Close to the Gandhis, the Roerichs were forlorn at the assassination of Indira Gandhi in 1984. Svetoslav Roerich and his wife, the actress Devika Rani, were ageing and issueless. What weighed heavy on their mind was that once they were gone, what would happen to the legacy of their father, the renowned artist Nicholas Roerich, and his wife, Helena, a scholar of religion and philosophy, his brother, the scientist-Orientalist George, and perhaps their own too? Setting up of a Trust seemed the right thing to do and in 1992, the International Roerich Memorial Trust (IRMT) came up. It turns 30 this year.
The Roerichs came to India almost a hundred years ago, landing at Mumbai in December 1923 and settling at the striking and peaceful Naggar village in Kullu valley in January 1929 where they bought an estate from the Raja of Mandi. Accompanied by his wife and two sons, Nicholas Roerich lived here until his death in 1947, making hundreds of paintings. It was here that the Roerich Pact for the protection of cultural properties was drafted. The pact was signed in 1935 and India became one of the first nations to support Roerich’s appeal for the necessity of protection and preservation of culture.
IRMT’s Russian curator Larisa V Surgina, who is based at Naggar, says the Roerich heritage preserved in Kullu, Himachal Pradesh, is of great importance. “There, as the famous Indologist and Roerich scholar Lyudmila Shaposhnikova wrote, the destinies of two countries — Russia and India — merged in a single spiritual aspiration,” she adds.
The Roerich estate was the centre of the family’s interaction with public figures and men of science and art from all over the world, including Rabindranath Tagore, Abanindranath Tagore, Jagadish Chandra Bose, CV Raman and S Radhakrishnan. In 1942, two future Prime Ministers of Independent India, Jawaharlal Nehru and his daughter Indira Gandhi, visited the estate. “That is how the ancient ties between India and Russia were strengthened, a new bridge of friendship erected and the cooperation between the two countries developed,” says Surgina.
The Roerichs put the tiny village of Naggar on the world map with Roerich fans and researchers still making it to the village to study his art and philosophy, Helena’s Agni Yoga, Svetoslav’s art which seems to come alive as one enters his summer studio and George’s writings and translations.
The creation of IRMT at Naggar was followed by setting up of the International Centre of the Roerichs (ICR), a non-governmental organisation, in Moscow three years later. The late Alexander Kadakin, who later became the Russian ambassador to India, became Svetoslav’s representative in India, while Lyudmila Shaposhnikova became his representative in Moscow. In accordance with Svetoslav’s will, IRMT and ICR are supposed to cooperate in strengthening the friendship and cultural relations between Russia and India. And, as willed by him, a representative of the Indian Government — the Chief Minister of Himachal Pradesh — was appointed president of the IRMT, and the Russian ambassador to India its vice-president.
Over the last 30 years, efforts to preserve the Roerich heritage have been going on in Kullu. Surgina says they have been cataloguing the legacy of the Roerichs and working on the development of the museum complex. The heritage preserved includes memorial items and pieces of art, library, manuscripts, memorial stones, stone and wood carvings. A considerable part of these items are on permanent display. Since the past several years, the IRMT has been running the Helena Roerich Academy of Arts for children. It also holds academic seminars in which scholars from India, Russia and other countries take part. Cultural activities and art exhibitions are often held.
In 2012, after being mired in controversy over Russian curator Alena Adamkova, the ICR and IRMT signed an agreement of cooperation on October 2, 2012, to jointly create the museum complex in the Kullu estate and restore the Institute of Himalayan Studies, Urusvati, established by the Roerichs in 1928. An ICR spokesperson says that in the last 10 years, work on the creation of the international museum complex on the basis of the Roerichs’ memorial house and historical building of Urusvati has begun. Both Surgina and the ICR spokesperson agree that though much has been achieved, a lot remains to be done.
Former IAS officer Shakti Chandel, a life member of the Trust, is all praise for Surgina and the ICR, but says the Roerich estate is far from what Svetoslav had envisaged. Chandel came in contact with the Roerichs when he was the Kullu DC in the 1980s and was close to them in their final years. “Svetoslav had wanted a museum at the ground above Roerich house, a multi-purpose activity hall, an archive, an indoor auditorium and cottages to house experts and eminent scholars and painters. The Roerichs’ great contribution needs an international-level institute. Mere holding exhibitions and seminars is not enough. We should collaborate with agencies in the various countries where Roerichs left a mark,” he says.
Shaposhnikova, when alive, had sent a large number of experts to Naggar to prepare a vision plan. “Her death was a big blow,” says Chandel, adding that, “and so was Kadakin’s”, even as he blames him for delaying the Trust progress. In the last five years, only one meeting of the trustees has happened, he claims. “There is no one to mentor, no one to take things forward.”
Still, every year, the estate draws more than 1 lakh people. Dmitry Popov, curator at New York’s Nicholas Roerich Museum, says that as someone who has been studying Roerich’s heritage all his life, he sees that the artist’s art and ideas are of interest to people today. In India, especially, his art has the status of a national treasure. It gives Popov confidence that the beauty and humane ideas that Roerich created will continue to help people make their life better.
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