Q: Recently, many articles have appeared about the controversies around the International Roerich Memorial Trust (IRMT) in Naggar. As a person closely associated with the Trust for many years, how can you comment on that?
A: First, I should give the background as to how Russia got so intimately involved with the Naggar Trust. I got acquainted with the last Roerichs – Svetoslav and Devika, way back in 1971, when I was interpreting at a dinner between the couple and the then Soviet ambassador, Nikolai Pegov. Since that period a very close friendship had evolved between the elderly couple and me. Whenever they came to Moscow, we would spend days and days together, the same happening in Delhi when they stayed at Imperial Hotel on the way to Kullu.
I was a young diplomat, just an attaché at that time. They were childless, and after my parents died, they considered me like their son. When they grew older and weaker and moved to Ashoka Hotel in Bangalore, Svetoslav and Devika would phone me every week, and I was flying down south on a weekend to meet them, as they felt very lonesome.
In 1989, I was appointed Minister-Counsellor, DCM, of the Embassy. Svetoslav understood that something had to be done about Kullu because it was a dilapidated and forgotten estate as they stopped visiting it for the last fifteen years of their lives. Once he invited me to Bangalore and I saw a document on the table which he presented to me. It was the general power of attorney. It was late 1991. In that power of attorney he instructed me to start the International Roerich Memorial Trust. He also gave me the powers to take charge of all movable and immovable properties in his Kullu Valley estate.
Naturally, it was a very important event, but quite unusual for a diplomat to get such a thing. We started the Trust immediately. I did it in 1992 under the direct instructions from Svetoslav. At that time the State authorities were never involved. He invited an elderly German lady, Sister Ursula Eichstaedt, who was their old friend, as the supervisor of the estate. We started visiting that place every month. There were dozens of working expeditions from the embassy. Once I gave Rs 50 thousand to Sister Ursula from my own pocket to tidy up the cherry garden and apple orchards. No government money was given. We bought her refrigerators, our engineers were repairing wires, etc.
Ursula was there running the Trust until her death in May 2004. Dr Alena Adamkova, a noted Indologist, a Ph. D. in sciences and a very talented young lady, was already there. During the first ten years of the Trust’s existence either State or Central government was nowhere to be seen on the horizon. Everything was done solely on donations from Russian sponsors, Russian companies working in India, from our own pockets. Ursula did not have enough money to buy food. We were bringing her food and gave her money to live. Wives of our diplomats were sweeping and washing the floors in the house, tidying up the gardens, doing menial work to bring the estate to life. And it has resurrected!
It was only after 2000 that the Government of India came into picture. It was former Prime Minister, Mr A.B.Vajpayee. He was the first who actually understood the importance of the place. He visited Naggar several times and said that “a Russian rishi was lying there”. He gave a big donation to the Trust, which has not been used until now, due to all bureaucratic trickery by the state bureaucrats, etc.
That is how in 2009 I became, as second-time ambassador, the ex-officio Vice-President. Plus I am a life trustee as the founder. These are the 'avatars' I hold in the IRMT.
For me, it is a very personal thing, because nothing was there. All people who visited that place, remember that. Russia and Russians have invested so much heart, so much soul and so many funds into making the Trust a real gem.
Q: As far as I know, some officials in the Himachal Pradesh Government claim that according to the Indian law there should be no foreigners in the Board of Trustees. Does it mean that Russians will be forced to stop their involvement in the Naggar museum activities?
A: We were told by the most experienced jurists and advocates in Delhi that of course foreigners can be members of the Trust. If we have been members of the Trust for the last twenty years, why all of a sudden we cannot be members? If you proceed from the British law, the Trust Act of 1882 or something like that, which is still in force, these are the relics of India's colonial past. You cannot today live according to those rules in an independent and democratic India.
