Nicholas Roerich: India’s Russian Navratna
The artworks of nine Indian artists are considered national treasures that cannot be sold outside India. These artists – the Navratnas or nine jewels of Indian art – include greats like Raja Ravi Varma, Rabindranath Tagore, Jamini Roy and Amrita Shergil. Among them, there is only one who was not Indian by birth. He was a Russian artist, philosopher and polymath, who dedicated much of his life and work to the Himalayas, which was also his home.
The story of how Nicholas Roerich found India, and why India considered him its gem is fascinating.
Nestling in the hills of Naggar in Kullu, Himachal Pradesh, is the ‘Roerich Estate’ run by the International Roerich Memorial Trust (IMRT). It houses the Himalayan Folk Art Museum as well as the Urusvati institute founded by the Roerich family, dedicated to Himalayan studies. It is here that visitors can view the Roerich legacy.
– Artist, mystic, philosopher, theologist… Nicholas Roerich was a man who wore many hats.
Admired by the likes of Einstein, Gandhi and Franklin D Roosevelt, he had a lifelong fascination with the Himalayas and led an epic expedition to the mountains before he finally settled down in Himachal and immortalised these colossal mountains in his art.
Roerich was born in 1876, in St Petersburg, Russia, in an upper-middle-class family. He was interested in art, philosophy, poetry, archaeology and history from a very young age. He simultaneously studied law and art at the University of St Petersburg and, by the age of 24, was the Assistant Editor of the art magazine Mir Iskusstva (World of Art).
The early 20th century was a time when the West was rediscovering Eastern philosophies and religions. In 1901, Roerich had married Helena Shaposhnikov. Under her influence, Roerich too developed an interest in philosophies such as Vedanta, Buddhism and new belief systems like Theosophy. This led Roerich to study and research the Bhagvad Gita, the Puranas, Buddhist texts and the works of Swami Vivekananda and his contemporary and good friend Rabindranath Tagore.
– The Bolshevik Revolution in Russia in 1918 forced the family to flee their homeland, first to Finland and then London.
Influenced by Vedanta, Yoga and other philosophies then gaining popularity across the world, Nicholas and Helena Roerich established their own school of mysticism called ‘Agni Yoga Society’ in 1920. It was not what we understand as ‘yoga’ but comprised practices of ethics and meditation.
In 1923, Roerich and his family embarked on an adventure across Central Asia, in search of ‘Shambhala’ , a Utopian land believed to have existed somewhere in the Himalayas. In the 1920s, the idea of a perfect land of happiness and peace, just waiting to be discovered, held a great allure to the Western world, which was still recovering from the ravages of World War I. This Roerich expedition drew considerable attention, and there was also a lot of speculation that it was being secretly supported by the Russian Bolsheviks, to extend their influence across Asia.
The Roerichs arrived in Mumbai, then Bombay, from London in 1923, and from there proceeded to Darjeeling. In his account of the expedition, Roerich mentions how they "started from Sikkim through Punjab, Kashmir, Ladakh, the Karakoram Mountains, Khotan, Kashgar, Qara Shar, Urumchi, Irtysh, the Altai Mountains, the Oyrot region of Mongolia, the Central Gobi, Kansu, Tsaidam, and Tibet", with a detour through Siberia to Moscow in 1926.
– The expedition faced many challenges and the party was even arrested and imprisoned in Tibet for five months for travelling without permits.
Tragically, five members of Roerich’s team died on the way. The expedition was even believed to have been lost for almost a year, between the summer of 1927 and June 1928 when no communication could be established with them.
Despite all these difficulties, it was also one of the most productive periods of Roerich’s life. The expedition not only led to a huge increase in the knowledge and understanding of the Himalayas for the world at large, it was also the genesis of some of Roerich’s best-known works. For the first time, dozens of new mountain peaks and passes were marked on maps, archaeological monuments were discovered, and incredibly rare manuscripts were found. Also, an enormous amount of scientific material was collected by the team. Besides, Roerich wrote books on the expedition and the Himalayas: The Heart of Asia, Altai – Himalayas, and created about 500 paintings which immortalised this world.
The expedition wasn’t the end of Roerich’s engagement with the Himalayas; it was actually only the beginning. Until this point, the Roerichs had led a semi-nomadic existence for decades. However, after the end of the expedition, they chanced upon a serene cottage in the village of Naggar in Kullu in Himachal Pradesh, in 1928. The cottage had been built by an English Colonel, Henry Rennick, and was owned by the Raja of Mandi. Roerich fell in love with it and bought it from the Raja. He settled there with his family. This cottage, in a small Himachal village surrounded by snow-capped peaks, would become his abode for the last two decades of his life. Here he was visited by some of the most prominent personalities and scholars of the country, like Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi, who visited him in 1944.
At Naggar, besides focusing on his artistic pursuits, Roerich also established the Urusvati Himalayan Research Institute in 1928. Urusvati, which means ‘The Light of the Morning Star’ in Sanskrit, was established to combine ancient knowledge and the latest scientific discoveries. However, due to the economic and political conditions in the 1930s and 40s, and then Roerich’s death, the institute was unable to reach its full potential. Today, it houses the library established by the Roerichs along with botanical and zoological samples from the Himalayas. It also has the now popular Himalayan Folk Art Museum.
Having seen many wars and the destruction they wrought early in his life, like the Russia-Japan War of 1905 and the First World War of 1914-1918, Roerich was a life-long promoter of peace between nations. He was an advocate for the protection of cultural heritage and was nominated for the Noble Peace Prize many times.
– One of his most significant achievements was the Roerich Pact, which was signed in 1935 by 22 countries in the Americas, and aimed at protecting cultural heritage in times of conflict.
Nicholas Roerich passed away on the 13th of December, 1947, and was cremated in Naggar shortly thereafter. His samadhi can be found on the estate in Naggar, facing snowy peaks and with a big rectangular stone with the inscription: “Here, on December 15th, 1947, the body of Maharishi Nicholas Roerich – a great Russian friend of India – was committed to fire. Let there be peace.”
Today, one can visit the Roerich Estate in Naggar and see Roerich’s work in the home and studios where he spent the most significant decades of his life. His eldest son, Svetoslav Roerich, was also a great artist in his own right. Married to the famous Hindi film actress Devika Rani and the owner of Bombay Talkies, he lived at the Tataguni Estate in Bengaluru, which has also been converted into a Roerich museum.