Back then there was no Google maps or a GPS chatting in a friendly voice telling you where to turn. The year 1924. A caravan headed by the Russian artist Nicholas Roerich set out into the often unmapped mountains of Central Asia, a circular route of over 8,000 km that meandered through Sikkim, Kashmir, parts of China, Mongolia, and Gobi desert. Why did he go on this expedition that took around five years, where he had to face raging storms and adverse terrains, coupled with hostile local authorities in some parts?
Was it for a quest for Shambhala, the mythic land of love, beauty and truth? Was it to understand the civilisational roots of Eurasia in order to form an anti-imperialist State, an alternative to the situation then, a world facing the aftermath of the First World War? Or was it akin to an anthropological study — to firsthand observe the landscape for his creative work and to learn about the monuments, and study the migration of people, customs, and religions? Esoteric spirituality, canny geopolitics, or artistic ambition?
In Nicholas Roerich: A Quest, A Legacy, author and art historian Manju Kak attempts to piece together pieces of a complex jigsaw puzzle to understand the motivations driving this painter of mountains who left behind a legacy of over 7,000 paintings. He made India his spiritual home and in the 20-odd years he lived here, he made two expeditions into the Himalayas (1924-28, 30-31) and established a Urusvati, a research institute in Himachal Pradesh, now inactive. His younger son Svetoslav Roerich married yesteryear star Devika Rani, who was a great grand-niece of Rabindranath Tagore, someone whom Roerich befriended and admired.
Roerich’s quest for understanding the ‘essential unity of life’ is relevant to our polarised and fragmented society, Kak tells us in the introduction. The relevance would have been just that, a message of unity, had Roerich been resurrected as a modern messiah who made India his spiritual home. But the book does not do that. Essays by different authors evoke a complex human being, who is neither whitewashed in spiritual splendour nor doused in earthly pragmatism. Rather, the book manages to muddy the distinctions between such categories. For instance, Madhavan K. Palat in his essay ‘Nicholas Roerich: Artist and Messiah’ and Suchandana Chatterjee in ‘Glimpses of Inner Asia’ discuss Roerich’s art and his occult and spiritual quests set in the troubled social and political context of his times. Some essays that focus squarely on the spiritual side of Roerich’s life include ‘Luminosity and the natural mind’ that delves into aspects of Tibetean Buddhism and ties it to Roerich’s paintings in Tibet and Mongolia; ‘Meeting my master’ by a grateful, gushing disciple; and ‘Diamond of Consciousness: A Practice of Agni Yoga’ that talks about the philosophical school by the same name Roerich established. Other essays that talk about events and details of Roerich’s life provide a counterpoint to the spiritual tones. One such essay is ‘Conditional love’, which talks about Roerich’s relationship with India. As the name suggests, the author John McCannon dilutes Roerich’s supposedly boundless praise of India by citing his writings that portray a nuanced relationship than that of mere wide-eyed admiration.
One of the main themes of the book is the relevance and importance of the spiritual in our lives. But how do you talk about the spiritual without sounding awkward? The book illustrates the difficulty in doing so. For instance, one essay ‘A caravan in time and space’ claims: ‘By the 20 century two trends of cognition – scientific and extra-scientific, or meta-scientific had been clearly established’ to talk about knowledge revealed to personalities with a ‘higher level of cosmic evolution’. Such pseudo-science talk does not help the bolster the case of spirituality. Rather, what is needed is an alternative way of articulating the spiritual that does not rely either on pseudo-science to bolster its legitimacy or on abandonment of disbelief.
In the introduction, Kak describes the difficulty of articulating the spiritual in a roundabout way when she says that Roerich’s art is more accessible to Indians than Westerners because ‘our everyday lives are indoctrinated by spiritual lacings’. It is a loaded word ‘indoctrinated’, smelling faintly of judgment, yet convenient, for it manages to avoid the ineffable. But we need that articulation, that fresh language, which does not beg for legitimacy but narrates a credible space. The book illustrates why without such a credible alternative, some gaps will remain so.
(Sruthi Krishnan is a journalist who writes on arts and culture)
Nicholas Roerich: A Quest & A Legacy: Edited by Manju Kak; Niyogi Books, D-78, Okhla Industrial Area Phase I, New Delhi-110020. Rs. 1495.