On a warm spring evening in 1906, an engrossed audience in Hamburg, Germany watched Russian character actor Konstantin Stanislavski play Doctor Astrov in a theatrical rendition of Anton Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya. While German connoisseurs of the performing arts appreciated the performance staged by the Moscow Art Theatre, the Russian theatre practitioner, who would go on to become one of the greatest directors of all time, was unhappy with his lapse in concentration during the play.
“He found his mind wandering to a conversation into which he had fallen between the acts,” Aleksei Fovitsky wrote in a book titled The Moscow Art Theatre and its Distinguishing Characteristics. “The slip of attention set him to work to discover methods for the preventing of one’s thus going out of the circle of creative imagination on the stage.” This eventually led to Stanislavski becoming one of Russia’s earliest eminent citizens to practice and advocate yoga. The experimentation with yoga and meditation helped create his concept of “creative mood” through “psychophysical exercises”.
Born into a wealthy family in 1863, Konstantin Sergeievich Alexeiev changed his surname to Stanislavski at the age of 21 to hide his theatre performances from his parents. He was already in his mid-40s by the time he discovered yoga, but the spiritual discipline became a large part of both his life and that of his students. Stanislavsky’s notes to the artists of the Moscow Art Theatre company (which he co-founded in 1898) had references to Hatha Yoga, according to British scholar Rose Whyman.
A practitioner of pranayama, the theatre director believed it was key to executing a flawless performance on stage. “Calm breathing leads to healthy thoughts, healthy body, healthy feelings, easy to focus; wrong rhythm of breathing leads to disturbed psyche, feelings of pain and total attention deficit,” Stanislavski said. His methods called for a “spiritual make-up” to go along with “physical make-up.”
Moscow Art Theatre students went through rigorous yoga and meditation sessions. While some appreciated and embraced these techniques, others like famed actress and wife of Anton Chekhov, Olga Knipper-Chekhova withdrew from a play and required reassurances from Stanislavsky.
“To teach the student the art of self-observation, the studio must teach him the laws of correct breathing (pranayama), concentration and watchful discrimination (dharana),” Stanislavsky is quoted in Konkordia Antarova’s Conversations with K.S. Stanislavsky. “My whole system is based on this… And the first lesson in breathing must become the foundation of the development of that introspective attention, on which all the work in the art of the stage must be built.”
The theatre founded by Stanislavsky is now known as the Anton Chekhov Moscow Art Theatre. Located just 1.5 kilometres away from the Kremlin, it remains one of the premier venues for plays in Europe.
Shakuntala and Sanskrit scholarship
Another prestigious theatre company in Moscow also has a long-established link with India. In 1914, the Pushkin Drama Theatre (then called the Chamber Theatre) opened its doors to the public for the first time by staging Kalidasa’s Shakuntala.
The theatre faced fierce resistance from the Russian Orthodox Church, which opposed an entertainment venue next to a 17th century church. The fact that the first play to be staged at the new theatre would be loosely based on a story connected with the Hindu epic Mahabharata did not endear the theatre company’s founders to the Orthodox clergy, which was worried about the growing influence of ‘Eastern’ philosophies in the country.
The artists and musicians were all Russians, but the music for the play was composed by Hazrat Inayat Rehmat Khan, a descendant of an ancient family of Sufi saints and musicians.
The theatrical depiction of the story of the daughter of the sage Viswamitra and the apsara Menaka was an instant success. The staging of Shakuntala set the stage for the adaptation of several works of Indian literature in Russia. Decades after Muscovites first watched Kalidasa’s play, the Moscow Children’s Theatre staged the Ramayana, with Gennady Pechnikov playing the role of Lord Rama. The Russian actor, who would play this role for 40 years, has the distinction of performing in front of Jawaharlal Nehru in Moscow in the 1960s and being awarded the Padma Shri in 2008.
Back in 1914, it took the genius of Hazrat Khan to compose the music for Shakuntala that was essentially a fusion of Indian and western classical traditions. The Baroda-born musician lived in Moscow briefly until the outbreak of the First World War. He was a much sought after guest among the intelligentsia of the city. “The Russians have a Western mind, but an Eastern soul,” Hazrat Khan said famously in Moscow.
He went on to develop a friendship with Russian pianist and composer Alexander Scriabin. They first met a few weeks after the premiere of Shakuntala and discussed ways to fuse the music and arts of Europe and Asia. Scriabin, who was familiar with the Vedas, Upanishads and the teachings of Paramahamsa Ramakrishna, wanted to stage a massive concert by the Ganges, but this remained an unfulfilled dream.
Scriabin and other members of Russia’s intelligentsia had easy access to translations of Sanskrit classics, which were widely available in Moscow and St Petersburg at that time.
Russia’s fascination with Sanskrit began in the late 18th century after musician, linguistic and writer Gerasim Lebedev visited India. He spent 10 years in India in the 1780s, learning Tamil and Bengali and experimenting with theatre and music. Lebedev managed to find a willing Sanskrit teacher in Calcutta and developed a deep interest in Indian classical literature.
When news of his exploits in India, which included translating two books from English to Bengali, reached Russia, Tsar Alexander I requested Lebedev to set up a Sanskrit printing press in St Petersburg.
Intense scholarship of Sanskrit began in the Imperial Russian Capital in 1818 when the Asiatic Academy of St Petersburg was founded. The academy had a dedicated Sanskrit course, where Russian was the medium of instruction.
