Nicholas Roerich's Himalayan Art

BY: JAHNAVA DASI - 7.1 2022

"Krishna" by Nicholas Roerich, from the "Kulu" series, 1929

Having grown up in Pennsylvania, I've spent a great deal of time in New York City over the years. On one of my first trips to New York, I had the good fortune to accidentally stumble upon the Nicholas Roerich Museum, located on West 107th in Manhattan. As I recall, I walked into the museum that day to ask for directions. It was housed unobtrustively in a brownstone, with only a small sign indicating it was a venue open to the public. When I entered, there was no one in sight. As my eyes adjusted to the dim light, I looked around and realized that I was in an art gallery or museum of some sort.

The paintings on the wall seemed to echo the great silence of the place. I was alone, surrounded by dozens of magnificent paintings... and there seemed to be no one else in the building! That in itself was a rarity in Manhatten, a city bustling with people. Business owners in New York don't generally leave their goods unattended, what to speak of valuable artworks. I quietly walked around for at least 20 minutes before a young man finally appeared, nodded a welcome, and let me continue my journey through Roerich's extraordinary paintings without distraction. One of the pieces I marveled at that day was the painting entitled "Krishna", shown above.

This painting was one of the first images of Lord Krsna I'd ever seen. I'd first met the devotees a few years prior to this, in the early 1970's, while they were on harinam at Madison Square Garden during a Grateful Dead Show. There were pictures of Krsna in the copy of Easy Journey they handed me, but the Roerich painting gave me a very different glimpse of the Supreme Personality. Interestingly enough, the Roerich museum was only three blocks away from the home of a women who had acquired a 3-volume set of Srila Prabhupada's original Bhagwatams. These transcendental jewels came into our possession some 30 years later.

The following biographical information on Nicholas Roerich was presented by Shri B.P. Singh, in a speech he gave at the opening of the Roerich Himalayan Museum of Folk and Tribal Art in Naggar, India, in 1997. He said:

"Professor Nicholas Roerich was born on 9th October, 1874 in St. Petersburg (Russia) and died on 13th December, 1947 in Naggar, the Kullu Valley in the Himalayas (India).

Roerich was not only an immensely accomplished and gifted versatile painter but he was also a remarkable thinker, author, essayist and teacher with wide-ranging interests. He was at once a humanist and an artist whose range of vision and expression extended from arts to archaeology, from costume design to theatre, and to the cause of culture of peace. He is truly one of the outstanding personalities of the 20th century and we in India are privileged that he and his wife made India their home. There are various stories as to why and how he chose Naggar - an obscure village in the midst of Himalayan splendour and beauty, to be the place of his artistic creativity and scholarly activities. However, once they settled down in Naggar there was no going back either to St. Petersburg or to New York or to any other European capital where they had lived earlier, for they found Naggar to be conducive to scholarly and artistic pursuits. Their constant inner search for realisation of the soul and the spirit which found expression in both their lives and art needed a peaceful and evocative space which they found in Naggar.

The biographers of Nicholas Roerich have clearly established that his fascination with the East dated back to his early childhood days when he came to read the Bhagavad Gita from his father's personal library and to see on a daily basis a picture of the magnificent Himalayas which adorned the living room. Later, his growing involvement in the philosophical and spiritual teachings of the East was strengthened by Helena Roerich, who had a profound interest in Eastern religion and philosophy. Together they immersed themselves in the great Indian epics, such as the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, Buddhist literature and other seminal works of Indian philosophy that were translated into Russian around the turn of the century. Indian motifs began appearing in Roerich's writings and paintings as early as 1905.

"Kanchenjunga" by Nicholas Roerich, from the "Himalayan" series, 1924

On 2nd of December 1923, Roerich and his family came to India and they went on a tour to major cultural centres and ancient sites including the island of Elephanta, Jaipur, Sarnath, Banaras and Calcutta. He temporarily settled in Darjeeling and painted the world famous masterpiece 'Kunchanjunga'. In 1924, on the importance of the mountains he wrote:

"All Teachers journeyed to the mountains. The highest knowledge, the most inspired songs, the most superb sounds and colours are created on the mountains. On the highest mountains there is the supreme. The high mountains stand as witnesses of the great reality".

