This series began as a tribute to the seminal figures who have done exceptional works in the development of the discipline of art history and aesthetics. Previously, we have seen how Indian art went through a nationalist revival as a response to British colonialism. This was not merely an aesthetic response. Art works from the past were mobilised too to prove the continuity of Indian art and its rich heritage. Newer discoveries of monuments, manuscripts, art treatises, etc. were gathered to build a repository of national visual culture. Ananda Coomaraswamy was its foremost theoretician, historian and connoiseur. One of the important contibutions he has made is to discover the stylistic difference between Rajput and Mughal paintings. He single-handedly collected many of the Rajput and Mughal paintings which were going to be in oblivion and gave them an academic foundation. Because of his pathbreaking research on Indian art the history of the Indian art can be divided into a period before and after Coomaraswamy. His intellectual proximity to the Tagores made him an important cultural figure of Indian national movement. In today’s “The Visionaries” series by Art1st we will look at the pioneering work done by the seminal figure, Ananda Coomaraswamy.
Ananda Kentish Coomaraswamy was born in Colombo in the erstwhile Ceylon, now Sri Lanka. His father was a Ceylonese Tamil legislator and his mother was an English. After his father’s death he moved to London where he did his higher studies. He completed his graduation from University College of London. In 1902 he married the English photographer Ethel Mary Partridge and their marital and professional collaboration was quite resourceful for Indian and Ceylonese art world. Coomaraswamy completed his doctorate in Geology and established the Geological Survey of Ceylon. He was his first director. In Ceylon Coomaraswamy and Ethel collaborated on Mediaeval Sinhalese Art, to which he wrote the text and she provided the photographs.
He is considered as “the groundbreaking theorist who was largely responsible for introducing ancient Indian art to the West” because of his significant studies on South Asian art which are based on the philosophical foundations of the region. Renowned art historian and symbologist Heinrich Zimmer has called him as “That noble scholar upon whose shoulders we are still standing.” He took it as a mission to educate the West about Indian art and remove the misconceptions from their aesthetic views. He said, “The main difficulty so far seems to have been that Indian art has been studied so far only by archaeologists. It is not archaeologists, but artists … who are the best qualified to judge of the significance of works of art considered as art.” He knew this could be only done through both empirical and philosophical approach. He blended both at ease. He learnt Pali and Sanskrit languages which enabled him to read the ancient texts and made it possible to provide a textual reading of Indian art. The material remains were corroborated by the sacred texts. His studies and writins were sharp rebuttals to the condescending response of the West.
He was the Curator at the Boston Museum from 1917 onwards. Coomaraswamy performed an ardent task in classifying, cataloguing, and explaining thousands of items of oriental art. Through his extensive work, his writings, lectures, and personal relations Coomaraswamy left an indelible imprint on the work of many American galleries and museums. He also influenced a wide range of curators, art historians, orientalists, and critics—Stella Kramrisch, Walter Andrae, and Heinrich Zimmer to name a few of the more well-known.
His important books such as Medieval Sinhalese Art (1908), The Arts and Crafts of India and Ceylon (1913), and his earliest collection of essays, The Dance of Shiva (1918), confronted the misconceptions of the Orientalists. He revolutionized several specific fields of art history, and radically altered others. His research on Sinhalese arts and crafts, on Rajput painting, on Indian crafts, Hindu and Buddhist art, the origin of the Buddha image, etc, were remarkable entries into these worlds.
Ananda Coomaraswamy’s influence on South Asian art is still very dominant. Though later scholars have disagreeed with many of his findings, they all are of the same opinion about his seminal contribution in collecting, cataloguing and writing about a larger body of work.
Most of his writings can be accessed at https://tinyurl.com/yb4ldyvm
Please share your thoughts about Coomarasway. Criticisms and suggestions are welcome.
- Premjish, Director-Outreach, Art1st