If the mountains called you, would you go?
Nature amuses us in its various forms while the mountains remain a source of awe and the majestic. The Himalayas are undoubtedly evoked when speaking of mountains because one can never miss Mount Everest. Akin to India’s crown and a natural border, it accounts for 10 of the world’s largest peaks. Various associations are made with the Himalayas, some religious and the other for recreation. The well-known Kedarnath temple is located on the Garhwal Himalayan range, the highest jyotirlinga, and invites a flood of people for worship. The presence of monasteries also adds to the spiritual value of these ranges.
The sublimity of the ranges are preserved in the paintings of Nicholas Roerich (1874-1947) who was a painter, writer, archaeologist, theosophist, set-designer, spiritualist, and a Nobel Peace Prize nominee. Born October 9, 1874, in St. Petersburg, Russia, Roerich arrived in India in 1923 with his family and stayed in the western Himalayas for almost twenty years. Their journey began in search for “Shambhala”, a utopian land said to have existed in the Himalayas, to “trace the origins of all Eurasian religious traditions and prove their common source'' (McCannon, 2000, p. 292). His humble travel expedition might take us by surprise, as he puts it in a single sentence,
“Started from Sikkim through Punjab, Kashmir, Ladakh, the Karakoram Mountains, Khotan, Kashgar, Qara Shar, Urumchi, Irtysh, the Altai Mountains, the Oyrot region of Mongolia, the Central Gobi, Kansu, Tsaidam, and Tibet.”
He was accompanied by his wife, Helena Roerich (philosopher and writer) and their two sons George (orientalist, Buddhist scholar) and Svetoslav (painter, scientist). Together they founded Urusvati, the Himalayan Research Institute. It was through Helena that Roerich developed a sincere interest in the eastern religions and philosophies. She also inspired many of his pictorial expeditions, referred to as “She Who Leads” in Roerich’s diary entries.
Roerich is well known for the remarkable and breath-taking paintings he made while living in the picturesque Kullu valley, Himachal Pradesh. His works feature bold forms, bright hues inspired from nature, intense texture and contours which sometimes include historical and religious settings. A catalogue introduction to NGMA’s exhibitions of his works read, “Drawn inexplicably to the vast mountain ranges of the Himalayas, like no other painter, Roerich was able to grasp and depict the subtle-most shades, hues and tones of the mountains, and their ethereal transparency… He sensed the subtle spirit and harmony of the mountains, their solemn, mighty essence and significance for humanity as the symbol of the purest, highest aspiration towards beauty and knowledge.” (Explore the Himalayas : Paintings by Nicholas Roerich, 2018)
It is intriguing to find that Roerich wrote extensively along with painting and it is said that his poetic works, The Flowers of Morya, provide a rich verbal imagery and a key to interpret his works. The landscapes provided “symbols for his inner visions and spiritual convictions” (McCannon, 2000, p. 271). Simple symbolism that appeared in his early works takes shape here to suggest spiritual ascent, progress, water stands for purification and renewal and the river stood for transition.
Apart from deep spiritual symbolism his works document several monasteries and monks, the local architecture, flora and fauna. He further kept an account of various folklore of different regions, hence his works culminate to speak volumes of the culture in the mountains. He also witnessed the Bhumchu Festival at the Tashiding Monastery in Sikkim. The festival is celebrated on the first full moon after the Tibetan New Year. Upon returning to Darjeeling, he made a series titled “Banners of the East” and the subject included some of the greatest spiritual leaders.
He is also best known for his works with Ballets Russes and monumental historical sets for projects that included designing for the opera. He believed that objects of material matter may perish but the initiating thought behind them will never die because it is a part of the eternal stream of consciousness; man's will and energy of thought nourish it. He was a flagbearer of peace and thought of it as an important prerequisite for the survival of the planet. A few words can only reflect in the very brief, the contributions of Roerich’s genius which are vast not just in terms of visual arts but philosophy, science and subjects of the like as well.
Explore the Himalayas : Paintings by Nicholas Roerich. (2018, February 27). The Heritage Lab. Retrieved February 3, 2022, from https://www.theheritagelab.in/himalayas-paintings-roerich/
Klasanova, L. (2019, November 25). Nicholas Roerich: Master of the Himalaya – Buddhistdoor Global. Buddhistdoor Global. Retrieved February 3, 2022, from https://www.buddhistdoor.net/features/nicholas-roerich-master-of-the-himalaya/
Kozicharow, N., & Hardiman, L. (Eds.). (2017). Modernism and the Spiritual in Russian Art: New Perspectives. Open Book Publishers.