The Himalayas, however, inspired him greatly and several of his well-known paintings are on Himalayas. His Himalayan scenes are illustrative of Mahayana Buddhist philosophy as well as Hindu Brahmanical tradition. He expressed his praise for the Himalayas in the following words:

"Himalayas ! Here is the Abode of Rishis. Himalayas - Jewel of India. Himalayas - Treasure of the World. Himalayas - The Sacred Symbol of the Ascent."

I have been brought up in a village in the plains not far away from the foothills of the Himalayas and the Himalayas became a part of my consciousness from childhood. The inspiration from the Himalayas on social and spiritual consciousness of India goes back to pre-historic days. One of India's most outstanding poets, Kalidas, called the Himalayas the 'measuring rod of the earth'. Kalidas created an enduring vision of the Himalayas thus capturing the imagination of succeeding generation of humanity, when he articulated in one of his famous lyrical drama "Kumarasambhavam" as follows:

"In the north (of India), there is a mighty mountain by the name Himalaya - the abode of perpetual snow, fittingly called the Lord of mountains, animated by divinity as its soul and internal spirit. Spanning the wide land from the eastern to the western sea, he stands as it were like the measuring rod of the earth."

The impact of Himalayas was greatly felt during the freedom struggle in India as well. The finest expression of the Himalayan factor in freedom struggle is found in a song on the Himalayas by Ramdhari Singh Dinkar, a neighbouring villager and a student of my grandfather, who rose to become a National poet. A song calling Himalayas as the king of mountains became very common and was sung during prabhat pheries by heroes and volunteers of independence movement, who religiously walked on the streets of the village at dawn enthusing people to plunge in the movement for liberation of India under the leadership of Mahatma Gandhi. A stanza from this poem when translated in English reads:

O my king of mountains ! O great one !
Omnipresent; resplendent;
inspiring symbol of human endeavour
My motherland's crown tiara
O my king of mountains ! O great one !

Besides the Himalayas, a powerful concept that influenced Nicholas Roerich's paintings relates to the idea of "Mother of the World." We in India associate Sita or Durga as Jagatjanani or mother of the world. The paintings of Nicholas Roerich as well as his writings illustrate this concept in many beautiful ways. All these influences are conscientiously acknowledged by Nicholas Roerich when he writes:

"I bow to the ground, to the teachers of India. They have brought true creativity and spiritual joy and a fruitful silence into the chaos of our lives."

In times such as ours which are characterised by clashes and conflicts and a number of Western writers are talking about 'the clash of civilization' in future particularly between Christian and Islamic faiths and between USA and China, the work of Nicholas Roerich establishes in no uncertain terms that the East and West and various schools of philosophy could speak to each other, cooperate and promote the cause of culture of peace. The works of Nicholas Roerich, therefore, have acquired a significance of rare value in today's world. The editor of Roerich Forum Journal has captured these thoughts effectively when he writes:

"Nicholas Roerich, who left Approx. 7000 paintings, in fact created a gallery of world culture. In it we find both portraits of great thinkers, who do not reflect an external but an internal moral similarity, as well as the typical Roerich landscapes in which the scenery of the North and the South, the mountains and deserts, the sky and the rivers are sensed not in geographical terms but as the embodiment of the human spirit. In the midst of monuments and places of worship of different peoples we see nomads and knights, yogis and heroes from Epics and bylinen."

The eminent scholar Suniti Kumar Chatterjee after his first meeting with Professor Nicholas Roerich and his wife in London in 1919 felt that Nicholas was a very kindly man with the ways of a born aristrocrat and his wife Helena was a noble lady to her fingertips. Svetoslav's painting of his father dressed in Central Asian robe of black silk has caught the essence of Nicholas Roerich's personality, i.e. of a Himalayan hermit, a teacher and a philosopher.

The modern world has been all too often looking for creative retreats. These retreats have not been spaces of rest and leisure. On the other hand, they have been spaces of deep reflection and furious creativity. Roerich created in the Himalayas such a retreat. It was happily a space of spirituality and art coming together.

The fact that India held Nicholas Roerich enthralled is not a material phenomenon but a spiritual experience. The fact of lasting value is that he gave such an expression to Hindu and Buddhist scriptures in his paintings and writings that it became one of transcendence and thus of universal value."