A scholarly book on Nicholas Roerich deconstructs the enigma that he was

“Nicholas Roerich: A Quest & A Legacy” is one of the many books written on the incredible artist, writer, philosopher, and traveller and is yet beyond the limits of these genres. Through a number of scholarly essays by Indian and Western writers accompanied by an exhaustive range of paintings, the book offers different perspectives on his life, making it a read for those who intend to take a deeper look into his life rather than those who seek to merely familiarise themselves with Roerich’s art and life. “The writers included in the book are those who have deeply studied Roerich in an academic sense like Madhavan K. Palat, an expert in Russian studies and Ludmila Shaposhnikova, Director-General of the Nicholas Roerich Museum, Moscow. The chapter on his philosophy ‘Living Ethics’ is written by Marina Bernandi, who heads the organisation ‘Living Ethics’ in Italy,” says Manju Kak, author, art and cultural historian who has edited the book published by Niyogi Books.

“It is a tribute to the man whose understanding of tradition, ecology, culture and philosophy found resounding echoes in our context. India was on its way to independence and he captured the imagination of people like Nehru with his art and philosophy. His depiction of the Himalayas was very symbolic.”

Of late, Kak informs us, there has been a renewal of interest in the Russian painter’s art. In 2009, one of the paintings from his Legend series sold at Christie’s for $1.6 million, a record price for the artist. His son Svetoslav Roerich’s painting ‘Portrait of Nicholas Roerich in a Tibetan Robe’ went under the hammer for close to $3 million. “There is a big resurgence in understanding the monetary value of his work. Museums in New York, private collectors in India and abroad are interested in his art.”

Monetary factors aside, there are many other compelling reasons that make Roerich relevant in today’s context. “Personally, I think Russia is very pertinent in India’s scheme of things because I question America’s ability in terms of taking the civilisation forward. Roerich took the old route of fundamentals of life. His understanding of life was taken from his Russian roots and applied in Indian context. And this was when Russia had rejected Russia in its quest for Communism, modernisation and industrialisation.

There was social and economic crisis going on and he expressed it through his art but he went deeper than that. It was a quest for civilisation. He was looking at ancient knowledge of nature, culture and tradition.”

The writings deconstruct his approach and philosophy making his quest understandable to the reader. Palat, in the first essay of the book ‘Artist and Messiah’, discusses various shifts in his paintings. He investigates different influences like Paganism, Occultism, Nordic and Slavic myths in his art. Palat takes note of ‘Christian moments’ in the fresco ‘The Queen of heaven’, symbolism in his canvases and shifts in the location in his landscapes.

The chapter by Suchandana Chatterjee gives an insight into his Central Asiatic Expedition where he travels with an ethnographer’s outlook. Impressed by the diversity of Eurasian cultures, his journey gives glimpses of Asia. Many of the revelations stated by the author are attributed to his travel notes “Altai-Himalaya” and his philosophical jottings about the Himalayan sojourn “The Heart of Asia”.

In other chapters, authors talk about his quest for Shambala, a mythical Buddhist kingdom believed to exist somewhere between the Himalaya Mountains and the Gobi Desert, dotted with peace and enlightenment, his interest in India, chintamani stone, considered a precious talisman which was a gift from Nicholas’ wife Helena’s spiritual teacher Morya, the Roerich Pact, their philosophy of Living Ethics of which Agni Yoga was an important part, mysticism and Urusvati, an interdisciplinary research institute in Kullu.