In the spring of 1960, when Narayanan Raghavan Pillai, the secretary general in the Ministry of External Affairs, received an application from a foreign-born celebrity to become an Indian citizen, he immediately requested his colleagues in the Home Ministry to send him a copy of the Citizenship Act of 1955. This was no ordinary application. Up until then, Indian civil servants were used to processing naturalisation requests from Commonwealth citizens, but this appeal came from someone who was neither a national of a former British colony nor had any citizenship at all.
A permanent resident of India, Svetoslav Roerich was born a citizen of the Russian Empire when Tsar Nicholas II was the sovereign, but like his illustrious parents Nicholas and Helen, and his brother Yuri, he became stateless after the Bolshevik Revolution. More than 40 years would go by before Svetoslav applied to become a citizen of another country.
In Delhi’s corridors of power, once Pillai went through the Citizenship Act, he wrote to the Joint Secretary in the Home Ministry, Fateh Singh, to process the application. In his letter, Pillai said Roerich’s plea was backed by Jawaharlal Nehru (who was a personal friend of the artist) but added that the prime minister wanted the standard process to be followed – with minor exceptions.
Life in exile
Born in the Russian imperial capital of St Petersburg in 1903, Svetoslav Roerich was mentored by his artist and philosopher father Nicholas, who lived a comfortable life in Russia until the outbreak of the First World War and the 1917 Revolution. Although the exact circumstances of the family’s departure from Russia are not clear, what is known is that they moved to Finland when Roerich was 14. The family stayed in Europe for a few years and then moved to the United States.
Roerich was a student of architecture, but once his talent as an artist shone through, he ended up making a living as a painter. Unlike his father, who became famous for his stunning depictions of Himalayan landscapes, Roerich’s forte was large portraits, including those of Nehru and Indira Gandhi.
The Roerich family, which developed a deep and lifelong interest in Hinduism and Buddhism, became regular visitors to India from the 1920s. It was from India that they went on an expedition to Altai in Russia, passing through the Karakoram Pass, Tibet, China and Mongolia.
Given their mystical beliefs, which at that time were incompatible with communism, the Soviet Union was not ready to fully embrace them despite the fame they had attained in India and the West. The family eventually settled down in Naggar in what is today Himachal Pradesh in the 1930s.
Nicholas passed away in Naggar in December 1947, while Helen died eight years later in Kalimpong. Yuri returned to Moscow after his mother’s death and took several of his father’s paintings, books and antiques with him. Before he too passed away in May 1960, he spearheaded Indian and Buddhist studies in Moscow and managed to popularise his father’s paintings and books.
This was preceded by a change in attitudes. Exhibitions of Nicholas’s paintings were being held across the Soviet Union, drawing large crowds and generating deep interest in the Himalayas and India. By the time of Yuri’s return, with Nikita Khrushchev in power, the Roerich family and its legacy were both reclaimed and celebrated in the country.
Back in New Delhi, the Soviet embassy reached out to Svetoslav Roerich to see if he would follow in his brother’s footsteps and return to his country of birth.
When Khrushchev visited India in 1960, he even held a special meeting with Roerich. “He spent an hour Saturday visiting an exhibit of mystic impressionistic paintings by Svetoslav Roerich, whose parents fled the Soviet revolution 40 years ago,” the Associated Press said in a dispatch on February 14, 1960. “Khrushchev talked animatedly with Roerich and praised his work although he himself is an advocate of Socialist realism.”
At the meeting, Khrushchev spoke of the possibility of Roerich returning to the USSR. But the artist, who had married Devika Rani in 1945, was happy with his life in independent India, and wasn’t keen on living in Russia. At the same time, though, the prospect of reuniting with his elder brother and displaying his work in Russia was highly appealing.
In the event, the only way for Roerich to travel to the Soviet Union was as an Indian citizen with an Indian passport.
Roerich, who at the time was dividing his time between the Roerich estate in Naggar and Tataguni near Bangalore, went to Delhi with Devika Rani to apply for Indian citizenship. In a letter to Pillai dated March 5, 1960, and with room 104 of the Imperial Hotel as his given address, he wrote, “I have resided in India for a period of over 28 years, as a permanent resident and it is my intention to continue to live in India.”
He neatly listed, in numerical order, the details required for the application, such as his date and place of birth, the name and citizenship status of his deceased parents and the year of his arrival in India as well as the year of obtaining permanent residency. “I shall be very grateful if you would kindly expedite the matter,” he wrote.
The application was made under Section 6(1) of the Citizenship Act, 1955.
“The standard form of application requires that copies of two issues of a newspaper circulating in the district in which the applicant resides, each containing an advertisement in the prescribed form, should accompany the application,” Pillai said, while forwarding the application to the Home Ministry. “This requirement is unsuitable in the present case, and it is suggested that the Government may, under the provisions of Rule 26 (‘Variations in form of application or declaration’) of the Citizenship Rules, 1956, authorise the application to be made by Dr. Roerich being submitted without being accompanied by copies of such advertisements.”
One of the requirements to get Indian citizenship under the Act was that the applicant have an adequate knowledge of a language specified in the Eight Schedule of the Indian Constitution. For this, the artist submitted a letter from the Education Secretary KG Saiyidain certifying that he had an adequate understanding of Urdu.
Fateh Singh forwarded the application to Home Secretary BN Jha and recommended the application be approved within a week. He wrote, “Being a distinguished artist, he can also be accepted as an Indian citizen within the terms of the proviso to section 6(1) of the Act by waiving all or any of the conditions specified in the Third Schedule. P.M. has, however, desired that the prescribed procedure should be followed, though the application should be dealt with as speedily as possible.”
Attached with the application were two character certificates – one from Pillai and the other from Vice President Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan.
“There is also no doubt that a person of Mr. Roerich’s eminence will make a useful and valuable citizen of India,” Singh wrote.
The application came at a cost of Rs 108.75 and was approved after a check by the Intelligence Bureau. On March 21, 1960, Svetoslav Roerich took an oath of allegiance to the Constitution of India and became an Indian citizen.
Along with Devika Rani, Roerich went to Moscow and Leningrad for an exhibition of his paintings. The news of their arrival spread far and wide across the Soviet Union and people came in large numbers to see his works. Khrushchev was one of the happy visitors at the exhibition at the Pushkin State Museum of Fine Arts.
Over the next few weeks, Roerich personally interacted with the visitors who came to the museum and wanted to know more about his work, his parents and India. The Soviet media of the day referred to him as a Russian artist with Indian citizenship, rather than calling him an Indian of Russian origin. Yuri passed away in Moscow just 10 days after the inauguration of his brother’s exhibition. As the sole heir to the art, antiques and estate of the Roerich family, Svetoslav Roerich requested the Soviet government that the family assets be used for educational and cultural research purposes.
Most of the famous works of Nicholas and Svetoslav Roerich in Russia are on display at the Roerich Museum in Moscow’s VDNKh exhibition centre, within striking distance of the famous Worker and Kolkhoz Woman statue. The works were relocated there in 2019 when the museum moved from its previous location next to the Pushkin Museum, where Roerich and Devika Rani were welcomed.
Prominently on display at the Moscow Roerich Museum are portraits of Devika Rani and Jawaharlal Nehru. The legacy of the mystical Roerich family is now jointly celebrated by Russia and India.
Ajay Kamalakaran is a writer, primarily based in Mumbai. His Twitter handle is @ajaykamalakaran.