October’s sublime sunshine had filled Kullu Valley and invaded the mountain-top Roerich Estate where we, activists of organisations from around the world dedicated to serving the sacred legacy of Nicholas Roerich, were having a seminar. Some peaks of the mountains in the lower reaches of the Himalayas were already sporting a snow-cap, painted by the golden sunlight.
When our day-long seminar ended and I went with my Russian friend, Julia Barkova, a musician, to spend some meditative time at Roerich’s samadhi, the valley was slowly yielding to the departure of the sun and the arrival of a sky-wide chandelier of stars, with the murmur of the river deep below in the gorge aiding our meditation.
If you want to know why no artist has captured the beauty and divinity of the Himalayas on canvas more mesmerizingly than Nicholas Roerich (1874), come to Naggar, a village near Manali in Himachal Pradesh. This legendary Russian painter, one of the greatest names in 20thCentury Art, was deeply influenced by Hindu spiritualism and spent the last twenty-five years of his life here. His paintings (over 6,000 of them) are prayers and meditations in color. He was also a philosopher, explorer, scientist and, above all, a zealous propagator of culture as the uniting, ennobling and peacemaking force of mankind. There was something Himalayan about his creative energy.
We had come to Naggar last week to participate in a three-day commemoration of a major milestone in the history of world culture—75th anniversary of the Roerich Pact and Banner of Peace. There were representatives of Roerich societies from countries as far as Brazil and Lithuania. A children’s dance troupe from Kazakhstan gave captivating performances at an open-air theatre. Some of the most gifted child artists from Russia exhibited their paintings at a newly renovated building where Roerich and his son George, a renowned Tibetologist, had established the Urusvati Himalayan Research Institute in the 1930s. There was painting, singing and dancing by students from nearby villages studying at the Helena Roerich Art College, named after the painter’s philosopher-wife who sought to popularize Agni Yoga.
The chief minister of Himachal Pradesh, Prof P K Dhumal, came and promised to establish a Roerich International Art Academy at Naggar. It was a commitment made by former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, who had hailed Roerich as a “Maharishi”. The ambassador of Kazakhstan, Doulat Kuanyshev, was there. Also present were two sevaks of Roerich who have shown exemplary dedication and determination in preserving his family’s priceless heritage in India — Alexander Kadakin, Russia’s India-loving ambassador and a close associate of the artist’s son Svyatoslav, who became a famous painter himself; and Dr Alena Adamkova, curator of the Roerich Museum, and the moving spirit behind the incredible transformation of a once-decrepit estate into a hub of global culture.
This is just what Roerich had envisioned when he campaigned for a universal treaty for the protection of cultural, artistic, educational and scientific institutions and historic monuments. The treaty, known as the Roerich Pact, was adopted by the League of Nations. It was signed on 15 April 1935 at the White House by many heads of state, including then US President Franklin Roosevelt. The Pact and the Banner of Peace were welcomed by personalities such as Albert Einstein, Rabindranath Tagore, Romain Rolland, Bernard Shaw, Dr S Radhakrishnan, Dr C V Raman and Dr J C Bose. Roerich called the pact a “cordial handclasp in the name of the glorious treasures of all generations”.
The timing was significant: the First World War had ended and a deadlier war was looming on the horizon. Cultural treasures had to be protected from the hands of war. Also, all sane voices had to be mobilized to prevent the coming catastrophe. “There, where is Culture, is Peace,” Roerich proclaimed. “The concept of Culture must arouse in us the consonant concept of Unity. We are tired of destruction and of common misunderstanding. Only Culture, only the all-unifying conception of Beauty and Knowledge can restore the pan-human language to us.”
The Roerich-designed red emblem for the white Banner of Peace was simple but profoundly symbolic—three dots inside a circle, signifying “past, present and future enclosed in the ring of Eternity”, or “Religion, Science and Art held together in the circle of Culture”. The mystical symbol appears in numerous spiritual treasures around the world. Roerich wrote: “This sign, unfurled over all treasures of human genius, will say: ‘Here are guarded the treasures of all mankind; here above all petty divisions, above illusory frontiers of enmity and hatred, is towering the fiery stronghold of love, labor and all-moving creation’.”
Roerich described the emblem as the “Red Cross of Culture”. Just as the flag of the Red Cross (“which has rendered incalculable service to humanity”) protects mankind’s physical health, he wanted the Banner of Peace to preserve our spiritual health and cultural wealth. “When a Red Cross ambulance hurries through the streets, all traffic stops to make way for it. Likewise, for the Sign of Culture, let us give up our usual habits of apathy and ignorance.” He wanted the banner to make people vigilant “not only in the hour of war”, but also each day, “when unmarked by the roar of cannons, irrevocable errors are committed against Culture”.
At a time when protection of culture is the lowest priority for governments and politicians around the world, including in India, the message of the Maharishi from Kullu Valley has booming relevance.
THE INDIAN EXPRESS, SUNDAY, OCTOBER 17, 2010