The Roerich Story

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    The tranquility of the Tataguni estate on the outskirts of Bengaluru belies a tortured history that spans continents and brings together an unlikely cast: a suspected Russian spy, his artist son, the prima donna of early Bollywood cinema and a family living in Melbourne, Australia.

    Shaded by a giant banyan tree are the graves of Svetoslav Roerich and his wife Devika Rani. Nearby is the ochre-coloured house that the couple lived in for almost forty years, which became a mecca for art lovers and admirers of Svetoslav’s father, Russian-born philosopher, explorer and archaeologist Nicholas Roerich.

    For more than two decades, the house and the 468-acre estate that surrounds it have been off-limits to the public. Following the death of Svetoslav in 1993 and Rani a year later, crores of rupees worth of paintings, jewellery and antiques from Nicholas Roerich’s collection disappeared.

    The couple’s personal assistant Mary Joyce Poonacha and her husband Anil Poonacha were charged with theft, cheating and breach of trust. Police allege Mary Joyce Poonacha forged the couple’s wills to make her the sole beneficiary of the estate. More than two decades later, the case is still languishing before the courts. Many of the witnesses for the prosecution have died.

    Plans by the Karnataka Government to turn the house and an adjacent artist studio into a gallery, museum and cultural centre have also stalled. Most of the valuables, including more than 240 of Svetoslav’s paintings are now in the custody of the Revenue Department’s Roerich and Devika Rani Roerich Estate Board. In 2015, the state government sanctioned repairs for the house and the graves were restored. But such piecemeal efforts have done little to erase the air of neglect that hangs over this culturally and historically important site.

    The Tataguni story begins more than 140 years ago in St. Petersburg and takes in the final turbulent days of Russia under the Tsars, the high mountain passes of the Himalayas and the closing moves of the Great Game - the struggle for control of the trade routes of Central Asia.

    Nicholas Roerich was born in St Petersberg in 1874, where he studied law before turning his attention to philosophy and painting. For the young Nicholas, growing up in the cultural and political turmoil that was enveloping Russia at the turn of the century, art was a form of mystical experience: a means through which eternal beauty could be expressed and communicated - almost a new kind of religion.

    By the time of the Russian Revolution in 1917, Nicolas had established himself as a painter, muralist and stage designer. Drawing his inspiration from Byzantine icons, ancient Russian frescoes and rustic folk-art, he achieved international recognition for the costumes and sets he created for Serge Diaghilev’s epoch-making dance company Ballets Russes.

    Fearing for the safety of his family in the political upheavals that were tearing his country apart, he moved to Finland in 1917 and then toured England and America lecturing on his ideal of unifying humanity through art.

    Finally, in 1923, he arrived in India, drawn by Oriental mysticism and the lure of the Himalayas. He spent much of the next five years crossing the high passes leading into Tibet, making archaeological discoveries, collecting artefacts and rare manuscripts and recording the stark high-altitude landscapes and Buddhist motifs in an extraordinary series of paintings.

    Officials of the Raj were so convinced that this bald and feared ascetic, dressed in silk robes and a Chinese skull cap was really a spy, they asked members of the small British apple-growing community of the Kullu valley to report on the true purpose of his extensive wanderings.

    Every year thousands of people visit Roerich’s ivy-covered hermitage in the village of Naggar, in Himachal Pradesh to pay homage to one of the most remarkable artists and philosophers of his generation. During his lifetime Roerich created nearly 7000 paintings now housed in museums around the world and published 27 volumes of writing, beside reports on his archaeological and scientific findings in Russia and the Himalayas.

    Apart from his paintings and writings, Roerich would also be remembered for his cultural pact for the protection of art treasures and the promotion of world peace which was signed in 1935 by 22 nations, including the United States. He proposed that a ‘Banner of Peace’, a red circle enclosing three spheres symbolising past, present and future, be hung above churches and museums to discourage attack during times of war, in the same way the Red Cross flag warned against destroying clinics and hospitals.

    After Nicolas’s death in 1947, his son Svetoslav decided to move much of his collection to Bengaluru where he established the Tataguni estate and became an active member of the city’s vibrant art scene. By now Svetoslav was married to Devika Rani, the exquisitely beautiful great-niece of the Nobel Laureate Rabindranath Tagore, and the first lady of Indian cinema.

    The couple had no children and therefore no legitimate heir to the estate. Nor was there an inventory of the priceless treasures Nicholas Roerich had collected. These included rare scroll paintings, statues, manuscripts and sacred objects as well as a collection of old Russian jewellery and antiques. Among the items now in safekeeping are the Buddha’s begging bowl, many priceless thangkas, statues, miniatures and icons.

    Shortly after their death in 1993-94, news began filtering out about the alleged theft of many priceless items from the collection. A Melbourne woman Nilima Dietze, came forward to claim that she and her three sons were the only rightful heirs to the Roerich legacy. Dietze's claim was based on the fact that she was the daughter of Rani's first husband, Himanshu Rai and Mary Hainlin.

    The couple separated soon after she was born in 1926 in Munich. Rai went to London where he married Rani who was studying architecture and fabric design. In 1930 they returned to India and established the Bombay Talkies, which soon became one of the largest and most famous studios in India.

    In a peculiar twist of fate, in 2008 Peter Dietze, came into possession of an archive, painstakingly maintained by Rani, of some 3000 Bombay Talkies documents, photos, film stills, letters, invitations and programmes. When Rani feared that she could no longer take good care of it, she sent the archive to the curator of the Roerich Museum in New York, who then sent all the materials to Dietze, the only family connection. The highlights of that archive went on show at the Australian Centre for the Moving Image in Melbourne in 2017.

    Unfortunately, the Roerich treasures now languishing in padlocked boxes in storerooms in Bengaluru will not be seen by the public anytime soon. The Russian visionary who devised an internationally recognised pact for the preservation of artistic and cultural heritage from the ravages of war, never foresaw a situation where his collection would be held hostage by India’s corrosive bureaucracy and inefficient legal system.


    John Zubrzycki is a Sydney-based author. His forthcoming book - Jadoowallahs, Jugglers and Jinns: A Magical History of India will be published by Picador in June.


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