Exile and the kingdom

Sunday, 23 October 2011 07:40

     Svetoslav Roerich hailed from a lineage of Russian Czars, lived like a king even in exile, and left behind a rather bumpy legacy. On the occasion of his birth anniversary, Giridhar Khasnis remembers the influential artist. 

When Svetoslav Nikolaevich Roerich (October 23, 1904 / St. Petersburg – January 30, 1993 / Bangalore) died, The Independent, UK (3 February 1993) in its obituary, described him as the internationally renowned Russian painter who made India his home for six decades; and as one who came to be known for his Himalayan landscapes and sensuous portraits which hang in museums and art galleries across Europe and the United States.

The obit recalled how the painter had eschewed what he considered the patronising tone of European art, and instead identified with Oriental ideals and mystics in his paintings; how Svetoslav, considered a ‘romanticist’ by critics, was greatly influenced by his father, Nicholas, and to an extent, overshadowed by his father’s achievements during his lifetime; and how after Nicholas’s death in 1947, Svetoslav came into his own artistically. It portrayed him as a strikingly handsome man with a flowing white beard and powerful physique. “Roerich was disarmingly charming and a friend to several world leaders.”

On the day of his death, Svetoslav’s body was wrapped in tricolour — a traditional Mysore peta covering the head — and kept for public viewing at the Karnataka Chitrakala Parishat (CKP), the institution he had helped establish and grow in the Garden City. Confined to a wheel chair, his aged and ailing wife Devika Rani (once described as the First Lady of Indian cinema) was brought in; with great effort she touched the feet of her husband and kissed his hands. Scores of people from different walks of life, including the workers from Tataguni Estate (which was bought in 1954 and lovingly nurtured by the Roerich couple), came to pay their last respects.  
Unfortunately, Svetoslav’s death was followed by a rather distressing set of circumstances. Within 15 months of his demise, Devika Rani too was gone, and almost immediately the sprawling Tataguni Estate got enmeshed in a prolonged and bitter litigation which went right up to the Supreme Court of India.        
Today, while more than 200 of Svetoslav’s works are locked up in Venkatappa Art Gallery ostensibly for ‘safe-keeping’, many others are said to be languishing in the buildings of Tataguni Estate. A number of his paintings are also supposedly in private collections, but no one seems to have a clue about their actual count or condition.
For general public wanting to see some original works, the only destination is CKP which houses, among others, The Roerich Collection, comprising over a hundred paintings of Svetoslav and Nicholas.

Good news

The good news is that on August 9th this year, a constitution bench headed by Chief Justice S H Kapadia delivered its judgment on the long drawn legal battle concerning the 470-acre ‘Tatgunni Estate’ (commonly known as Tataguni Estate), effectively clearing the decks for the state government to develop it into a museum-cum-art gallery.

“The verdict of India’s Supreme Court on Tataguni Estate represents an event of international resonance, which the world Roerich community had been waiting for nearly 17 years,” wrote Alexander M Kadakin, ambassador of Russia to India (Russia & India Report/ August 15, 2011). “As a personal friend of Svetoslav Roerich and Devika Rani for almost a quarter of a century, I was privy to and a participant in the drama of the Roerichs’ last years… I was also fully aware of the situation around their immovable property as well as priceless collections, which was unfolding in 1989-1994 like a Greek tragedy… This (judgment) is a triumph of all honest and committed admirers of the unique Russian family, who had been persistently trying to prevent the estate from falling into the hands of dark and unscrupulous people — Indian and foreign fixers, local ‘liquor barons’ and ‘land sharks’...”

Kadakin goes on to say how Dr Svetoslav Roerich had shared his dreams with him; how he had visualised the future of the estate not just as a museum, but rather as a vibrant spring of creative quest, a special spiritual place for talented and young artists, admirers and connoisseurs of the Roerichs’ heritage, and a venue of exhibitions and scientific seminars.
Art lovers of Bangalore and elsewhere hope that at least after the Supreme Court verdict the state government acts swiftly, imaginatively and bring to fruition a decent project which is not caught up in bureaucratic and legal tangles.

Incidentally, the official website of The Roerich & Devika Rani Estate Board,
Government of Karnataka (http://www.roerich.kar.nic.in/) last updated on 29/09/2004 (!) promises grandiose plans: “Arrangements are afoot to bring life back into the Tataguni Estate of the Roerichs. The proposed renovation of the area and launching of the project, to realise the many dreams of the Roerich couple would be taken up soon. The plan is to refurbish their residence and the adjoining studio, with all the trappings of the halcyon days when they were inherited by the famous couple. Some choice works of the ace artist will also find room for display in the studio alongside charts describing his activities and ideals.

