In this issue of Rooplekha, we present some of the paintings of the most remarkable artist of India, Svetoslav N. Roerich. Strange as it may seem my first acquaintance with his paintings was made in Roerich Museum, New York in 1945. There were a number of paintings of his father, Nicholas K. Roerich, showing the glory of the Himalayas which decorated the main gallery of the museum. A painting of a torch-light procession on a mountain pass attracted my attention strongly. The golden glow of the torches contrasting with the purple blue of the night made a deep impression on me. I learnt that it was painted by Svetoslav in the Kulu valley. This remarkable painting had a haunting beauty, and I often saw it in my dreams. Does it not show cosmos, nature and man? The blue colour is surely the symbol of cosmos.
The art of Svetoslav bears a strong impress of his father, Nicholas Roerich. It was in 1923 that the greatest mountain painter of the age, Nicholas Roerich, came to India and settled down at Naggar in Kulu valley in the Punjab Himalayas. I happened to see an exhibition of his paintings in 1928 in Lahore, and came back with a deep and lasting impression of the majesty and calm of the mountains so vividly portrayed in these paintings. From time immemorial the mighty range of the Himalayan mountains has evoked the awe and wonder of the teeming millions of India. It was the seat of their gods, their paradise, "where there is no sorrow nor weariness nor do anxiety, hunger nor apprehension, and the inhabitants live in uninterrupted enjoyment. The goddess never sends rain upon them, yet the earth abounds with water. In this region there is no distinction of succession of ages and time is no more." The sight of the snow-covered white - peaks has a purifying effect upon the human mind and they purge the mind of narrow and mean ideas. The writer of the Skanda Purana, describing the glories of the Himalaya, rightly observes "as the dew is dried by the morning sun, so are the sins of mankind by the sight of Himachal". It was indeed a happy event for India that this talented Russian family settled in Kulu from where they disseminated throughout the world the glory of the Himalayas in their paintings. Nicholas Roerich made a deep and intimate study of the rocks and mountains of the inner Himalayas and his Himalayan landscapes reveal unearthly beauty and grandeur. His colours may appear exaggerated to the people who lives in the dusty plains but those who had an opportunity of .travelling in high altitudes know what brilliant colours can be seen at dawn and at sunset. Nicholas Roerich is not an ordinary landscape artist. It is nature strained through a fine consciousness that we find revealed in his painting, which glow with colours. In his mountain pictures we find solitary figures of lamas, sadhu, or hill men standing before mighty forces of nature. These landscapes are not merely records of places, but a means recording the sense of grandeur and isolation which the artist felt looking at these mountains. On seeing lonely pilgrims ploughing their way through snowy wastes a feeling of sadness steals over us. No doubt it has been correctly observed that every landscape is a state of the soul. In these landscapes we see a beautiful soul. In the quiet of Naggar Nicholas Roerich led a creative life pervaded by spiritual understanding and harmony. He placed Kulu valley on the cultural man of the world.
I invited Nicholas Roerich to Delhi for an exhibition of his paintings in December 1947. The paintings came and were exhibited under the auspices of the All-India Fine Arts and Crafts Society. Unfortunately Nicholas Roerich fell seriously ill and passed away. I had been in touch with him through correspondence since 1936. It was my ardent desire to meet him in his mountain home at Naggar. When I visited Naggar in 1948 I paid a visit to his home where he had worked with such vigour and enthusiasm for so many years creating many paintings of great beauty. An image of Cugga Chauhan was lying under a tree. In the background were the snow peaks of Kulu, and below were the terraces of rice fields. As I wandered into the garden I came across a huge stone on which was carved his name. This was the place where he was cremated, and symbolically enough, on the earthly remains of this great painter of the mountain lays a Himalayan rock marking his last resting place.
I was in 1958 on visit to Bangalore that I renewed my contact with Svetoslav Roerich. In fact it was my first opportunity to see his works apart from the solitary painting which I saw in New York. I paid a visit to his home in the countryside of Mysore in the month of February 1958. Surrounded by a plantation of an oil-bearing plant linaloe is neat little cottage which is the home of Svetoslav and his talented wife, Devika Rani. The air was fragrant with the perfume of linaloe oil. Devika Rani has herself made a great contribution to the Indian film industry and I remember having seen her in one her earliest films in 1933 when I was in London. The advertiser had described her as the most beautiful woman in the world, and on meeting her I felt it was no exaggeration. In fact it was her charm and the warmth of her personality which has undoubtedly inspired Svetoslav’s work in South India. Their cottage is surrounded by red bougainvillaea, whose magenta and fire coloured flowers were blazing under the bright sun. The poinsettias, with their flaming scarlet bracts reminded me of the blaze of colours, which I later on saw in Svetoslav’s paintings of South India. Those who are not familiar with South India cannot understand how bright can be the light of the sun and what colourful flowers are grown there whose colour seems to penetrate into your eyes. The multi-coloured leaves of caladiums lent a strange fascination to the informal garden. Shading the cottage is a giant banyan tree under which is the tutelary god of the village. He is benevolent devata to whom people come with all types of requests and prayers, and they are usually fulfilled.
