Between the poles of the conscious and the unconscious, there has the mind made a swing:
Thereon hang all beings and all worlds, and that swing never ceases its sway.
Millions of beings are there: the sun and the moon in their courses are there:
Millions of ages pass, and the swing goes on.
All swing! the sky and the earth and the air and the water; and the Lord Himself taking form:
And the sight of this has made Kabir a servant.
- Kabir, from 'Songs Of Kabir' (online / pdf) translated by Rabindranath Tagore (1915).
Kabir, the fifteenth century mystical poet from Benares (Varanasi) who claimed to be both "the child of Allah and of Ram", but also stressed that God was to be found "neither in Kaaba nor in Kailash". As Evelyn Underhill wrote in her introduction to the volume:
Living at the moment in which the impassioned poetry and deep philosophy of the great Persian mystics, Attar, Sadi, Jalalu'ddin Rumi, and Hafiz, were exercising a powerful influence on the religious thought of India, he dreamed of reconciling this intense and personal Mohammedan mysticism with the traditional theology of Brahmanism.
In this poem (#16), the dazzling imagery of infinity and the primacy of the mind (even God is suspended from the mind's swing) are deeply Vedantic, while the image of a cosmic swing appears to have been a favorite of Kabir, and he returned to it in different variations. But even though his swing might be "held by the cords of love", it doesn't take away from the rebellious, anti-dogmatic nature of his poetry. Here's another, more confrontational poem (#42), which exposes the two religious institutions of Hinduism and Islam in one fell swoop:
There is nothing but water at the holy bathing places; and I know that they are useless, for I have bathed in them.
The images are all lifeless, they cannot speak; I know, for I have cried aloud to them.
The Purana and the Koran are mere words; lifting up the curtain, I have seen.
Kabir gives utterance to the words of experience; and he knows very well that all other things are untrue.
After his death, legend has it that a sectarian fight took place over Kabir's dead body. Underhill comments, with a hint of sarcasm:
His fate has been that of many revealers of Reality. A hater of religious exclusivism, and seeking above all things to initiate men into the liberty of the children of God, his followers have honoured his memory by re-erecting in a new place the barriers which he laboured to cast down. But his wonderful songs survive, the spontaneous expressions of his vision and his love; and it is by these, not by the didactic teachings associated with his name, that he makes his immortal appeal to the heart.
Behold, a modern miracle: Christ in the Drain Pipe, with a crown of thorns that beatifies this standard issue hostile architecture.
Seen in Rotterdam.
One more Roerich, titled 'Pilgrims' - this one by Svetoslav Roerich, son of Nicholas, who continued painting in a similar vein, though perhaps more fully 'Indianized'.
Seen at the Bharat Kala Bhavan, the BHU art museum, Varanasi.
The dozen or so versions of 'Study of Mountains' represent Russian painter Nicholas Roerich's mystical visions of the Himalaya peaks at their starkest, barest essence: planes and textures of dizzying color and light. They command the strange fascination of primordial, never-before-seen landscapes.
These paintings are part of a staggering body of work: Roerich painted the Himalayas hundreds, perhaps more than a thousand times, besides writing extensively about their landscape, cultures and religions, and founding a research institute devoted to their study. In the 1920s he undertook an Asian expedition of several years, traversing the Himalayas on all sides, before settling in Naggar, in the Kullu valley, India. He was also the originator of the Roerich Pact, symbolized by the Banner of Peace, an international treaty to protect cultural treasures.
From his early work inspired by Russian Orthodox iconography, many of Roerich's paintings depict religious scenes, and his later work reflects his growing fascination for Eastern religions, as well as his search for a synthesis of Eastern and Western thought. In the 'Banners of the East' series (1924), for instance, he treated religious and mythological figures from different Eurasian traditions, including 'Tsong-kha-pa', 'Laozi', 'Mohammed the Prophet' and 'Mother of the World'.
His Himalaya paintings often show remote monasteries and solitary pilgrims, heightening the landscape's grandeur and austerity through the contrast with these puny figures and precarious man-made structures. (Besides, in the early 20th century they also had documentary value. Many of his paintings depict real places, actual peaks and passes, and along with his writings served as records of his expeditions.)
But increasingly the explicitly religious symbols seem to become details in the vast empty landscape - an inscription scratched on rock, a temple ruin on a mountain top, a divine shape in a cloud. The mountains themselves now become the subjects of devotion, as Roerich attempts to capture the original awe from which religions sprang.
Thus the series of 'Study of Mountains' can be seen as a kind of culmination of his Himalaya fascination: 'emptied', leaving all human presence behind, concentrating purely on the timeless, forbidding landscape with its jagged peaks, velvety slopes and giddy colors.
Their execution is minimalistic as well. These works were done in tempera on cardboard, and - hard to see on reproductions - often the rough grey board shows through the paint, or it's even left bare to create the texture and shading of sheer mountain rock. In a way they're also studies of color, variations of the typical Roerich palette with no green and slightly jarring blue and pink and orange, and with that striking brightness that reminds of the color explosions in Tibetan art, which always seem the result of the lack of oxygen at such high altitude.
Still, the peculiar power of these paintings is difficult to describe. In his classic horror story 'At the Mountains of Madness' (1931), H.P. Lovecraft repeatedly refers to "the strange and disturbing Asian paintings of Nicholas Roerich", appropriating that "something hauntingly Roerich-like" for his own "mountainous mystery".
Rabindranath Tagore, in a letter to Roerich, declared: "When a picture is great we should not be able to say what it is, and yet we should see it and know."
While Roerich himself wrote in a poem titled 'In Vain' (1918):
Unresponsive, the stones stand dumb.
Cold in the meadows they glisten and
Shimmer. Cold are the clouds.
They fold themselves in a furrow. They pass
Into the endless. They know, they are silent,