A few studios, pergolas developed in the vicinity may invite artists to pursue their creative abilities. There will be an international centre for creative arts besides a few galleries for exhibitions, guest rooms and dormitories for artists to sojourn. Facilities will be created for holding artist camps, demonstrations, slide shows, all with an eye on promoting creative pursuits in arts. All this will surely make it a tourist attraction, a veritable painter’s paradise and a must for those interested in fine arts and artistic heritage at large. There will be provision also for publication on the Roerichs and causes held dear by them.”

Hopefully, these plans, like many others of the government, don’t remain only on paper for long.

Stimulating upbringing

Svetoslav and his elder brother, George, were born in St. Petersburg and benefited from a richly stimulating and artistic upbringing as children of famous Russian painter and mystic, Nicholas Konstantonovich (1874 - 1947) and Helena Ivanovna Roerich (1879 - 1955).

Nicholas and his wife were avid travellers and researchers. Circumstances led them to leave Russia and move to Finland in 1916, then to London in 1919 and a year later to New York, where Nicholas quickly developed an ardent following.

It was in the winter of 1923 that the Roerichs came to India, and settled in Kullu valley. In 1928, they established the renowned Institute of Himalayan Studies — ‘Urusvati’ (Light of Morning Star).

Nicholas was a prolific painter. His famed ‘Himalaya’ series, by one estimate, comprises more than 2,000 works and represents his richest legacy. He also penned several books like Heart of Asia (1929), Shambala (1930), and Realm of Light (1931), while his wife Helena prepared, among others, the manuscript on ‘Foundations of Buddhism’ (1926).

Identified for their scholarship and world view, the Roerichs were admired and befriended by many writers, scientists, philosophers and public figures including the likes of Albert Einstein and Rabindranath Tagore. 

“When I think about Nicholas Roerich, I am surprised by the scope and richness of his activity and creative genius,” reminisced Jawaharlal Nehru. “Great painter, great scientist and writer, archeologist and traveller, he touched and elucidated so many aspects of human desires… His paintings remind us many things from our life, our thinking, our cultural and spiritual heritage, and we feel that we are indebted to him...”

Nicholas was Svetoslav’s first teacher. Svetoslav saw him as a great philosopher and a constant seeker after truth. “His writings, like his paintings, reflect that constant inner search and realisation… my art sources are inseparably connected with him.” His mother too made a strong impression, encouraging Svetoslav in his varied interests like ornithology, zoology and mineralogy.

Svetoslav trained in London in architecture and painting (1919), and later studied architecture at Harvard University and simultaneously sculpture at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the US. He became an avid painter and stage designer, and held his first exhibition in the gallery Ardennes in 1923 before leaving for India with his parents.

The following year he returned to the US and continued his education. In 1926, he won the Grand Prix of the Sesquicentennial Exposition in Philadelphia devoted to the 150th anniversary of US Independence.

He became the director of Corona Mundi Center for the Arts in New York and Vice-President of the Nicholas Roerich Museum in New York (1924-1928). He finally came back to settle in India in 1931, and became the Head of Botany, Ornithology, Crystallography, and Traditional Medicine at ‘Urusvati’.

His marriage in 1945 to Devika Rani, famous Indian actress and grandniece of Rabindranath Tagore, was another turning point in Svetoslav’s life. Two years after marriage, the couple shifted to Bangalore where they lived for the rest of their lives, barring annual visits to Kullu where they founded the Roerich Heritage Museum (1962) and the International Roerich Memorial Trust (1992).

Svetoslav painted and exhibited frequently and his contribution to art and culture won him many awards and recognitions including Padma Bhushan by the Government of India; Jawaharlal Nehru International Award; the Knighthood of the Bulgarian Order of Kirill; Honorary Membership of the USSR Academy of Arts; and the title of Honorary Doctor of the Velikotyrn University of Bulgaria.

The last years of Roerichs were quite painful. Suffering from old age and illness, they moved from their beloved estate to Hotel Ashoka, a stone’s throw from CKP. People saw them as an ailing, forgetful, old couple surrounded by nurses, drivers, and other personnel.

Magnetic personality

Svetoslav’s art found many admirers. Critics habitually praised him for his colourful portraits, landscapes and mystical mindscapes. They called him ‘an inspired poet in colour and line’ and hailed his works for artistic and intellectual resonance. They saw in Svetoslav a spontaneous artist who painted life around and imbued it with profound human significance and sympathy.

