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The man and his mountains


LANDSCAPE OF THE HEART: The artist's paintings like 'Monks returning from Lahaul and (below) 'Alexander Nevsky' capture both the nuances of India as well as old Russia

There is a sudden worldwide interest in Nicholas Roerich, the great Russian painter who lived in India, and whose grave is etched with one simple word - 'Maharishi'.

The Russian painter Nicholas Roerich captured the soaring luminosity of the Himalayas, yet his body of work is considerably farther reaching. Fifty years after his death, a spark of interest in his mystical works has been ignited worldwide. In 2009, one of the paintings from his Legend series sold at Christie's for $1. 6 million, a record price for the artist. It was recently topped by a painting called Portrait of Nicholas Roerich in a Tibetan Robe by his son Svetoslav Roerich, which went for close to $3 million. The hunt is on for more, says Joanna Vickery of Sotheby's London.

With international markets opening up, Roerich's paintings housed in museums and private collections in Russia, Varanasi, Bangalore and Kullu have witnessed increasing footfalls. Several online galleries dedicated to his works have sprung up. It is said that Russia and India are old souls. "The Indian heart is drawn irresistibly to the boundless spaces of Russia, " Roerich once said. "Heart speaks to heart. " Like Tagore, Roerich was able to delve into the soul of India and capture it as he did old Russia. This has given him a unique place in both countries - a National Art Treasure both in his native Russia and his adopted homeland, India. His gravestone in Kullu simply reads 'Maharishi'.

Born in 1874, Roerich landed in India with his family in November 1923, and settled in Kullu, Himachal Pradesh, till his death in 1947. India was part of his consciousness right from his childhood, which was spent on the family estate Isvara, located outside Moscow, and once owned by an Indian raja. In 1901, he married Helena Shaposhnikova, from a distinguished St Petersburg family. She shared his interest in art, music, Indian and Buddhist philosophy. Early on, Roerich gained a reputation in imperialist Russia as a painter, archaeologist and philosopher. But once the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 broke out, he left for Europe and America with Helena and his two sons, George and Svetoslav. During those years the Western art world was being swept by the new movements of Cubism, Dadaism, Fauvism and Surrealism, aside from the cognitive staple of Hellenic and European art, says critic Partha Chatterjee. Esoteric Asian art and philosophies saw few takers in the West before the wars. The efforts of

Orientalists like Alexander Csoma de Koros, Aurel Stein and Max Muller, however, had begun to generate some interest in the East.

Roerich's paintings attempt to convey messages of theosophical thought, of Buddhism and his own practice of Agni Yoga. His interest was to seek out a higher consciousness. The feeling evinced through his broad swirling strokes was of a latent fiery energy that the Western imagination could not fully comprehend. His large and small canvases of mountains - Kanchenchunga, the Dhauladhar range and Tibetan plateau - bore the imprint of his daring Central Asian Expedition that he undertook between 1924 and 1928 to discover Shambala, a concept immortalised by James Hilton in his book, Lost Horizon, in which exists the utopian Tibetan lamasery of Shangrila. Roerich visualised the Himalayas and Trans-Himalayan region as a shared spiritual possession. In Shambhala, he wrote: "Where can one have such joy as when the sun is upon the Himalayas;when the blue is more intense than sapphires;when from the far distance, the glaciers glitter like incomparable gems. . . A stately larch is all entangled with a blooming rhododendron and everything shades into the blue mists of the rolling distances crowned by a chain of clouds. "

After a brief sojourn in Kalimpong, Roerich settled down in Kullu. Events in Russia left him little hope of returning as he had differences with the Communist regime. Here he painted and his jottings were transferred to the books he wrote - Altai-Himalaya, Heart of Asia - which form an important archive of happenings in this part of the world -Tibet, Mongolia and Buryatia. He set up an inter-disciplinary institute, 'Urusvati', where his older son George continued his studies as an Orientalist. Svetoslav, however, followed his father's footsteps as a painter, later marrying the Indian actress Devika Rani. Roerich, who believed that "culture is the worship of light" argued that the modern world had lost the joy of art and distanced himself from academic in art as well as the socialist realism of the post-revolutionary generation.

Canvases such as Milrepa, Krishna, Monks returning from Lahaul, Iskander and the Hermit, have figures of enlightened saints, prophets, hierarchs and keepers of the spiritual path. His paintings spoke of the deep connectedness of man to nature and reinforced that all religions lead to one path. Conveying a sense of presentiment is a running theme in many of his paintings, some of which are deeply connected with the advent of the Buddhist Maitreya, or of Rigden Jyepo, the last Shambala King who will descend to save the world from the annihilation of Kali Yuga, as told in the Hindu and Tibetan philosophy of the Kalachakra.

But Roerich's earlier art was very different. The first painting to bring him renown was The Messenger (1897), now housed in the Tretiakov Gallery in Moscow. Historical in theme, severely prophetic in tone and realist in treatment, it shows two men approaching a settlement with news of the coming of the Vikings. This early work is part of his Russian phase that sought to inquire into the common roots of the Russian people's Slavic heritage, ie, their Celtic, Viking and Mongol roots. In this, he was deeply influenced by his teacher, the great Russian artist Archip Ivanovich Kuinji, who raised in him an awareness of the old Russian ancestry, as manifested in The Gathering of the Elders (1899).

In the early 1900s, Russian Princess Maria Teneshiva established an experimental village called Talashkino in Smolensk centered around the same idea. Here Russian artists of the calibre of Roerich and his contemporaries like Aleksandr Benois and Mikhail Vrubel gathered to produce everyday items of furniture, textiles and metals. According to Prof Madhavan Palat, this paralleled a wider artisanal European movement, represented in England by the same idea around arts and craft, whose notable exponent was artist William Morris.

During this time too, Roerich showed his concern for material culture: buildings, ancient churches and city walls through his work both as archaeologist and painter. During the 1920s, he went through his theatrical phase, which can be seen in his oversized murals and decorative panels. He also designed costumes for operas, ballets, and plays. In these, he continued to explore Slavic pagan themes, such as seen in Russian êmigrê impresario Sergei Diaghilev Ballet Russes and composer Igor Fyodorovich Stravinsky's Rite of Spring. He tried to highlight the fundamental unity of the arts and stressed the enhanced role that painting was beginning to play in theatre.

A large arc of Roerich's artistic life was overshadowed by decades of war, starting with the Russo-Japanese war or 1905, followed by the First World War. It motivated him to work for cultural preservation in times of war. In 1934, a gathering of artists, scientists, teachers, priests and politicians from 35 countries met at the mediaeval city of Bruges, Belgium, to endorse these ideas in the form of the Roerich Peace Pact. From his perch in Kullu, Roerich heard the rumblings of yet another great war, WWII. Like the English poets Blake and Coleridge before him, he prophesied impending doom. During the Soviet army's early defeats, Roerich painted Alexander Nevsky, the Orthodox Church's 13th-century princely saint who rides in the middle of a battlefield of soldiers. The prophesy that Russia would have to pay a bloody price for victory was hard to believe in 1942, when defeat by Hitler seemed imminent.

And yet, through these tragic and disastrous events Roerich continued to paint and immortalise the majestic mountains as if affirming nature's ability to overcome challenges, and his own belief in man's spirit to herald the new age. Till the end, though he could not return to his motherland, his heart remained loyal to Russia.

Manju Kak is the editor of 'Nicholas Roerich - A Quest & A Legacy'

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