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Paint and glitter in Himalayas at Roerich Art Gallery

First time I passed through Naggar was way back in summer of 1990, while returning from Manali during my first ever trip to Kullu-Manali region. Barely I had any idea at that time that it was just the start of my fascination and association with this magical place. Since then, there have been number of trips for trekking, camping, biking, leisure, et al. Each of them have been unique in its experience.

While pursuing a career as a full-time journalist, I had started trekking as a serious passion in 1992. It was in January 1993 when I came across the news of death of Svetoslav Roerich. News of his death was associated with follow-up news of his wife legendary Devika Rani, grandniece of Rabindranath Tagore, and their Tataguni estate on the outskirts of Bangalore.

The view from Roerich estate at Naggar near Kullu in Himachal Pradesh

That time we had known about Devika Rani as the ‘First Lady’ of Indian Cinema and her role alongside Ashok Kumar in one of the most remarkable films of its time- ‘Achhut Kanya’. But those were pre-internet days with no means to access photos and information on fingertips, as media does today. We had to depend on old-fashioned ways of limited access. Therefore, we had no idea, how Devika Rani would be looking like in age of 85 in 1993. For me too, those were the times of double exposure- first to life of a metro and secondly, to mainstream journalism.

So, as it happened—in May 1993—I went for a YHAI trekking programme to Chanderkhani Pass in Kullu-Parvati valley. Trekking part of the programme ended the day after we crossed the over 12k feet high (3660 metres) pass and reached the Naggar Camp. Naggar camp was almost 5 kms uphill from the Naggar village. Next day, we were supposed to reach base camp via Naggar, and we had some time to spend at the historic village. It was then, when I saw the Roerich Art Gallery at Naggar for the first time.

Gaddi Girl and other paintings at Gallery

The moment I reached gallery, the news of Svetoslav Roerich immediately flashed in my mind. I recalled everything I had read just a few months back, and also the fact that Devika Rani was associated with this place. Then came the moment which kept embarrassing me for long time afterwards. After visiting the gallery (it didn’t use to be that crowded in those times), we suddenly came across a beautiful looking very old lady, overlooking the estate. I don’t know how, but it came to our minds that she must be Devika Rani and, we were so confirmed with this fact in back of our minds that without even confirming, we asked for a photograph with her. She happily obliged. 

Photograph with a nostalgia, taken more than 27 years ago

It was very later that I came to know about the fact that the lady wasn’t Devika Rani but actually estate manager of Roerichs at Naggar. Felt embarrassed with it but, only saving grace was that I never got loud with the claim that I got myself photographed with Devika Rani. 

Devika Rani too passed away just ten months after that incident, in March 1994 at the same Tataguni Estate. That photograph is still one of the fondest travel memories for me. There was no Devika Rani in the photograph, but that photo got etched in my travel memory as a moment with Devika Rani for ever.

I had been to Roerich Art Gallery a few times after that. It is one of my favourite places in the area. The place encapsulates everything- history, art, nature, Himalayas, politics and silver screen.

Although Naggar has a very rich history (it was said to be capital of Kullu Kings for over 1400 years) and Naggar castle and many temples ( it has a much revered Tripura Sundari temple) bear testimony to that, but surprisingly Roerichs association with this place itself is almost a hundred years old now.

Ancient memorial stones and sculptures of Naggar kings and queens at Roerich Estate

And, this started not with Svetoslav but with his father Nikolai (referred to as Nicholas at many places) Konstantinovich Roerich, who was a Russian artist, archaeologist, philosopher, traveller, writer and mountaineer. He started a world movement to protect monuments, late embodied in International Roerich Pact (Pax Cultura) said to have signed by 60 countries so far. 

Foreign tourists at Samadhi of Nicholas Roerich
Carving on the rock in Hindi about Nicholas Roerich

Nicholas Roerich was drawn to Himalayan peaks which charted the future course of his artistic as well as spiritual journey. Indian influence on his work was visible even before he landed in India for the first time. In 1928 he found Urusvati Himalayan Research Institute and shifted his base from Darjeeling to Naggar (Kullu). Nicholas died in December 1947 and he was cremated at the place where Roerich Art Gallery is located today. You can still see his samadhi where a rock memorial has been placed in his memory.

