Scholar, Metaphysician and Art Historian
Ananda Kentish Coomaraswamy, scholar, metaphysician and art historian is described by Encyclopaedia Britannica as a ‘pioneer historian of Indian Art and foremost interpreter of Indian culture to the West’. Born in Ceylon and raised in England, Ananda’s contribution to Sri Lankan art is in the form of his magnum opus Mediaeval Sinhalese Art, which is considered by many to be the bible that is referred to this date by Sri Lankan artists and craftsmen. His exploration of art and culture took him from Ceylon, England, India and finally to America where he was appointed Curator of Indian and Oriental Art at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. His entire private art collection was transferred to this Museum and the Asian collection there is described as ‘among the finest in the Western world’.
Compiled by Tina Edward Gunawardhana
Ananda Coomaraswamy, son of Sir Mutu Coomaraswamy hailed from a prominent family in Jaffna. Sir Mutu, a lawyer and the first member of the legislature council of Ceylon, was the first Hindu to be called to the English Bar. He was also the first Ceylon Tamil Knight. Sir Mutu wed Lady Elizabeth Bibi, one of the ladies in waiting to Queen Victoria and they returned to Ceylon where Ananda was born in 1877. After the untimely death of Sir Mutu, Lady Bibi returned to England with Coomaraswamy who was then only three years old. At the age of seven Coomaraswamy was sent to Wycliffe College, a private boarding school at Shroud in Gloucestershire
At Wycliffe he not only acquired a knowledge of Latin, Greek and French but gave him the opportunity to explore other languages. Wycliffe also provided another formative activity as there was a large quarry behind the school which was famous for the variety and quality of fossils it contained. It is here that he developed his interest in Geology, which in turn led to his studies in Geology and Botany at London University. His name appears in the school’s list of 25 “Notable Old Wycliffians’. At the age of 22 he returned to Ceylon and at 25, was appointed the Director of the Mineralogical Survey in Ceylon. His geological surveys of the island are still in use and these along with his discovery of the two minerals, Serendibite and Thorianite, the latter being radioactive led to his association with Madame Curie and to his receiving his Doctorate in Science from the London University. He was the first Ceylonese to be awarded this degree, the highest degree of the University of London.
Discovering art in Sri Lanka
His scientific endeavours necessitated his travel throughout Sri Lanka. During these journeys he observed several changes taking place in society, which led to him founding the Ceylon Social Reform Society in 1905. The Society was “formed in order to encourage and initiate reform in social customs amongst the Ceylonese, and to discourage the thoughtless imitation of unsuitable European habits and customs.’
He was also influenced by Ruskin and William Morris. The latter remained a strong influence on his life not only because of his socialist views but also because of his understanding of craftsmanship. This resulted in some of his early works such as the Visvakarma which was a collection of examples of Indian architecture, sculpture, paintings and handicrafts which he selected and published in conjunction with his life-long friend Eric Gill.
Mediaeval Sinhalese Art - his greatest contribution to Ceylonese arts
During his time in Ceylon he began an in-depth study of the indigenous arts and crafts which led to him to publishing Mediaeval Sinhalese Art which he personally illustrated and hand printed on Kelmscott Press - the press that William Morris had used.
According to Architect, artist and textile designer Tilak Samarawickrema, Coomaraswamy’s book, Mediaeval Sinhalese Art published in 1908 is considered a priceless compendium on Sinhalese art as since then there has been no other detailed documentation on the arts and crafts of Sri Lanka. »»
Among the subjects discussed and illustrated in detail in comprehensive study of the subject are Elements of Sinhalese Design and Ornament; Architecture, Woodwork, Stonework, Figure Sculpture, Painting, Ivory, Bone, Horn and Shell work, Metal work – Iron, Brass, Copper and Bronze, Gold and Silver, Jewellery, Lac work, Earthenware, Potter’s songs, Weaving, Embroidery, Mat Weaving and Dyeing, and the History of Sinhalese Art. Coomaraswamy believed that in traditional societies there was no distinction between fine arts and other arts such as decorative arts, useful arts, handicrafts etc, nor between religious and secular arts. For him the most humble folk art and the loftiest religious creations were an outward expression not only of the sensibilities of those who created them but also of the whole civilization in which they were nurtured. He says in the book that rural arts and crafts are “the only true art discoverable in Ceylon today. In a few years it may be gone forever. I have tried to make a picture of it, before it is too late”. The reason for its probable disappearance he says is that “In Ceylon as in India, the direct and indirect influence of contact with the West has been fatal to the arts. The two most direct causes of this adverse influence have been the destruction of the organisation of state craftsmen, following British occupation, and that this occupation has driven the village weaver from his loom, the craftsmen from his tools, the ploughman from his songs and has divorced art from labour”.
