Nicholas Roerich was perhaps the most prolific, and profound, portrayer of the Himalayas. The Russian, who led a caravan that explored the mountain ranges between the World Wars, found in those passes and peaks the meeting point of his art and mysticism.
In his oeuvre of 7,000 catalogued paintings, a significant portion is of the mountains — jagged, austere and incandescent, the abode of Krishna and Confucius, Moses and Milarepa. “The high mountains stand as witnesses of the great reality,” he once wrote. His pantheism may not have had an immediate resonance in Europe, struggling to come to terms with the horrors of a wasteland brought about by wars, but his meditative works have endured the vicissitudes in art world.
Two of those paintings, made on Roerich’s first visit to India in 1923 and which belonged to the Indian Agricultural Research Institute (IARI) in New Delhi, surfaced at an auction in London recently. Ironically, it was only when the London authorities contacted the institute, to inform that the paintings were sold for $2 million, that IARI officials themselves realised that the works had been stolen from the premises and smuggled out of the country. The director of IARI says a case has been registered and efforts are on to catch the culprits and bring the works back to India. However, also culpable in this is a sarkari insouciance for art, one which often reduces paintings to wall hangings with little care or consideration for its worth or value.
Roerich, an Indophile who spent his last years in the village of Naggar in Kullu, was insistent on the importance of culture. He created the Roerich Pact on the preservation of art during wars and would modify the Dostoyevsky line, “Beauty would save the world”, into “Awareness of beauty saves the world”. He and his art deserve way better.