President, The Roerich Society of Mongolia
Director, The Nicholas Roerich Museum and Shambhala Art Institute
General Secretary, International Association for Mongol Studies
For our seventh issue of The Roerich Mongolia Blog, we have chosen to feature Prof. S. Bira, the Mongol hero who nursed Mongolian culture through the Soviet period from 1960 until the fall of the Iron Curtain in 1989, and since that time has continued his efforts to promote knowledge of Mongolia and all thing Mongol.
Prof Bira is the principal driving force behind the effort to save the Roerich House in Mongolia and transform it into a Shambhala Art Institute.
A student of Nicholas Roerich’s Tibetologist son George Roerich in the late 1950s, Bira has been deeply involved in preserving the legacy of his teacher George (a graduate of Columbia University in New York), and his teacher’s famous father, the great painter, humanist and social activist Nicholas K. Roerich.
In this issue we introduce our subscribers to some of the YouTube videos on Bira that we have made over the past two years, as part of our effort to bring attention to the Roerich House Project in Ulaanbaatar. – Glenn Mullin, Blog Editor
Prof Bira was born in 1927, which was a year after the arrival of the Roerichs in Ulanbaatar, Prof. Bira became a monk in Ganden as a child. He tells the story of these early years in the first of four interviews, made for YouTube in December of 2008.
In this first interview, Prof Bira also tells of the murder of his father by the Communists, and the imprisonment of his brother for fourteen years.
In the second of the four interviews, Prof Bira addresses his schooling under the Soviets: His education in Russia, first at the Moscow University for International Relations, and later at the Institute of Oriental Studies. He discusses the hardships and restrictions of academic study during the Stalinist period, and also during the more liberal “warm” period under Khrushchev.
In the third of the four interviews Bira describes his time with George Roerich in 1957, who had just come back to Moscow to teach at the Institute of Oriental Studies. Bira remained with George Roerich for the next three years. As all Mongolists and Roerich enthusiasts will know, George died under suspicious circumstances in Moscow in 1960:
The last of the four interviews introduces Bira’s discovery of the Roerich House in 2003, where Nicholas had lived with his wife Helena and eldest son George during their visit of 1926 and 1927. Bira speaks of his efforts to save the house from destruction at the hands of developers:
Each of these interviews is less than ten minutes long, the maxim allowed by You Tube in 2008.
If anyone prefers an edited version of the four interviews, all four were cut down to a single presentation of ten and a half minutes, for the modern generation with a shorter attention span.
Another YouTube video might be of interest to our subscribers. Last autumn Prof Bira visited his eldest son Aria, a research scientist who lives in Baltimore. We arranged for filmmaker Gail Percy to visit him, together with her daughter Raina. During the visit, Gail and Raina interviewed Bira on the famous Roerich pax cultura logo, and the role of this ancient symbol in Mongolian history. The link to this interview is:
Finally, some of our readers might enjoy a look at an art exhibition organized by The Roerich Shambhala Museum in Ulaanbaatar last summer, with New York artist Valley Burke-Fox joining with three Mongolian artists in “Feminine Visions: A New York – Ulaanbaatar Art Extravaganza.” Bira’s introduction of the artists at the opening ceremony conveys his humor, warmth and charisma, and demonstrates why he is considered a national treasure in Mongolia.
In this photo Prof. Bira studies the only Nicholas Roerich painting known to exist in Mongolia, “The King of Shambhala,” or “Rigden Gyalpo.” It is one of the many paintings created by Nicholas Roerich during his residence in Ulaanbaatar in 1926-27.
The painting was presented by Nicholas Roerich to the Mongolian government in 1927. Its survival was in doubt for some years during the Stalinist period, and was feared lost during the terrible years of the Cultural Purges of the 1930s and 1940s. However, it was re-discovered during the George Roerich visit to Ulaanbaatar (with Bira as translator and guide) of 1958.
The painting now belongs to the Zanabazar Fine Arts Museum, where it is usually on display. Some years ago Bira was allowed to remove the paper backing from the frame, and was delighted to see the name “Rigden Gyalpo” inscribed in Tibetan, written by his teacher George Roerich so many decades ago