After making a round of the garden I was taken to the studio where Svetoslav paints. I cannot forget the two hours I spent with him and his wife, seeing his paintings. It was truly a feast of colours! I was particularly impressed by the genre paintings of South India. It is Svetoslav who has portrayed the beauty of the dark women of Mysore with such feeling. The glowing colours of clouds in the painting entitled “The Call” were truly overwhelming. A dark boy is shown playing on the flute, and a pair of cows stand spell-bound listening to the melody of the flute. Surely Krishna, the cow-herd God could not be more charmingly depicted. His next painting “Life Everlasting”, shows a South Indian mother with her child. In the background are other members of her family working in a field. It portrays the teeming life of tropical India, its exuberance and vitality.Hismasteryof perspective and distance is such that looking at these paintings one feels as if one is actually seeing the countryside of Mysore plateau with its red soil and fantastic rocks. What a contract the cobalt blue sky and orange clouds provide against the background of which the dark-coloured toiling humanity is painted! The mellow beauty of the women of Kerala against the background of graceful coconut palms with their feather-like leaves swaying in the humid air is shown in another painting. From South India we now move on the Eastern India and see the white marble temples of Girnar perching on a conical peak of granite with blue shadows of clouds skirting it. On the precipitous mountain the small white temples appears almost inaccessible like God himself.
Now we come to his portraits. How successfully he has shown the majestic calm of his father in his portrait! In the portrait of his wife we see the liquid beauty of her eyes and can almost feel the texture of her colourful drapery! In the background are crimson blossoms of the Flame of the Forest, looking like burning torches. In this series, next came a large picture of a nude draped below the waist. Her rounded contours reminded me of the yakshis of Kushan Mathura. Apart from the sensuous curves, the golden colour of her body gives a feeling as if she is alive!
Next he showed me his paintings of the Himalayas which are as great as his father’s. He truly has the sense of the Beautiful, and from this is born his creativeness. I was delighted to see his paintings of the Kulu valley. The impression which he has given of the picturesque Dussehra of Kulu valley in a masterly painting reminded me of the colourful humanity of the Kulu Valley. Women draped in multi-coloured blankets and laden with silver ornaments, and men blowing large trumpets are carrying their God in a palanquin. In this painting the men and women of Kulu will live forever. Like his father, he makes liberal use of glowing paints. His Himalayan landscapes are steeped in spirituality and reveal unearthly beauty and grandeur. The cone of Kanchanjunga glowing like a lump of gold, swathed in billowing pink purple clouds, resting on a base of cobalt blue, still appears in my mind’s eye. How successfully Svetoslav has captured the transient beauty of a glorious Himalayan sunset, so that we may feast our eyes in it even in place so remote from the Himalayas! The simplicity of his colour schemes is more apparent than real, and behind it we see a real mastery of composition, juxtaposition of pigment, and a sense of colour and rhythm. His perception of nature is idealistic rather than realistic. He is not satisfied with plain reality and he uses nature and its manifestations merely as a plastic material which he works into forms unusual and unexpected, but far more impressive. His paintings of the Himalayas have a unique spiritual quality. A sight of these paintings exalts us, and refines our consciousness. In them we almost touch the sublime! It is the cosmic quality of his colours which makes a deep and lasting impression. Even the Russian cosmonaut, Gagarin, during his space flight was reminded of Svetoslav’s paintings, and he compared the beauty of cosmos to some of his paintings. What greater compliment could be paid to a living artist? An exhibition of the paintings in January 1960 in the galleries of the All-India Fine Arts and Crafts Society was a unique event. The exhibition was on for about two months, and was seen by thousands of people. I remember how happy I felt walking through the galleries radiating such beauty and light. And what a light, such as was never seen on sea or land!
Published in Rooplekha in 1961.