Mongolia has just completed the annual Tsagansar or “White Month” celebrations, and we now enter the Year of the Iron Rabbit. Rabbits produce many babies, and we hope that we at Roerich House Mongolia will be able to produce many great creations in the year to follow. An in honor of this New Year, we have decided to launch a weekly blog, The Roerich Mongolia Monthly.
Many of you know the basic Nicholas Roerich story. A Russian born New York artist who lived the last decade of his life in India, Roerich took the world by storm in 1919, when he painted stage sets for the Paris opening of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. Everyone hated the opera, but loved Roerich’s stage sets. This was Roerich’s big break on the international scene. The international papers unanimously criticized the opera, but praised Roerich. The next year he went to America at the invitation of the Art Institute of Chicago, and travelled on a twenty-eight city tour. America fell in love with him, and in NY a wealthy developed created a twenty-four city building in his name, with the two top stories for a Roerich Museum. This was the beginning of “The Master’s Institute,” a collective of artists, educators, scientists and social thinkers devoted to ushering in a new era of international peace and harmony. In 1929 Roerich was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. Later the Roerich Museum in NY moved to a more modest location, where it remains today. This NY institution has kept the Roerich legacy alive over the past ninety years. Its website makes available all sorts of great Roerich materials, including photos and writings for free download.
Roerich travelled to India in 1923 at the invitation of India’s greatest living poet, Rabindranath Tagore, whom he had met in London just before coming to America. He took up residence in the Dalai Podrang, the house where the British had housed the Thirteenth Dalai Lama from 1909 to 1912. He began his famous “His Country Series” there, and also his “The Himalayas” series.
In 1925 he, together with wife Helena and son George (a graduate of Columbia University, NY) left on a four year journey through the “Seven Mongolian Kingdoms.” This brought him to Outer Mongolia in 1926, and he remained until the summer of 1927. Nicholas’s own journal, Altai Himalaya, is a great peek into the many lands through which they travelled, as well as into Roerich’s visions and insights. George’s Trails to Inmost Asia is even better as a travel journal.
Skip forward thirty years. Khrushchev comes to power in Moscow, and sees the Stalinist anti-intellectual campaign as having been a disaster. He orders the government to release any surviving intellectuals who had been imprisoned, and pleads with ex-pat Russians to return and help Russia rebuild from the destructions of the Stalinist cultural purges. Nicholas Roerich’s eldest son George, who had left Russia as a child over forty-five years earlier, accepts to come to Russia for a term, and to re-open a Sanskrit-Tibetan program at the Institute of Oriental Studies in Moscow. The year is 1957.
Prof Bira, at the time a young teacher in Ulaanbaatar, returns to Moscow that same year and takes up studies under George, doing his PhD in Indo-Tibetan Buddhism under him. George dies in Moscow in 1960, the year that Bira graduates.
Skip forward another forty-five years. Prof. Bira is now the last surviving Asian student of George Roerich, and has become one of Mongolia’s foremost academics. By chance in 2004 he discovers the house where the Roerichs lived in Mongolia in 1926-27, and learns that he is slated for demolition, to be replaced by a high rise modern building. He surrounds himself with a small army of academics who appreciate Roerich’s contribution to Mongolian history, and together they press the Mongolian government to save the house by declaring it an historical site, and to entrust them and their newly established Roerich Society of Mongolia with the responsibility of restoring and developing it.
Not much happens for the next few years. The small group of academics is unable to generate funds for the work, or even to pay the city land taxes.
Then in November of 2008 Bira re-meets Canadian writer and teacher Glenn Mullin, and Glenn accepts to take responsibility to raise funds for the project, and also oversee its execution. He brings on board Batdorj Damdensuren, former director of the Zanabazaar National Museum. Bira, his assistant Ishdorj, Glenn and Batdorj form a working committee to press ahead. Glenn’s fundraising activities meet with a modest success, and a few months later, after the winter cold has passed, work on the restoration begins.
The spring of 2008 brings a great stroke of good fortune. Vedran Bolfek of Croatia, a professional restoration artist, volunteers to come for six months and direct the restoration work. Three or four teams of local Mongol construction workers throw themselves into the task, and in four months time the Roerich House is ready for a “soft opening.” (Soft, because still no permission from the city to hook to the city’s heat and water systems, and also because a quarter of the house is still unfinished and therefore is just blocked off.) The opening took place on the Dalai Lama’s birthday (July 9th) 2009, just as planned.
Many wonderful friends helped with the work, and many visitors made pilgrimage to our doors during the summer of 2009. We will glimpse into some of these in the blogs to follow.
To conclude, we thought that it might be useful to present the first dozen or so editions of our Roerich Mongolia Weekly in this manner, by reviewing what has been done to date. And of course, to intersperse these with accounts of present activities.