Devika Rani, the Magical Flower of Romance


MOSCOW. (RIA Novosti commentator Maria Petrushina)

March 30, 2008, is the 100th birthday of the late Devika Rani, the first lady of the Indian screen and wife of Svyatoslav Roerich, one of a dynasty of Russian philosophers, scholars and artists who made a profound contribution to Russian-Indian cultural contacts.

From birth the future film star was surrounded by the arts. She was a great-grandniece of the writer and Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore, and was brought up in the Tagore family. After finishing school, her parents sent Devika to Britain to study at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, where she won a scholarship. While in London, the richly endowed girl also finished the Royal Academy of Music, got a degree in architecture, studied makeup in the Elizabeth Arden Workshop, and for some time made a living as an artistic designer.

Devika met iconic Indian film director and producer Himanshu Rai in London in 1926. They were soon married, and she made her debut in the cinema with the film Karma. She sparkled in the Indian and European hits Achhut Kanya, Janma Bhumi, Jeevan Naiya and Mamata (1936), Izzat and Prem Kahani (1937), and Nirmala (1938). After Rai's death in 1940 she took over the running of her husband's famous Bombay Talkies Ltd., and proved a talented director. She had studied the profession in Germany in the 1920s, when her husband was shooting a film there. Devika equally excelled as screen artist, and made many fine films, of which the best known is probably Kismet.

The years with the Bombay Talkies brought her an encounter of destiny. Canvases by a foreign artist she had never met caught her imagination, and she asked him to design a film for her in 1944. That was Svyatoslav Roerich. To her astonishment, the Russian refused to work for one of India's foremost film producers. Refusing to take "no" for an answer, she went to see him personally to coax him into a contract. They fell in love and married the next year.

The wedding, in the Roerich estate of the Kulu Valley, was an event never to forget. Each of the 365 temples in the fabulously beautiful vale sent someone to greet the bride. Devika later recollected that there were lots of flowers, including yellow jasmine the most fragrant of all.

Devika joined her husband in his studies of Indian culture and lore. "The magic flower of romance," as poet Sarojini Naidu called her, was his muse. Love and admiration imbued his many portraits of his wife. Their long and happy marriage was a bridge between their nations.

Helena Roerich, her mother-in-law, wrote about Devika: "She is very pretty <...> She spent her childhood and youth in Europe and lost the Indian ways, so she easily adapted to our household. She has been with us for almost two months now, and we enjoy her company. My young ones are much more cheerful now. Her [first] husband and she pioneered the Indian cinema. She carried on his cause after his death to win general respect. She is certainly the best Indian actress, the most beloved by the public, and profoundly respected as manager. She left her business on Svyatoslav's insistence, and will act no longer. This might be the wisest thing to do-she quit at the peak of her renown. N.K. [Nicholas Roerich, the classic painter and Svyatoslav's father] and I like her immensely. God bless them."

She wrote to Dr. Alexei Aseyev: "Svyatoslav, my younger son, is married to Devika Rani, a celebrated actress and trailblazer of the Indian cinema. They married three years ago, and I have never seen a better couple. She is an appealing person, of excellent European education, and grandniece of Tagore. The innately refined culture of her family shows in everything she does and says. We do love her! She and Svyatoslav spent summer and autumn with us. N.K. greatly appreciated her tact, intuition and equitable temper."

Helena Roerich was known in India as Urusvati, which means "the light of the morning star" in Sanskrit. She earned that name through her untiring and inspired work towards a seemingly superhuman goal-to be the harbinger of the happy Day of humanity, the go-between of the people-at-large and the Wise Men of the East, whom Nicholas Roerich and herself knew as the Mahatmas, the Ascended Masters of Humanity, the Hierarchy of Brothers of Light, the Cosmic Hierarchs, and the Lords of Shambhala. This high-minded woman's description of Devika is certainly reliable.

The death of Svyatoslav in 1993 made Devika Rani the custodian of the fabulous Roerich family inheritance. Shortly before she passed away, just thirteen months after her husband, she bequeathed the treasure to the International Roerich Centre in Moscow, and the affiliated Roerich Museum. These institutions seek to carry on the spirit of the Roerich endeavor by developing cultural and academic ties between Russia and India.

The opinions expressed in this article are the author's and do not necessarily represent those of RIA Novosti.

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