How India Influenced The Flowering Of Russian Art

How India Influenced The Flowering Of Russian Art

by Aravindan Neelakandan - May 22, 2016 01:16 PM +05:30 IST
How India Influenced The Flowering Of Russian ArtIndia - Russia Image
  • India, and Indic thought, exercised a profound influence on Russian art. This was especially so during the period when Russian art began evolving new schools and philosophies in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

    Read on to understand how some prominent Russian painters and their lives were influenced by India.

The 1910s saw an emergence of art movements that would have an enormous impact on art and science in Russia. While some were influenced by esoteric Christianity, Theosophy and pre-Christian mythology there was an important group which was influenced by India. One of the first notable painters to be influenced by Indic thought was Kazimir Severinovich Malevich (1878 - 1935)

Malevich was one of Russia’s well known painters in the early twentieth century. He was the founder of ‘Suprematism’, a school of art that produced works composed of flat, abstract areas of paint. These works were supposed to convey powerful, multi-layered symbols and mystical feelings of time and space’.

Kazimir Malevich’s self portrait.
Kazimir Malevich’s self portrait.

He was famous, and perhaps annoyingly abstract enough, for the Stalinist regime to confiscate all his works. He was banned from creating and exhibiting his modernist art. What Stalinist might not have realised was the influence Hindu philosophy had on one of Russia’s most creative minds. An art historian, Partha Mitter, notes:

“Malevich was deeply moved by Swami Vivekananda’s Chicago lectures.  His definition of Suprematism as ‘objectlessness’ rather than abstraction is strongly reminiscent of Vedantic notions of consciousness and the self.”

Piotr Fateyev (1891-1971), the founder of the ‘intuitivists’ school of art, was also deeply influenced by Hindu ideas and Malevich’s thoughts. In a six point manifesto for his art movement he stressed on freedom, intuition and the ‘infinite perfection of one’s self’.

In an essay on Malevich written in 1917 he reveals his convictions about how art is bringing out ‘an accelerated creation of new values, the value of the New World, the value of cosmic consciousness, and consciousness of New Man’. He further elaborated, placing it again as part of a global phenomenon:

One can feel the rapprochement of many ways leading from different sides to one and the same point. New music, poetry, philosophy, the latest trends in art: cubism, feminism, suprematism, Indian Joga, theosophy, the latest scientific data – all this developed under the sign of New Cosmic consciousness… The first stage of such consciousness can be traced in cubism of Picasso and his followers. Rudimentary Cosmic consciousness could be found in Sezanne’s and Van Gogh’s works.

According to Prof D Pospelov, who was a friend of the artist and later a keeper of his legacy, Fateyev had considered the cosmos as an organism. To him, the conquest of space would be due to the ‘conquest of the inner self’. At a time when space exploration was a distant dream, he produced stunning visions of the outer worlds. Fateyev’s ‘On the planet of the two suns’ (1912) is a good example for the same.

Painter of Shambala

Another independent artist who later became an internationally renowned person was Nicholas Roerich (1874-1947). There are museums dedicated to him across Russia - you can even find a Nicholas Roerich Museum in New York city.

In his younger days Roerich had enrolled in both the Academy of Arts and St Petersburg University. His wife Helena Shaposhnikov had introduced him to Sri Ramakrishna, Swami Vivekananda, the Bhagavad Gita and theosophy. Roerich who held that Bolshevism was a “the distortion of the sacred ideas of humankind” escaped to Finland in the pretext of a medical treatment, but soon went to England and then to the US.

After having his own spiritual experiences, he and his wife came out with the concept of ‘Agni Yoga‘. He spent some time back in Russia but had to eventually leave because he was informed that the Russian secret police was after him.

‘Amaravella’ Movement

Roerich had to leave but he had sown ideas such as the singular matter, combining of material and spiritual aspects, and matter being constantly driven by the forces of Cosmos which represent the everlasting energy which ‘the Hindu people call this ‘Blood of Cosmos’, the breath of Brahma’. These ideas deeply influenced the avante-garde painters who had gathered around Fateyev.

Soon the group named themselves as the ‘Amaravella’, a Sanskrit name which could be ‘interpreted in different ways’ like ‘bringing light’, ‘radiating energy of creation’ etc. The group came out with a short but forceful manifesto which reveals its Eastern inward looking nature:

“…Our creative work, mostly intuitive, is aimed at discovering different aspects of Cosmos in human images, in landscapes and in reflection of abstract images of the inner world.”