The first teachers at the academy were Germans, but Russian scholars soon caught up and started teaching Sanskrit. By the 1830s, a Russian translation of the Ramayana was available, thanks to the efforts of Pavel Petrov, a scholar of Turkic and Asian languages.
Petrov developed an interest in the Ramayana while studying in St Petersburg. His first attempt at translating a part of the epic was titled ‘Sitaharanam.’ Petrov submitted the translation along with a grammatical analysis and commentary to the Imperial Academy of Sciences in 1837. He was sent by the academy to universities in Berlin, Paris and London to improve his Sanskrit and learn about the languages and antiquities of India.
Petrov became Russia’s first expert on the Ramayana and Mahabharata and after two years in Europe, returned to Russia and helped set up the Department of Sanskrit at the University of Kazan. Petrov, who developed a special liking for Kashmir, published an anthology of Sanskrit literature in 1846.
Unlike Petrov, Ivan Minayev, another illustrious scholar of Sanskrit and Pali, actually visited India. A professor who specialised in the comparative grammar of Indo-European languages, Minayev travelled across India in 1874-75. He knew Hindustani and some Pahari dialects. The academician also managed to collect Sanskrit and Pali manuscripts, which are now by the State Library of St Petersburg.
Given the close links between Russia and the German-speaking world in the 19th century, many intellectuals who developed an interest in India came across translations of the works of scholars, such as Max Müller. Disagreements with the German scholar’s works began to emerge among Russia’s Indologists towards the end of the 19th century. Pavel Boulange, who wrote The Life and Times of Siddhartha Gautam Buddha in 1911, was unhappy with Müller’s interpretations of the Vedas. “What struck me in Max Müller’s translation was a lot of absurdities, obscene passages and a lot of what is not lucid,” Boulange said after being entrusted with publishing Müller’s Sacred Books of the East.
Interest in Hinduism and Buddhism
As translations of Pali and Sanskrit books became more common towards the end of the 19th century, several Russian artists and writers developed an interest in Dharmic philosophies.
Leo Tolstoy, whose novel War and Peace recently received plenty of press coverage in India over a misquoted statement by a Bombay High Court judge, was deeply influenced by Hinduism and Buddhism.
“From your letter and the articles in Free Hindustan, as well as from the very interesting writings of the Hindu Swami Vivekananda and others, it appears that, as is the case in our time with the ills of all nations, the reason lies in the lack of a reasonable religious teaching, which by explaining the meaning of life would supply a supreme law for the guidance of conduct and would replace the more than dubious precepts of pseudo-religion and pseudo-science with the immoral conclusions deduced from them and commonly called ‘civilization’,” Tolstoy wrote in A Letter to a Hindu. The letter was written in response to two letters sent to the Russian writer from Tarak Nath Das, editor of the Free Hindustan newspaper, seeking support for Indian independence.
Tolstoy’s writings in the latter part of his life suggest a closeness to Buddhism. He wrote essays and articles on Buddhist philosophy and even translated American writer Paul Carus’ Karma: A Story of Buddhist Ethics into Russian.
“Just as we experience thousands of dreams in this life of ours, so is this life one of thousands of such lives which we enter into from the more real, actual, true life from which we come when we enter this life, and to which we return when we die,” Tolstoy wrote in an 1892 letter, which was a reply to questions on karma.
Scholarship of Dharmic religions and a belief in the spiritual energies of the Himalayas are what attracted the mystical Roerich family to India.
The painter, writer and philosopher Nicholas Roerich, the first artist to depict the might and grandeur or the Himalayas, was well versed with the Ramayana, Mahabharata and even the Epic of King Gesar, which is a story that was widespread across Ladakh, Nepal, Tibet and even Mongolia.
In Altai-Himalaya, a travelogue of the family’s travels from India to Russia via the Himalayas, Tibet and China, Nicholas Roerich made many references to Indian epics and Buddhism. While he briefly passed through Sri Lanka, the references to the Ramayana were frequent. “But, after all, only in fragments do Colombo and Ceylon recall the ancient Lanka of Hanuman, Rama, Ravana and other giants,” he wrote.
Nicholas Roerich set up an estate in 1928 near Kullu in the Himalayas and lived there until his death in 1947. His elder son George, who lived in India until Nicholas and his wife Helena passed away, wrote the following of the family estate in Kullu: “In this far valley of Kullu blend keen mountain air and warm southern sun. Here, too, wonderfully blend races, languages, religions, arts and the natural phenomena of many diverse climes, to create anew a veritable paradise alike for the scientist who looks only to the present and for him, who reckons man’s and nature’s story in thousand-year units.”
The younger son of Nicholas and Helena Roerich, Svetoslav stayed back in India after he married actress Devika Rani.
The Roerich family’s contribution to art, education and literature help form the greatest cultural bridge between Russia and India. The (recently-relocated) Roerich Museum in Moscow almost feels like a centre of Indian art and culture in the Russian capital.
One of Russia’s most debated topics is whether the country is European or Asian. Given the uneasy relationship between Moscow and the West over the last five years, it looks like the Russian double-headed eagle is tilting more towards the East. However, even in pre-Bolshevik Revolution Russia, at a time when the country seemed to be clearly inclined towards European civilisation, its intellectuals cultivated a great amount of interest and fascination for India and its culture and traditions.