“Svetoslav was a romanticist to the core,” recalled Shakti Singh Chandel, former IAS officer and trustee of IRMT. “His landscapes offered glimpses of poetic India. He believed that portraits bring out the best of human characteristics. He is the only artist whose three paintings of Jawaharlal Nehru, Indira Gandhi and Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan adorn the Central Hall of Parliament.”

By all accounts, Svetoslav possessed a strikingly magnetic personality. “The man cast a spell on those who met him, just as his portraits did,” said Chandel, about his meeting with Svetoslav in 1989 in Bangalore. “He spoke slowly with his characteristic gentleness, with a charming civility that was disarming.”

Svetoslav put his charisma to good use and became an influential figure. “He lived life king-size,” recalls an observer. “And commanded the respect of everyone, including powerful politicians. Influential leaders and bureaucrats would become alert to his presence and suggestions. The media liked him as well. He contributed significantly to furthering Indo-Russian cultural ties and received many delegations from Russia. This was an irony of sorts, when one recalls that the Communist Russia had earlier treated the Roerichs (especially Nicholas) very badly, denying them visas and virtually humiliating them. All that changed when they became internationally known and their artworks became priceless!”

Svetoslav played a very important role in the establishment of Chitrakala Parishat and took active interest in its activities. Prof M J Kamalakshi, ex-general secretary of CKP, who knew the Roerichs quite intimately, recalls, “CKP was not exactly the ‘brainchild’ of Roerich, but his personality and persuasiveness certainly helped get many clearances from the government. There is no doubt that ‘doctor’ associated himself with all of Parishat’s programmes and guided people like Nanjunda Rao (founder-secretary of CKP). At the same time, it was Parishat which provided many links, contacts and opportunities for Roerich to interact with the outside world. So the association of Parishat and Roerich was mutually beneficial.”

The Roerich couple’s presence inside CKP’s campus got well noticed. “They would come almost every day in their final years — carrying loaves of bread to feed stray dogs,” recalls an old student. “We would always see Roerich sitting on a stone bench and sipping tea with Nanjunda Rao and others. He was reserved but friendly, while Devika Rani was known to be a stern, unsociable and ill-tempered lady.”

Elitist outsider

There are many voices appreciative of Svetoslav’s art, scholarship and legacy, but a few of them are more objective and less adulatory in their assessment. They believe that the Russian artist made no serious effort to be part of the artistic community of Bangalore, treated local artists with indifference (even contempt), was unconcerned about local art/literary movements and was generally content to be an elitist ‘outsider’.

Art historian H A Anil Kumar says that Svetoslav meant to make a home out of Bangalore and wanted the viewers to be his friends, sharing his specific outlooks rather uncritically.

“He had to be his own critic. He painted people all around him but not belonging to his class. His position allowed him to be an ‘outsider-observer’ of people around him. Not his biographical facts, but his pictures speak about his brush’s refusal to be one among them.”
Kumar also finds that Roerich’s works ‘appear’ to be something and ‘are’ something else.

“They are physically beautiful, pleasant and fresh.  Yet they contain a melancholy that could be easily understood if one acknowledges the official biography circulated amongst the art circle. A melancholy under which hides the inevitability to paint what he saw around him rather than what he wanted.”

Suresh Jayaram, ex-principal of CKP, believes that the father and son were poles apart. “Nicholas believed in the spiritual concepts of ‘Shambala’ where the earth is linked to heaven and its realm on earth is a secret valley in the Himalayas… Svetoslav was more earthly, passionate about people and the romantic countryside. It was a more tactile involvement with land and people of his adopted land… He favoured the beautiful and the pleasant in the world. He never intended to load his work with didactic intentions and didn’t depict the actual reality around him… He created an intimate correlation between theme and form, with skillful harmonising of colours and shadowless figures… All these poetic pictorial expression which celebrates the ritual of rural India in decorative devices are actually stylised. They unfortunately do not move the viewer beyond the exotic appeal.”

About his last years in Bangalore, Kumar remembers that Roerich was an island by himself. “He was associated to a particular art school, a specific set of people (mostly a non-artistic community) and even a particular movement between Tataguni Estate and Chitrakala Parishat. He was not an influential figure as an artist, but was a ‘cultural personality’... He, for us, was an artist who belonged to an altogether different world and his art was romantic at the least and mystic at its best… His works were not critically acclaimed as much as they were praised at its worst or simply described on a personal level, at its best… Even though he might not be a Karnataka artist, Roerich could have been an artist of Karnataka.”
Sunday 23 October 2011
Deccan Herald http://www.deccanherald.com/content/199825/exile-kingdom.html

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