Ananda Kentish Coomaraswamy, 1877-1947: Art Historian, Writer and Philosopher

Thiru Arumugam

“The artist is not a special kind of person; rather each person is a special kind of artist” Ananda Coomaraswamy.

Sir Muttu Coomaraswamy (1834-1879) was the first Ceylon Tamil Knight. He was a lawyer and Member of the Legislative Council of Ceylon. He was the first non-Christian Asian to be called to the English Bar. He married a wealthy English lady, Elizabeth Beeby, who was a Lady-in-Waiting to Queen Victoria. They had one child, Ananda Kentish Coomaraswamy, who was born in Colombo in 1877.

AK COOM Ananda grew up in England, where he studied at the University of London, graduating with first class honours in Geology and Botany. Having returned to Ceylon in 1903, he was appointed as the first Director of Mineralogical Surveys. In 1904 he identified the mineral Thorianite and his work on this subject led to the award of a Doctor of Science degree from the University of London. He called it Uraninite in an article in Spolia Zeylanica and then followed an extended correspondence with double Nobel Prize winner Madam Curie about its radioactivity. She suggested that it be called ‘Coomaranite’ but he declined the honour.

After a few years he moved to India and studied Indian and South-East Asian Arts and Crafts, Religion and Metaphysics. He later wrote books on Buddhism such as ‘Buddha and the Gospel of Buddhism’, ‘Elements of Buddhist Iconography’, ‘The origin of the Buddha Image’ and ‘Hinduism and Buddhism’. He described his work as ‘research not only in the field of Indian Art but at the same time in the wider field of the whole of traditional theory of Art and of the relation of man to his work, and in the fields of comparative religion and metaphysics to which the problems of iconography are a natural introduction’. Encyclopaedia Britannica describes him 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 was fluent in 36 languages, where he defined fluency in a language as 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”.

He refused to join the British armed services in World War I on the grounds that India was not independent and he was exiled from the British Empire and a bounty of 3,000 Pounds placed on his head by the British Government. He moved to the US in 1917 together with his extensive art collection. He was appointed Curator of Indian and Oriental Art at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts and worked there for the next thirty years until he retired 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’. The Museum’s Catalogue lists 1419 artworks as originating from the Coomaraswamy Collection. Even today the Head of this Section is designated as the ‘Ananda Coomaraswamy Curator of South Asian and Islamic Art’, and the Ananda Coomaraswamy Annual Lecture is held every year.

In 2002 James S Crouch published ‘A Bibliography of Ananda Kentish 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 by Coomaraswamy, plus descriptions of a further 96 books containing contributions by him and details of more than 900 contributions by him to periodicals and newspapers. What a prolific writer! No wonder it took Crouch 20 years to complete the Bibliography which runs to 430 pages.

It is not surprising that Ananda Coomaraswamy has been described as the ‘most distinguished Sri Lankan of our time’. Outlines of two selected books out of the 95 books by Coomaraswamy are given below.

Medieval Sinhalese Art: This was Coomaraswamy’s first major book and it was published in 1908. The full title of the book is “Medieval Sinhalese Art: Being a Monograph on Medieval Sinhalese Arts and Crafts, mainly as surviving in the eighteenth century, with an account of the structure of Society and the status of Craftsmen”. It has 340 pages with 55 plates consisting of multiple photographs and 153 illustrations. The photos were selected from over 1,000 relevant photographs taken by his English wife Ethel Mary Coomaraswamy (nee Partridge) on glass plate negatives which was the technology of the day.

To avoid going hat in hand to publishers begging them to publish his book, Coomaraswamy did the next best thing and bought the ailing Essex House Press. Using his considerable inherited wealth he bought a small church called Norman Chapel in Broad Campden in Gloucestershire. He used part of the premises as his residence and moved the machinery of Essex House Press to the rest of the building. Hand printing of the book started in September 1907 and it was completed in December 1908. The layout of the book, which is a work of art in its own right, and the printing of the 425 copies were supervised by him. Copies of this first edition are quite rare in Australia, only two copies are traceable in libraries open to the public and the restricted access copy in the New South Wales State Library is numbered No. 313 of 425 copies.


Coomaraswamy believed that in traditional societies there was no distinction between fine arts and other arts nor between religious and secular arts. 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”.

Among the subjects discussed and illustrated in detail in this 340 page large sized (35 by 27 cm) 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; and Mat Weaving and Dyeing.

As a typical example of an illustration from the book, Fig 2 shows Bherunda Pakshaya, the double headed eagle represented in the flag of the Three Korales. This form also appears in wood and ironwork, in brass trays and plates, and also in jewellery.

Flag of the Three Korales Berunda Pakshaya double-headed eagle flag of the Three Korales

Bronzes from Ceylon, chiefly in the Colombo Museum: This book was first published in 1914 by the Colombo Museum as the first in a series of Memoirs of the Colombo Museum. It has 31 pages of text followed by 189 photographic reproductions of bronze sculptures, including a few from Coomaraswamy’s private collection. Some of these sculptures he says are ‘of spiritual and aesthetic rank nowhere surpassed’.

Among the Buddhist Bronzes, eleven images of Buddha are illustrated. The largest of them is a 55 cm high sedentary statue and Coomaraswamy dates this as 5th or 6th century. It was found in Badulla and was presented to the Museum by G FK Horsfall, possibly a Government Agent. Coomaraswamy says that ‘The existence of a Mahayana cult in Ceylon is abundantly supported by the discovery of many images of Bodhisatvas and Mahayana feminine divinities in Ceylon’. By far the largest of the Bodhisatva images is the 46 cm high bronze, probably of Maitreya, discovered in 1898 near the Thuparama Dagoba in Anuradhapura. Also illustrated are four small images of Avalokitesvara.

The largest of the Hindu bronzes are the eight images of Siva as Nataraja, all were found in Polonnaruva. The largest of these is nearly a metre high and is shown in Fig. 3. However, Coomaraswamy does not rate these too highly and says that ‘they are inferior as works of art to the best of the Buddhist images, the best images of Saiva Saints in Ceylon and the two splendid Natarajas in the Madras Museum’. There are also eight smaller size images of Parvati, Siva’s consort. There are seven images of Saiva Saints and Coomaraswamy describes the image of Sundara Murti Swami as having ‘a touching quality of suddenly arrested movement and breathless wonder, and is one of the most remarkable works of all Indian art’.

Also illustrated is the stunning bronze of the Goddess Pattini, nearly five feet (1.5m) tall. Coomaraswamy dates this as 7th or 8th Century. It was found in the east coast of Ceylon and presented by Governor Brownrigg in 1830 to the British Museum in London where it is a prized exhibit. Coomaraswamy says that it ‘is a most striking work; the face strong and thoughtful, and the modelling of the body and limbs most admirable’. Since it has spent nearly 200 years in London, it is time t it was returned to its country of origin.

 ALSO SEE “A Bibliography of Ananda Kentish Coomaraswamy” by James S Crouch

ananda-k-coomaraswamy 11 ananda-k-coomaraswamy 22 AKC-in-study

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