The Sad Saga of Roerich Treasures

Monday, 22 August 2011 06:07

       When a painting by a master artist costs 30 lakhs of rupees in the market and when a nation has 900 of them, one would expect great care to be taken of these treasures.Unfortunately, in the case of the famous Roerich paintings in Bangalore, it has not been done. Since 1993, when the famous Russian artist Svetoslav Roerich died in Bangalore, the great collection has been lying unattended in the mansion at the Tataguni estate in the southern city.

Happily in early August 2011, the Supreme Court decided in favour of the Karnataka Government taking over the complete estate of the now dead famous couple - Svetoslav Roerich and his wife Devika Rani Roerich, and it is hoped that the Roerich Museum will form one of the main tourist attractions of the southern state.

It is interesting here to consider the history of this famous collection, which often had the Government of India and the Government of Russia at loggerheads.

The Roerichs are respected as the most famous family in the artist-dynasties of Russia, for three generations and there are Roerich Museums in different cities of the world like St Petersburg in Russia, New York and Kullu in India. Nicholas Roerich, the father of Svetoslav was one of the most famous icons of Russian painting and is accorded the respect we give to Rabindranath Tagore in India.

Svetoslav Roerich (1904–1993) is known first and foremost as a Russian-born artist on Indian spiritualism. His paintings, of which there are thousands around the world, explore the mythic origins, the natural beauty, and the spiritual strivings of humanity and of nature. For many of his admirers, Roerich’s paintings are a kind of teaching-about spiritual development, about culture and its role in human life, and about opportunities for the achievement of peace in a fractious world.

Living in India for many years, he participated in the religious spirit of the Indian people. When Roerich a world famous painter and Devika Rani, then the First lady of the Indian film world (and the grandniece of the national bard Rabindranath Tagore) married in 1945, one newspaper termed it equivalent to that of Picasso and Greta Garbo marrying. His famous portraits of Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi adorn the walls of the Indian Parliament. He was given one of the highest awards of the country — Padma-Bhushan.

The couple led a well ordered life in India, alternating between their homes in Kullu valley in Himachal Pradesh and their vast Tataguni estate (450 acres) near Bangalore in South India. The couple had no issue. Wishing to perpetuate the name of their illustrious father and father-in-law, both of them together established the International Roerich Memorial Trust under the patronage of the Prime minister of India with the Russian ambassador as one of the trustees. The initial Roerich Museum with two hundred paintings of Nicholas and Svetoslav was established in Kulu in Himachal Pradesh.

In 1992, when Roerich’s health started failing, the Karnataka government planned to take over the estate, along with its paintings and other riches, and convert it into a public museum under a trust. The treasures consisted of more than 900 priceless paintings, a 450 acre estate in Bangalore, exquisite jewellery belonging to the erstwhile Russian royal family, and other valuables. Archives claim that the Roerichs had formed a trust, that had reportedly included the trustees, the then President of India Shankar Dayal Sharma and the erstwhile President of Russia, Boris Yeltsin.

But due to the fact that in their final years 1990-94, both Svetoslav Roerich and Devika Rani were bed ridden, lot of confusion has prevailed to the their estate and treasures in Tataguni. By then the cash flow earlier generated by their lavender aromatic oil factory in the Tataguni estate had dwindled and it is said that the couple made arrangements with a private realty dealer to sell the estate for 110 lakhs of rupees. Finally they had to move to the ITC run Ashoka hotel in Bangalore, where they stayed till their death. It is said, that the realty agent was to pay the amount of 89 lakhs as a first instalment into the bank account of the Roerichs. But it was not done and after their death, Hotel Ashoka found itself saddled with their hotel bill for four years! Devika Rani, before her demise, is said to have purportedly bequeathed all wealth to her personal secretary Ms Joyce Poonacha. But the ordinance passed by the Karnataka Government in 1994 had made it difficult for Ms Poonacha to probate the will. Now in 2011 the Supreme Court of India has voided all her claims.

Normally the Government of India does not want to offend Russia. But in January 1993, when the Russian Government sent a special aircraft to Bangalore, to take to Russia the body of Svetoslav Roerich, who had died that month for burial, the request was firmly refused. For one thing, the spouse of Roerich, the legendary Indian film actress Devika Rani Roerich was ill and unconscious. As such, she could not be approached to give permission for the body of her husband to be taken away from India, without her permission. Secondly the Government of India, itself did not want the memory of this famous Indo-Russian artist (one of the rare foreigners given the honour of Padmashri) - to fade away from India.

The Karnataka Legislative Assembly passed the Roerich and Devikarani Roerich Estate (Acquisition and Transfer) Act, 1996 (“the Acquisition Act”) to acquire all lands and movable assets that the Roerich couple owned, including the lands that were sold away illegally. Finally the Government of Russia forced the Government of India to make a simple and suitable memorial for the couple in the Tataguni estate. Great credit for preserving the derelict Tataguni estate goes to Dr M H Ahmed Mujib, the chief officer appointed by the state government for the task. At the same time, hundreds of priceless Roerich paintings inside the buildings of the Tataguni estate are deteriorating due to lack of care.

The Roerich Museum in Kullu with two hundred paintings is well maintained and attracts over a lakh of visitors every year. But as the old Tataguni estate in Bangalore, could not be maintained by the Government of Karnataka due to legal problems, at one stage, the Government of Russia became very agitated at this mismanagement. They pointed out that, as Svetoslav Roerich had expressed his desire to be buried in his family grave in St Petersburg-Russia, they would insist on that decision being fulfilled, by exhuming the body and taking it to Russia, after getting permission from the Karnataka High Court. Very frequently the Russian Ambassador to India goes to Bangalore to check on the progress in the maintenance of the Tataguni Estate, and as a nation Russia is very much disappointed with the way India has dealt with the memory of this famous Indo-Russian painter. Now that the Supreme Court of India has cleared the way for the Karnataka Government to preserve the memory of the famous couple. MF

Published on: August 20, 2011

By Pheroze Kharegat, Navhind Times

http://www.navhindtimes.in/panorama/sad-saga-roerich-treasures

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