In one of DAG’s new galleries at the Taj Mahal Palace in Colaba, Mumbai, a steady stream of visitors can be seen stopping next to Nicholas Roerich’s Banner Of Peace. Painted in 1931 by the Russian painter—regarded as one of the most influential artists of his time, he was honoured with the title of a National Treasure artist in India—the work continues to be relevant in a fractured world where news of conflict emerges daily from Ukraine.
Banner Of Peace is one of 50 artworks, selected for their historicity and rarity over a time frame of 200 years, that have been chosen for DAG’s ongoing exhibition, Iconic Masterpieces Of Indian Modern Art. A humanitarian at heart who was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 1929, 1932 and 1935, the Manali, Himachal Pradesh-based artist authored the Roerich Peace Pact that preceded the formation of the United Nations.
Banner Of Peace was part of the pact, signed by US president Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1935 to protect monuments, buildings, institutions and cultural artefacts from acts of desecration in peacetime as well as wartime. It is indeed ironic that the major players associated with Roerich are today at loggerheads, with war, hostility and sanctions playing out globally.
According to Kishore Singh, senior vice-president (exhibitions and publications) at DAG, Roerich wasn’t merely being prescient. He had already seen the devastation wrought by World War I and the build-up to World War II was under way. He even appealed to the Russian tsar to ensure cultural heritage was protected if there was an international conflict. The curatorial note mentions that the devastation wrought by the war and the Russian Revolution only strengthened his resolve to force governments to prioritise cultural achievements over narrow geopolitical interests.
Between 1928-35, then, he envisioned and directed a broad international movement. “Europe had been put through a wringer. The loss of human lives and property was incalculable, but so was that of the priceless heritage of art and culture, of civilisation itself—and Roerich wanted the world to take note of this overlooked, intangible heritage and preserve it for the future,” Singh says.
Banner Of Peace coincided with the First International Conference in Bruges, Belgium, in 1931, the starting point for international recognition of the pact. Singh notes that the painting presents a unique combination, of Roerich the artist and Roerich the leader of an international cultural movement. It is also an important historical document. “In the painting, Roerich emphasises the notion of culture as the veneration of the light (Ur), hence the splitting of the word into ‘cult’ and ‘ura’. The circle with the letters M and R above the year 1931 was the sign of the Roerich Museum in New York and also of the numerous Roerich societies all over the world that were promoting the Roerich Peace Treaty and its ideas in their respective countries,” Singh explains.
Roerich’s impact on society today can be read through the countless Roerich societies—a museum in New York, dedicated galleries in Moscow, a museum in Naggar (Manali) and so on. Singh states that the artist, whose words carried weight, undertook expeditions across Asia. “He was aware of the perils of war and knew they could not be stopped in the era in which he lived—remember that much of the world was colonised at the time—but he wanted to ensure that the footprints of ancient and medieval civilisations were not wiped out by acts of war,” he adds.
In Banner Of Peace, the central symbol of three red spheres within a red ring on a white background illustrates the official sign and distinct banner of the Treaty for the Protection of Artistic and Scientific Institutions and Historic Monuments, also known as the Roerich Pact, or Pax Cultura. According to Singh, the sign on Banner Of Peace, the Trinity, is one of the most ancient symbols of humanity.
It was one that Roerich chose deliberately. “As a result of multiple archaeological research and study in various regions of the planet, during which the artist studied monuments of art of different epochs and peoples, he discovered that this sign penetrated the history and culture of many nations,” says Singh. As Roerich wrote: “Let us be united—you will ask in what way? You will agree with me: in the easiest way, to create a common and sincere language. Perhaps in Beauty and Knowledge.”
Iconic Masterpieces Of Indian Modern Art can be viewed at DAG, Taj Mahal Palace, Colaba, Mumbai, till 30 May, 11am- 7pm.