Nicholas K. Roerich’s body of work enquired into the common roots of the Russian peoples’ Slavic heritage, their pre-Christian –Celtic, Viking and Mongol traditions, and blood ties; his theatrical phase (especially in the 1920s) is seen in his oversized murals and decorative panels which express a continuum of enquiry into Russia’s past, its animistic beliefs, its close unity wit natural materials, implements and other objects.
Roerich’s arrival in Bombay with his family on 30 November 1923, was followed by his daring mountainous expeditions, making up his ‘mountain’ phase. The culmination of this was his transcendental paintings of the Himalayas, peopled with figures of enlightened saints, prophets, hierarchs and keepers of the spiritual path.
Nicholas Roerich continues to arouse interest and extensive scholarship: what is the draw and pull of a man who was, in his final avatar, a painter of mountains?
These essays provide some answer. The contributors-scholars, aficionados, practitioners of Agni Yoga from all over the world –look at Roerich’s life from varying perspectives to explain his multifaceted personality and come to a holistic understanding of the man and his times.
Manju Kak’s fiction, essays, critical reviews, and articles have appeared in newspapers, journals, anthologies and magazines in India and abroad since 1990. She has a Ph.D. in Art History from the National Museum, New Delhi, and has been a teacher and Visiting Professor of art history, literature and cultural studies in Delhi, UK and Hong Kong. Her works include First Light in Colonelpura; Requiem for an Unsung Revolutionary and Whose Media? A Woman’s Space. She is the recipient of the Hawthornden fellowship among many others.
Kak has been particularly drawn to Himalayan ethnography and culture and has researched and curated exhibitions on the subject, including ‘A Craftsman and his Craft: Iconography of Woodcarvings of Kumaon’ (1998), ‘The Uttarkhand Development Report: Handicrafts’ (2003) and ‘N. Roerich, Painter of the Himalayas: the Roerich Peace Pact and Banner of Peace’ (2009). She has also directed a documentary film, They Who Walked Mountains (2002), about the erstwhile salt trade routes from India to Tibet. She lives in New Delhi and Ranikhet.
Nicholas Roerich, for whom Mother India was as beloved as his Mother Russia, was one of the most talented artists of the 20th century. Born in Russia in 1874, he had, as a young man, a significant output of paintings representing rural life in that country. However, it was India that became his spiritual home, and the Himalayas his lifelong commitment, even obsession. After his arrival in Mumbai in 1923, he established friendship with many well known Indian intellectuals including Gurudev Rabindranath Tagore and Dr. Suniti Kumar Chatterjee. Over the years he undertook a series of remarkable and daring Himalayan expeditions in India, Tibet and Mongolia, and this resulted in a large number of extraordinary paintings of the Himalayas and the trans-Himalayan regions.
These paintings, many of which are in the Roerich Museum and in the Roerich Department at the State Oriental Museum, both in Moscow, represent a unique approach to the Himalayas, abode of Shiva, bringing out their inner spiritual significance that impelled the great Sanskrit Poet Kalidasa to describe them as ‘Devatma’, a spiritual presence. They also teem with human figures – saints, prophets, seekers of the spiritual path and mystical figures drawn from many faiths including Hinduism, Buddhism, Confucianism and Christianity. His use of colour was extraordinary, especially his treatment of snow covered mountains and sunlit landscapes. In his profession of creativity he was able to capture even in a small painting, the subtle mystery that lies at the heart of the Himalayas and the great teachers who reside there. To quote him ‘All teachers journeyed to the mountains. The highest knowledge, the most inspired songs, the most superb sounds and colours are created on the mountains… Himalayas! Here is the Abode of Rishis. Himalayas –Jewel of India. Himalayas –Treasure of the World. Himalayas –The Sacred Symbol of the Ascent.’
The massive corpus of Roerich’s work presents a unique dimension of spiritual striving and realization which will remain a source of inspiration for many years to come. His paintings of mountains have an inner luminosity and an aura of mysticism. Although I did not have the privilege of meeting Nicholas Roerich, I did meet his son Svetoslav in Bangalore along with his wife, the famous Indian actress Devika Rani. His paintings are also very dramatic, much larger than his father’s and also dealing with the spiritual quest, especially a series on the great spiritual teachers of humanity.
Roerich was also an international peace activist, having presented the ‘Roerich Pact’ which was an International treaty to protect ancient buildings, works of art and cultural institutions in times of peace and war. He campaigned vigorously for this across the world and, in a way, prefigured UNESCO’s Heritage programmes.
It is time now that we should rediscover the genius of Nicholas Roerich and revisit the saga of his amazing life. I welcome this book Nicholas Roerich: A Quest and A Legacy which brings together scholarly contributions from a number of different disciplines and effectively presents Roerich’s life and his multifaceted personality. The illustrations greatly enhance the value of the book, and I am sure this handsome volume will be of great interest to admires of Roerich’s work in India and around the world, and also help to introduce his oeuvre to artists, art critics and art lovers from the younger generation. Dr Manju Kak is to be commended for putting together this well-researched and thought-provoking volume.
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