And it reminded the art critics and the connoisseurs that the aim of Amaravella paintings would be reached if their appreciation “should develop not by rational or formal analysis but by inner co-experience.” But the dark clouds were already gathering. The Soviet regime was increasingly restricting the exhibitions of the group. A contemporary explains:

Russian philosophy had been crushed; studies of theosophy were being persecuted by authorities. … Runa was arrested in February (1930). Sardan stopped seeing friends after a short-term arrest. Sometime later Shigolve was also arrested. Smirnov could not escape this fate either. Only Fateyev and Chernovolenko were still at large, but without hope for any life in art. ‘Amaravella’ ceased to exist.

Roerich in India

Meanwhile by 1928, the Roerich and his wife came to India and settled in Himachal Pradesh. Before settling down in the hills, they travelled throughout the country. They visited Calcutta and met Tagore.

Both Nicholas and Helena Roerich enjoyed discovering the monuments related to the memory of Swami Vivekananda and Sri Ramakrishna. The British Regent of Kashmir had, some decades ago, thwarted a plan of Swami Vivekananda to start a Sanskrit college on a piece of land donated by the Maharaja of Kashmir.

Roerich seemed to know about this thwarted plan of Swami Vivekananda. The Biographer of Nicholas and Helena Roerich, Ruth A Drayer writes:

Vivekananda had once dreamed of building a Hindu university that would integrate science with Vedanta, the synthesis of Hindu thought, and help create a unified world by teaching an amalgamation of East and West. Roerich regretted that the dream had not been fulfilled. If it were possible anywhere, he felt America would be the place.”

The Roerichs never for a moment doubted the importance of India in the emancipation of the world despite the outer appearances:

If in the crowd your next neighbour should be a skeleton, pale with leprosy, you are not frightened. Next to you will lean a Sadhu, colored with blue stripes, with a headdress made of cow dung. You are not surprised. A fakir with toothless cobras will cheat you. You are smiling.... Where are those for whose sake we have come to India? ... But do they really exist? Yes, yes, they exist, and so does their knowledge and skill. And all human substance is exalted because of them. Not even leprosy would turn me away from India.”  

For Roerich ‘the charm of India lies in the close interrelationship between the visible and the invisible and the very thing which is unusual for a civilized European, will be an almost daily occurrence for the cultured Hindu or Asiatic’.

Roerich was in frequent communication with Jagadish Chandra Bose. Bose’s own investigations into plant sensitivities delighted Roerich. He speculated about using Bose’s experiments to derive optimum benefits from herbs.

The Himalayas filled him with a vision of a grand future for humanity. He produced a series of 12 paintings that translated his grand vision. Roerich felt as though Hindu mythologies were taking shape right before him. As he ascended the Himalayan peaks he saw ‘the cosmic ocean of clouds below’ and exclaimed in his diary, “does this cosmic picture not fill you with the understanding of the great creative manifestation?

An imagery of Vedic mythology emerged before his eyes:

‘Before sunrise, there comes a breeze, and the milky sea undulates. The shining Devas have approached the tail of the serpent and the great stirring has begun!... Asuras and Devas struggle; the poisonous fumes creep everywhere. 
Creation must perish. But self-sacrificingly, the great blue-throated Shiva consumes the poison which threatens the world’s destruction!
All the evil spirits of the night disperse before Lakshmi’s radiant beauty as she arises from darkness, bearing the chalice of nectar. A new cosmic energy is manifested into the world with the new day!.’  
Jawaharlal Nehru, Indira Gandhi, Nicholas Roerich, and Mohammad Yunus. (At Roerich’s estate, Kullu).
Jawaharlal Nehru, Indira Gandhi, Nicholas Roerich, and Mohammad Yunus. (At Roerich’s estate, Kullu).

During his years in the Himalayas Roerich hosted several well known individuals: Jawaharlal Nehru, Tagore, Indira Gandhi and many more. There is a museum dedicated to his memory in Naggar, Himachal Pradesh where he died in 1947. The American Agni Yoga Society continues to promote his works.

Aravindan is a contributing editor at Swarajya.

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