As regards the Bangalore Trust, you remember, there was a twenty year old litigation around Tataguni estate in Bangalore. We do not want to be members of that Trust and we are happy that the litigation is finally over and the Government of Karnataka can do something. Of course, as I repeatedly stated, we should participate in the work of that Trust, but not as members. There is much difference between the two Trusts. First of all, the Tataguni Roerich estate belonged to Svetoslav and Devika Rani. Svetoslav was an Indian citizen, like Devika Rani. That is why we do not claim any role of trustees there. We shall be helping. Our Consul General from Chennai will be visiting. I am visiting regularly. We shall be happy if it prospers, that is all we want.
But as regards the Kullu Trust, it is different. First of all, the Trust was started on the power of attorney granted to me personally by Svetoslav. Secondly, that estate is intimately connected with the elder Roerichs while the Bangalore estate has no such connection. Svetoslav and Devika bought it after the death of Nicholas. So the Himachal story is absolutely different.
Q: There is much talk in the media about problems in functioning of the Roerich Memorial in Naggar. Is it true and what, in your opinion, hinders normal activities?
A: How can a Trust function normally, if before March 2011 not a single Board of Trustees meeting had been held for six years? We voiced our concern in numerous letters sent to the Chief Minister as the President of IRMT. Poor Dr Adamkova! She has been struggling through the last ten years to get things done in spite of all these odds. It was only after our strongest insistence that the last Board of Trustees meeting was called. How can a Trust function normally when a DC, with all our respect to the local authorities, becomes the final decision-making authority?
How can a Trust function normally if a sink is broken in the estate? In such case the curator, a Doctor of Science, has to go to the DC and beg him to give money for its repair? First of all it does not befit such reputed scientist, but still she was doing it. If the lavatory is broken, then the water and other things will be leaking out. Instead of immediately fixing the problem, a three-member committee must be set up and decide! It is sheer nonsense.
How can a Trust function normally, if, again, we want to publish a book by Roerich for a big function and the Trust has the money including the donations received from Mr Vajpayee, but instead of publishing, the scientific curator has to wait for three to five months to get the sanction of the DC. Is it normal that a Doctor of Sciences is begging for a sanction from a DC?
I do not think it is the clash of personalities or lack of coordination because in the long run things were done. There is another aspect. The Trust is not a government body! If a book has to be published for an anniversary, it has to be published. A scientific curator should not beg of a district authority to obtain sanction for a Roerich book. Unfortunately, some of the bureaucrats cannot even spell the name “Roerich” correctly…
Q: Dr Alena Adamkova, Russian Curator of the museum, is accused of financial violations. It is claimed that she has opened a special bank account without permission and, allegedly, is into double accounting. Are these claims justified?
A: All accusations about “double accounting” are absolute rubbish. I did request Alena Adamkova to open a special personal account as I got angry and sick after the last Board of Trustees meeting. We wanted to reprint a book with Nicholas Roerich letters. We had enough money, but again, a sanction from the DC was required to use that money. I wanted to teach them a lesson. I asked Alena to open a special personal account, of course, traceable by the police and all other authorities, on which I sent my personal money, from my salary. The book was printed on time, within a month, and presented at the function. Is it a crime for an Ambassador and Vice-President of the Trust to send his own money to his compatriot (not an Indian!) for the noble purpose of publishing a book? I openly stated this at the Board of Trustees meeting in March 2011.
There is another question: what kind of accusations can be floated when it is none of the Curator’s realm of duties to deal with money or accounting. The State government had been failing to appoint an accountant for the Trust for the last five years! And now the Curator is accused of wrong doing. Funny, indeed, with evident double standards involved.
Q: How is it possible to settle tensions around the IRMT and lay ground for creative work?
A: On the whole I want to underline that our mood is optimistic. Yet problems have not been sorted out. There will be a commission coming from Moscow. There will be a Russian and an Indian curator. That is good to have two curators. But the Trust has to be liberated from the chains of district authorities, and a DC should not be the final decision-making authority or a treasurer. The Trust cannot work in such way. Again, it is not a government body, it is a trust. If the Trust President or the Vice-President gives a sanction to publish a book, then this book must immediately go to the printing press without any district deputy commissioner. He has nothing to do with scientific aspects. This has to be fixed on paper.
