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Haunting Himalayas

The Himalayas haunted Roerich all his life, ever since he caught a glimpse of the mountains in 1924.

AS ONE views the paintings at the elegantly mounted retrospective, Nicholas Roerich: A Himalayan Saga, it becomes amply clear that to the artist, the mountain was not just a manifestation of great physical beauty. It was, in fact, a symbol of a spiritual experience itself. The inspiring Himalayan exploration was as much an intellectual pilgrimage for Nicholas. The varying moods, colours, and complexity of the great mountain ranges represented and defined his vision, dream, and an authentic reconnaissance.

Master painter, philosopher, poet, playwright, and peace activist, Nicholas Roerich, it is said, was awestruck by the physical grandeur and spiritual quality of the Himalayas from the moment he happened to glimpse the Kanchenjunga in 1924 — and continued to inspire him for the rest of his life. His journey into the uncharted territories of the Himalayas in India, Chinese Turkestan, Altai, Mongolia, Tibet, and elsewhere resulted in several hundred paintings uncovering the rare beauty of these mysterious, isolated regions. Nicholas settled down in Kulu Valley in 1927, and lived most part of his life there till his death in 1947.

As Abha Kapoor writes in the colourful and comprehensive catalogue brought out on the retrospective: "Nicholas Roerich's journey to India was the culmination of an artistic and spiritual quest. He found ultimate fulfilment in the Himalayas and probably his depiction of the tranquillity and splendour of these sacred, snow-covered peaks is his richest legacy."

The retrospective currently on at the Karnataka Chitrakala Parishat houses 76 of Nicholas Roerich's paintings drawn from eight leading institutions — Allahabad Museum, International Roerich Memorial Trust (Naggar), Chitrakala Parishat (Bangalore), Bharat Kala Bhawan (Varanasi), National Gallery of Modern Art (New Delhi), Government Museum and Art Gallery (Chandigarh), Sri Jayachamarajendra Art Gallery Trust (Mysore), and Kejriwal Collection (Bangalore).

Some of the breathtaking landscapes in the retrospective include Lake Sheshnag, where the placid, yet shining water body is surrounded by blue-black summits even as a distant peak unhesitatingly signals the arrival of a new dawn on its golden rims and Dogra Yum-tso, with its flashes of contrasting colours — flaming red horizon in the background is set against dark and resting cliffs elsewhere, swinging the winds and moving shadows in silent elegance. Striking warmth of colours dramatically touch the undulating glaciers in Shambhale Lam even as a gigantic cloud dwarfs the blue mountains skirting the horizon in Guardian of the Entrance.

In Sharugon Monastery, Tibet, the place of worship stands betwixt towering mountains and flowing river, the mood heightened by an unusual brilliance of the yellow sky and a black rock, bearing religious symbols. Pale mountainscapes have been hastily yet effectively coloured in the work titled Mountain — here, the swiftness of a dropping sun conveys the onset of a quickly gathering dusk.

Narsingh and Guga Chouhan is another robustly composed painting, in which the glinting snow-filled cliffs in the background are interrupted by the stately presence of an imposing dark brown tree in the foreground — on and around the tree are placed sculpted deities, to tell a silent, yet eloquent tale.

Gazing at the works of intense contemplation, the present-day viewer might still find some of them to be rather simplistically syrupy in style, colour, delineation, and depiction. Paintings such as the ones portraying a seated ascetic on narrow cliffs (Ecstasy), dramatically posed women (She Who Leads), the lonely woman in a meditative posture (Himalayan Summit), and the solitary figure riding a buffalo (The Pilgrim), also have the danger of branded as grossly illustrative, rather than as meaningful metaphors.

Be that as it may, the retrospective brings and in a way, rejuvenates the interest in Roerich's paintings which, incidentally, have been declared as national art treasures by the Indian Government, with the works of eight other masters including Rabindranath Tagore, Nandlal Bose, and Jamini Roy.

The colourful mountainscapes continue to beckon the viewer at the KCP till March 16.


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