Many celebrations in
India and abroad are being held to celebrate Svetoslav Roerich’s 100th
birth anniversary year. Shakti Singh Chandel
on the man and his work
FEW foreigners imbibed the spirit and ethos of India, especially of life in the mountains, the way the Roerichs, father Nicholas and son Svetoslav, did. They lived in India at a time of political, social and cultural ferment. E.B. Havell, Sister Nivedita, Helena Blavatsky and Ananda Coomaraswamy, among others, were reviving and projecting the spirit of Indian art and cultural heritage to the West. They believed in replacing western influence with a romantic indigenous style inspired from the traditions of Ajanta and Mughal schools. Born on October 23, 1904 in St. Petersburg, Russia, Svetoslav Roerich received his early schooling in his own country as well as in Sweden. In 1918, he went to England where he studied art for about two years, followed by a stint in the USA, first at Columbia University and later at the Harvard School of Architecture.
Svetoslav’s paintings were first exhibited in India in 1936-37 in Lucknow. Nicholas Roerich was a mystic. Dedicated to the Himalayas, he painted them as no one has. Svetoslav was a romanticist to the core. His landscapes offered glimpses of poetic India. They vividly brought alive the spring in the Kulu valley, autumn trees and murmuring rivers as visions of joy. The rustic, colourful folk inhabiting the snowy Himalayas attracted him and he forged a lasting bond with them. He believed that portraits bring out the best of the human characteristics. He is the only artist whose three paintings of Nehru, Indira and Radhakrishnan adorn the Central Hall of Parliament. The other two are those of Jawaharlal and S. Radhakrishanan. In 1945, he married Devika Rani, the first lady of Indian cinema and grand-niece of Rabindranath Tagore, a sublimely beautiful woman. The people of Kulu celebrated the wedding. All 365 devtas of the valley sent their representatives to meet Devika. The locals sang and danced and threw flowers on to the palanquin on which Devika was carried.
Devika comes across in many of his paintings depicted with flowers in her hands. The force of bright colours used in the paintings at the exclusive art gallery of his works at Karnataka Chitrakala Parishad, Bangalore, is amazing. According to the Director of the Parishad, M.S. Nanjunda Rao, Svetoslav prepared many of his basic colours himself, based on his knowledge of Himalayan plants.
Svetoslav adopted the tradition of Indian miniatures in applying striking colours to evoke human moods. The Ragmala series of painting inspired his spirit of romanticism, against the backdrop of nature, season and human moods. His best-known paintings, the series of The Sacred Flute, have their source in Krishna art. Representation of the mortal shepherd boy and the immortal Krishna, symbolically unifies man and nature with its synthesis of expression and music.
The pictorial element he had tried to absorb from traditional Indian painting has often been compared with the element of sad figures from Indian village life that Amrita Sher Gill painted. Both artists share a post-Impressionist influence, even though they are stylistically different.
Other influences on Svetoslav were, Michelangelo and Rembrandt as well as the suffering Christ immortalised in literature and arts. Symbolism of crucifixion and the pain and anguish Christ carried to the cross are powerful themes by themselves. The artist’s three paintings showing that classical Christian influence are Release, Humanity Crucified, and Wither Humanity. Love Thy Neighbour as Thyself and Angels Will Sing Again reaffirm his faith in love and life.
After a journey to Tibet and Mongolia, the Roerich family had settled down at Naggar in Kulu, which became their Indian home. When Nicholas Roerich died in 1947, his elder son Yuri went back to Moscow to join the Institute of Oriental Studies of the USSR Academy of Sciences. The younger son, Svetoslav, who had inherited his father’s passion for the art and history of India, decided to stay back. He dedicated himself to India and drew from this world the subject matter for his canvases. He had befriended artists of all fields, workers, academicians and statesmen of all countries. They all adored him and described him as a great classicist, a romanticist and a philosopher.
I met Svetoslav Roerich and his celebrity wife, Devika, in 1989 at Bangalore. His appearance was strikingly magnetic. His silky white beard, dazzling eyes, high forehead and erect figure were impressive. The man cast a spell on those who met him just as his portraits did. He spoke slowly with his characteristic gentleness, with a charming civility that was disarming. He spoke of Kulu: "I have seen many countries, but I have not discovered more beautiful a place as the Kulu Valley." He took out a book authored by him: Art in Kulu Valley and showed it to me. He considered Shiva’s temple at Bajaura as a unique example of creativity in the Himalayas. Svetoslav Roerich passed away on January 30, 1993.