Time in India
He travelled extensively in India and for a time became politically involved in the independence movement. For a brief period he spent time in Madras and was acquainted with Annie Besant. Travelling more north he spent time at Shantiniketan with the Tagores who were attempting to revive Indian painting and culture.
He collected an enormous amount of Indian art at a time when no one was particularly interested in such material and then offered it to the British government in India if they would build a museum to house it. His offer was rejected and then he brought it back to England to preserve it from destruction.
His writings in the field of art reversed the negative opinion of western critics about the value and nature of Indian art and it is in this area that he best known in India - he has been called the “Father of Indian Art” and as such allowed Indians to become proud of their heritage.
While in Northern India, he received the Yajnopavite, a sacred thread which in essence affiliated him formally into the Hindu tradition.
Return to England and his subsequent exile
In 1914 Coomaraswamy returned to England and established his residence at Norman Chapel, a run down Norman ruin which he converted into a home, where he continued his studies and publishing. It was here that he produced The Arts and Crafts of India and Ceylon, Mediaeval Sinhalese Art as well as his book on Rajput Paintings. In 1917 he was asked to join the British Army, but he refused on the grounds that India and Ceylon were not independent and declared himself a conscientious objector and publicly argued his position. As a result he was exiled from the British Empire and a bounty of 3000 Pounds placed on his head by the British Government and his house was seized. He therefore moved to the USA in 1917 together with his extensive art collection. He was appointed the Curator of Indian and Oriental Art at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts and worked there for the next thirty years until his death in 1947. His entire private art collection was transferred to this Museum and the Asian collection there is described as ‘among the finest in the Western world’
In exile in America
While in America Coomaraswamy engaged in both studies and publishing. In 1918 he published a collection of essays under the title of The Dance of Siva which was followed by innumerable texts dealing with Indian Art including the monumental The History of Indian and Indonesian Art. His life during the late 20s was complicated by a series of personal and family problems as well as the loss of his personal fortune in the crash of 1929. In 2002 ,James S Crouch published ‘A Bibliography of Ananda Coomaraswamy‘. Crouch says that ‘this book documents the remarkably productive career of one of the great minds of the 20th century’. The book describes in detail American, English and Indian first editions of 95 books written by Coomaraswamy, plus descriptions of a further 96 books containing contributions by him and details of 909 contributions by him to periodicals and newspapers. What a prolific writer! In addition Crouch lists and describes 216 books and articles written up to 1992 by others about Coomaraswamy and his work. It took Crouch 20 years to complete the Bibliography which runs to 430 pages. All this writing by Coomaraswamy was while he continued in his ‘day job’ of Museum Curator for 30 years and Visiting Lecturer at nearby Harvard University where he also supervised the work of PhD students.
The final years
In 1947 Coomaraswamy had planned to retire from the Boston Museum of Fine Arts and return to India with the intention of completing a new translation of the Panishads and becoming a Sanyasi. These plans were cut short by his sudden death. His ashes were returned to both Sri Lanka and India by his wife and shraddha ceremonies were performed in Benares, Ceylon and in Haridwar.
Encyclopaedia Britannica describes Coomaraswamy as a ‘pioneer historian of Indian Art and foremost interpreter of Indian culture to the West’. He set about dismantling Western prejudices about Asian Art through an affirmation of the beauty, integrity and spiritual density of traditional art in Ceylon and India. He claimed fluency in 36 languages, where his definition of fluency in a language is the ability to read a scholarly article without referring to a dictionary. Anthony Ludovici the famous British writer and philosopher says of Coomaraswamy “Thanks to his command of Greek, Latin and Sanskrit, he was probably the greatest scholar of his age in the Scriptures of both East and West, and was therefore a formidable exponent of the philosophical and ontological foundations of his cultural doctrines.