A two-day international conference on “Indian Subjects, Foreign Artists” was organized by the Indian Council for Cultural Relations (ICCR) in New Delhi on October 10-11, 2016 to explore the contribution of various foreign artists inspired by India to the local and world art scene and to documenting India’s past. ICCR is a government organization that formulates and implements the policies relating to India’s external cultural relations.
“Indian Subjects, Foreign Artists”:
Papers on the Roerichs Presented at the International Art Conference
In the past two and a half centuries a number of foreign artists lived and worked in India depicting various aspects of India’s life and culture in various media from pencil to oil. They left behind descriptive illustrations, maps, studies of monuments, landscapes, portraits of historical characters, genre scenes, depictions of India’s flora and fauna, etc. making an invaluable contribution to the historical science by carefully documenting and recording India and its rich cultural heritage through the centuries.
Dr. Rosie Llewellyn-Jones, Archivist, Royal Society for Asian Affairs, London, spoke of the major foreign artists who visited India after 1857 including the Orientalists Edwin Weeks and Mortimer Menpes. Dr. Gautam Sengupta, Professor in the Dept. of Ancient Indian History, Culture and Archeology, Visvabharati University, Shantiniketan, and former Director General of the Archeological Survey of India, shared his views on the Greco-Persian roots of India’s sculpture and epigraphy. Mr. Jawhar Sircar, former Union Culture Secretary, took a sweeping look at the history of the Company school of Paintings in India.
The first event of the programme was the opening in the ICCR premises of the exhibition of the prints of selected paintings by various renowned foreign artists who worked in India including Thomas and William Daniell, Elizabeth Brunner and Elizabeth Sass-Brunner, Nicholas and Svetoslav Roerich, Gao Jianfu and a few others.
Inaugurating the conference the Chief Guest of the function Dr. S. Jaishankar, Foreign Secretary, Government of India, expressed his certainty that such events would go a long way in strengthening India’s foreign relations and enhancing its soft culture. President of the ICCR, the eminent art historian of India Prof. Lokesh Chandra and other high-ranking ICCR officials participated in the inauguration ceremony.
Several internationally renowned experts on Indian art and history took active part in the conference. Prof. Rajeev Lochan, Former Director, National Gallery of Modern Art (NGMA), Delhi, made a survey of the European artists who worked in India or were influenced by its philosophical tradition focusing on the Bauhaus School. Incidentally, in 2009 during his tenure the NGMA hosted the largest ever Indian exhibition of Nicholas Roerich’s paintings sourced from various Indian and Russian museums.
The conference threw light on such extraordinary figures as James Prinsep who documented Benares in the early 19th century, James Fraser who was probably the first European artist to extensively paint the Himalayas, Prince Soltykoff, the first Russian artist to visit India, the Brothers Daniell who left the detailed representations of colonial India, the mother and daughter Brunner who lived most of their lives in India and were spiritually transformed by its experience, and Alice Boner, the historian of Indian art, artist and poet who painted her mystic visions in Benares.
It is impossible to tell the story of foreign artists’ exploration of India without mentioning the invaluable contribution of the Russian artists Nicholas and Svetoslav Roerich. Two papers on the Roerichs were presented at the conference by the employees of the International Centre of the Roerichs, Moscow. The paper on Nicholas Roerich’s vision of the Himalayas as the “treasury of spirit” was presented by Dr. Alexander Pereverzev, Asst. Curator, International Roerich Memorial Trust, Dist. Kullu, Himachal Pradesh, India. He provided the outline of the history of Nicholas Roerich’s engagement with India in general and the Himalayan region in particular. He paid attention to the early works by Nicholas Roerich inspired by Indian art, mythology and aesthetics, and traced the evolution of his style as a Himalayan painter par excellence. He introduced the audience to the major series of Nicholas Roerich’s paintings and some of his seminal works, most of which are dedicated to or based on the Himalayas.
In her paper titled “The Light of India in the Art of Svetoslav Roerich” Mrs. Larisa Surgina, Russian Curator, International Roerich Memorial Trust, Naggar, analyzed the main themes and philosophical content of Svetoslav Roerich’s art during his long stay in the Himalayas and South India. She dwelled on the depth and technical skill of his portraiture, the unforgettable brightness of his mountain landscapes and his lively interest in India’s historic monuments and spiritual tradition that occupy a very special place in his art.
Both papers richly illustrated with slides were well received by the learned audience.
Proceedings of the conference are expected to be published by the ICCR in 2017.
Professional and amateur, renowned and obscure, classical and traditional, government officials and travelers, long-timers and casual visitors – each of them had a unique vision of this land and left it for posterity deepening and enriching our understanding of India’s past and present. Russian artists who worked in India were few, the most renowned of them being Vassily Vereshchagin, Nicholas Roerich and Svetoslav Roerich.