Secondly, we have been insisting and Russia will strongly request in the future, too that the Central Government should be directly involved. We even went to the extent of saying that the Central Government should take the Trust under its wings. Of course, the State Government will be there, as the estate is situated in Himachal Pradesh. We have the highest respect for the State Government and Chief Minister Prof. Dhumal who has done much. The role of Shanta Kumar was also very important. The invaluable contribution was made by former Chief Minister, my friend Virbhadra-ji. It was during Mr Vajpayee’s premiership. The flowering of the Trust took place particularly in those years. So we insist that the Central Government should be very much in the picture and in decision-taking process.
How Indians would react if Mahatma Gandhi Museum in South Africa were run by a village panchayat? How Russians would react if Leo Tolstoy’s Memorial Estate in Yasnaya Polyana were run at a district level? These are not even national, but international monuments. The Kullu Valley Naggar of the Roerichs does not belong only to Himachal Pradesh, not even to India or Russia. It has world cultural heritage importance, especially for the Russians. It has exceptional civilizational and cultural value. This fact must be kept in mind by any government in Himachal Pradesh and the Government in New Delhi.
I would not agree that there is a stalemate. In the past few weeks there have been hopeful and positive signs. We are expecting now a number of specialists coming from Moscow, a new Russian curator will arrive, he is also a famous Indologist, a scientist of high stature and a Roerich man. Engineers will also come as the house needs immediate repairs. Also we get some good signs from the Himachal government, from the Chief Minister, from the new Chief Secretary. The previous Chief Secretary, outwardly a cultured and elegant person, was requesting Delhi to expel all Russians from the Trust! She did not reply to any of my more than a dozen letters. How can you expel Russians from the Roerich Trust? It is pure nonsense. Is not it schizophrenic to propose such a thing?
The Roerich phenomenon in the world culture is not limited only by the Roerich Pact on protecting monuments which later became a UNESCO convention. India is the signatory to this convention. That is why the Central Government cannot leave the Trust at the mercy of a DC.
Now, large-scale plans are being undertaken in the Kullu Valley to build a Roerich art school. We have sanctioned it and agreed to help. Money given by the previous government is there. But nothing is moving forward. The Trust has decided not to invite any favoured or public work divisions, because the latters put four bricks, grab all the money and leave everything unfinished. When we invited a private company, we immediately achieved tangible success there. There should be no diktat on the Trust as regards the choice of constructors or repairers.
Q: Will Russia assist in the activities of the Roerichs' memorial complex in Naggar, with attracting sponsors being one of the aspects? What are your plans for the near future?
A: It is good when donations come. If a Russian company sends 100 thousand US dollars to the Trust account, it is good. That is how we were working those ten years. Apart from A.B.Vajpayee, the Central Government has not invested a single rupee in the Trust. The way the Naggar museum looks now, it is all due to sponsors, friends from many countries and from the Embassy.
I think this matter will remain within the focus of our official contacts with the Indian Government for all times to come. As a matter of fact, the situation in Kullu was discussed with External Affairs Minister S.M.Krishna at his Moscow meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov last November. This matter was also raised at the recent bilateral consultations as well as during the last visit of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to Moscow in 2011. Insofar we have not received any official reply from the Indian government.
We are looking into the future with optimism. We have the 20th anniversary of the Trust this July. Though the Trust was registered in 1993, it was officially started in July 1992. We have plans with the Himachal government to have grand celebrations with a children's dancing company flown in specially for this occasion from Russia. When the transfer of powers takes place in the Naggar museum, we hope that we shall start work again. But... all the negative things I mentioned above should be rectified, for they are the obstacles for smooth sailing forward.
New Delhi, June 17, 2012