Writer, explorer, ethnographer, Comintern agent, aspiring “Bodhisatva Tsar”, occultist, visionary — the painter, Nicholas Roerich (1874-1947), was, quite amazingly, a bit of all these. Straddling the Victorian and the Modern world, Roerich combined the quaint with the canny, the mind of a philosopher with the skills of a diplomat. Although his paintings of the Himalayas are no longer regarded as fashionable, they can still move the viewer, suddenly and mysteriously, as the originals for his drawings — the vast, silent mountains — do. Today a person would be considered a hopeless romantic, or worse, phoney, if he believes that an immanent spirit of the universe can be felt breathing in the mountains. But in Roerich’s time, people were allowed their fancies. So when Roerich went searching for the mythical Shambhala — the land of the Maitreya or the incarnation of the Buddha — in two separate expeditions to Central Asia (1924-28 and 1930-31), he received the support, astoundingly enough, of both Russia and America. With the First World War just over and Second looming over the horizon, at least some people were eager to believe in the existence of the earthly paradise of peace and equality that Roerich sought to discover.
NICHOLAS ROERICH: A QUEST & A LEGACY (Niyogi, Rs 1,495), edited by Manju Kak is an informative book on the life and works of the elusive artist who has become the stuff of lores. The essays here try to look beyond the icon called Roerich, in the making of which the artist himself probably had a significant contribution. Roerich’s devoted band of followers still look upon him as a prophet who is not to be defiled by analysis. In this adulation, he shares an afterlife similar to that of Rabindranath Tagore, with whom he had spent considerable time in Calcutta in late 1923. Roerich shared Tagore’s vision of a universal religion of humanity — he had extensive discussions on the reformist Brahmo Samaj movement, and its basis, the Vedas and the Upanishads, with Tagore.
From Calcutta, the Roerich family travelled to Darjeeling, where the painter met his Master in the huge statute of the Maitreya Buddha in the Ghoom monastery. Then there was luminous Kanchanjungha floating in the sky to further deepen Roerich’s spiritual experience. He repeatedly painted the mountains as seen from Darjeeling to live and relive the message they seemed to be holding out. Bottom right is the Mount of Five Treasures (Two Worlds) from the Holy Mountains series, 1933.
Although Nicholas’s wife, Helena, died in Kalimpong in 1955, the Roerichs have become synonymous not with Darjeeling but with Kullu, where the family lived from 1929 onwards. The International Roerich Memorial Trust in Naggar, Kullu, commemorates Roerich and his deep bond with India. The painting, Krishna, from Roerich’s Kullu series (1929) on top right is typical of his oeuvre. The stupendous mountains washed in the pellucid morning light tower over the figure serenely playing the flute in the foreground. The figure may well have been lost in the panorama, but, pointedly, it is not. Instead, it lends perspective to the sublime that unfolds around it. And the fact that the figure is that of Krishna makes the mountains seem like a radiation of his divinity. At the same time, Krishna, with his brown, and not blue, skin, is more human than divine here. He may well have been one of the goatherds of Kullu, making the vale overflow with his tune. The shifting, shimmering light in the painting contains the quality of the notes escaping from the lute of the solitary god.
Left is the Mother of the World (1930), a symbolic depiction of Roerich’s syncretic ideas. Although the figure recalls that of the Virgin, she is placed in a pleated landscape resembling the lotus. Her palms are brought together in a way that suggests the gesture of benediction and peace made by the Maitreya Buddha. Like Abanindranath’s Bharat Mata, Roerich’s Mother of the World is an ideal woman, whose spirit has left the senses behind as it glows like a star in heaven.