling, in front of Kanchenchunga, the mountain of five treasures. At that time Darjeeling, the Town of the Lightning, was a part of Sikkim, the small kingdom located on the border between Bengal, Nepal and Tibet. In Ghoom, close to the old monastery built by a Mongolian lama who placed there a huge statue of Maitreya, the Roerich family met its Himalayan master. They lived in Darjeeling for about 15 months, in a house called Talai-Pho-Brang, which belonged to the famous 13th Dalai Lama. On their travels along west Sikkim, they met the exceptionally learned and spiritually evolved Lama Minjur Dorje, who followed them to Kullu in undivided Punjab (now Himachal Pradesh) soon after, when the Himalayan Research Institute Urusvati was set up.
It must, however, be remembered that Urusvati was first established in Darjeeling in December 1928. The Roerichs chose to relocate it to Kullu, in 1929, because of its more favourable climate. The Darjeeling connection was renewed in 1949, two years after Nicholas death, when George, accompanied by his mother, came back with the intention to live there. Not finding a house to their satisfaction, they proceeded to Kalimpong, where they lived until Helenas death in 1955.
In the mid-1940s, Svetoslav married Devika Rani, the famous actress and co-owner of the film production company Bombay Talkies. The couple in old age moved from the Roerich family headquarters in Naggar, Kullu valley, to Bangalore and lived to rue their decision. They became virtual prisoners of their secretary and her confederate, who together wanted to take over all their properties. The matter is still in the Karnataka High Court, many years after the death of Svetoslav and Devika Rani, and many valuable art objects lie in utter neglect in the mean time.
The legacy of Roerich and his quest for abiding spiritual knowledge is now all but forgotten. He was for a long time a venerable figure in alternative artistic circles in the West before the advent of existentialism with its quorum of many poseurs and a few genuine practitioners. The despair that swept all over the Western world between the two World Wars can largely be attributed to two factors: first, the incessant need to produce and consume regardless of the damage caused to the environment, and second, humans increasing vanity in thinking they are the sole arbiters of their own destiny. Amongst occidental artists, only Paul Klee, and to a certain extent Henri Matisse, celebrated the grand mystery of life. Klee did it with his playful, child-like peregrinations in line and colour and Matisse with his pleasure for the sensual feminine form. Roerich, by going away from Mother Russia and from under the cultural umbrella of Europe, found his salvation in the Indo-Tibetan Himalayas and close-by environs.
The subtle play of light in his paintings is the result of continuous meditation, an integral part of his spiritual evolution. His technical mastery was not acquired in an art school, although he certainly learned the basics in St Petersburg Academy of Arts. Roerichs art was a result of his initiation into the Buddhist path. Ven. Doboom Tulku, a very learned lama, observed in his concluding remark at the Roerich seminar: In Darjeeling, he [Roerich] chose to live in the Talai-Pho-Brang, said to have once been a residence of the 13th Dalai Lama, which had become a pilgrimage site for visiting lamas and ordinary Tibetans. There he met the Geshe Rinpoche of the Chumbi valley with whom he established a long friendship. This lama imparted to him some of the secrets of Shambhala. In Nicholas Roerichs words, they are: The teaching of Shambhala is a teaching of life. As in the Hindu yogas, the teaching shows how to use the finest energies filling the macrocosmos, which energies can as mightily be manifested in our microcosmos.
Today, Roerichs legacy is safe in Moscow, in other republics that constituted the erstwhile Soviet Union and in New York. Ironically, the Roerich collection in the museum in Naggar is in bad shape. Neither the Central nor the State government has done anything to ensure the proper upkeep of the museum and the paintings housed there. This impasse is perhaps because of the clash of interests between the Bharatiya Janata Party government in Himachal Pradesh and the Congress government at the Centre. Each blames the other for neglecting the Roerich collection and letting it go to rack and ruin. A clash of petty egos must not let a priceless cultural experience be consigned to oblivion.
Roerichs paintings and writings are indeed an experience to cherish. People today have forgotten how to relate experience to vision and vice versa. They have ceased to feel elevated pleasure while looking at the world and making new discoveries. This is the age of the so-called electronic revolution and, hence, virtual reality. To make an impact on viewers, it has become necessary to grossly exaggerate any visual information. The same holds true for the imparting of aural information where there is a constant assault on the auditory senses and the nervous system. Roerichs world is one of contemplation, of looking inwards, of realising oneself and thereby ones potential. Ours is a civilisation of wilfully squandered opportunities and lost hopes. It is imperative that we take pause and consider the havoc we have wreaked on ourselves. Roerichs legacy may help repair some of the damage.