Banner of Peace created by Nicholas Roerich at Naggar

Nicholas Roerich’s work for preservation of culture and Roerich Pact were also symbolised by his designing of Banner of Peace in 1930. This distinctive flag consists of three red spheres surrounded by a red circle in a white field. It symbolises religion, art and science, encompassed by the circle of culture or as the past, present and future achievements of humanity guarded within the circle of eternity. You can see this flag hoisted at gallery. The journey of this flag continued with that of Pax Cultura all these years. It even travelled to space on a Soyuz rocket and was hoisted over the Centre-Museum named after Nicholas Roerich in Moscow in 1998.

His wife Elena Ivanovna Roerich was herself an equally accomplished writer and philosopher. It was this heritage that Svetoslav Roerich and his elder brother Yuri Nikolaevich inherited. Although Yuri was director of Urusvati from 1930 to 1942, but then he moved back to Russia. In 1974, Indian government released a commemorative stamp in memory of Nicholas Roerich (image below).

It was Svetoslav, whom India came to know very closely, more so when he married Devika Rani in 1945 and they both went on the settle at Bangalore in 1948. He was an accomplished artist and member of Russian Academy of Art. His portraits of Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi adorn the walls of Indian parliament.

Roerich family has done so much work that it is not possible for Naggar Gallery to showcase all or larger part of it. Therefore, most of work displayed here is the one related to India and Himalayas. But Naggar is definitely one of the most important milestones of their lifework, as all of them stayed here for considerable time. 

Upper floor of the Roerich House
This was said to be Helena Roerich’s studio

At the Naggar gallery, ground floor of the building has been devoted to the paintings. Upper floor is where Svetoslav and Devika Rani used to stay. Visitors can see that portion as well, although they are not allowed to enter the rooms. Rooms are still kept in the same manner, as they were last used. Most of the tourists coming to Naggar (on an extension to their Kullu-Manali trip) visit the gallery in a routine formal affair. In all these years, I have hardly seen anyone going to either the upper residential part or the part where Svetoslav had his studio. However, not more than ten people are allowed to go on the upper floor at a time as the structure is bit old. 

Entrance to the memorial of Svetoslav Roerich and Devika Rani (top) and inside the memorial which housed many of their rare personal photographs, portraits, paintings, personal belongings and other tools (below)

After the death of legendary couple just in a span of one year, another memorial was created in the complex for them, which houses few paintings, canvas, tools, things of daily use and a bit more. 

Complex

This gallery has an amazing location, almost on edge of cliff overlooking Beas river flowing below. This landscape itself is so inspiring for all the creative minds. What wonders it would have created hundred years ago, when there were no roads and no tourist, just can be imagined.

Managed by International Roerich Memorial Trust, Roerich Art Gallery complex houses the gallery, Roerich House, Samadhi of Nicholas Roerich, memorial for Svetoslav and Devika Rani, Urusvati Himalayan Research Institute, Folk art museum, a museum of modern art and some ancient memorial stones related to kings and queens of Naggar. There is also a restaurant, tea-coffee bar and a souvenir shop. 

Gallery has an entry ticket of Rs 30 for every adult and Rs 20 for a child blow 12 years. There is also a cloak room for all those who are carrying big bags. 

Entrance to Roerich Art Gallery

Where

Naggar is located on the left bank of Beas River, 22 kms from Kullu on way to Manali. You have to reach Kullu first to go to Naggar. On the Kullu-Manali Highway, when you reach Patlikuhl, you have to turn towards the river to take a bridge and then go to Naggar, which is five kilometres from that place. Roerich Art Gallery is on further end of the village towards hillside. 

Have you ever been to Roerich Art Gallery? How was the experience? Share with us in the comments section below.

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