In Appreciation of Ananda Kentish Coomaraswamy,1877-1947

Thiru Arumugam, courtesy of THE CEYLANKAN, May 2015, where the title is “Am I My Brother’s Keeper? The Life and Outline of Four Selected Books by Ananda  Kentish  Coomaraswamy,1877-1947”

“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 an 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 on 22 August 1877.  Sir Muttu’s sister’s sons were Sir P Ramanathan and Sir P Arunachalam.  Sir Muttu passed away when Ananda was only two years old.  He was brought up by his mother who never married again.

AKC-in-studyAnanda grew up in England where he studied at the newly established Independent School, Wycliffe College in Stonehouse, Gloucestershire.  His name appears in the School’s list of 25 ‘Notable Old Wycliffians’.  In 1897 he entered the University of London, graduating in 1900 with first class honours in Geology and Botany.  He returned to  Ceylon and in 1903 was appointed as the first Director of Mineralogical Surveys.  In 1904 he identified the mineral Thorianite found in gem pit gravel washings, and his work on this subject led to the award of a Doctor of Science degree from the University of London in 1906.  He was the first Ceylonese to be awarded this degree, the highest degree of the University of London.  He called the mineral Uraninite in an article in Spolia Zeylanica, but it was later identified as a new mineral and then followed an extended correspondence with double Nobel Prize winner Madam Curie about its radioactivity.  She suggested that it be named ‘Coomaranite’ but he declined the honour.

In 1905 he founded the Ceylon Social Reform Society.  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”. The Society published a Journal at six monthly intervals which it continued to do for five years until it folded up.

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’ 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 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”.

Coomaraswamy--wikipedia Coomaraswamy-Pic in Wikipedia

He refused to join the British armed services in World War I 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 USA 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 presently 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 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.  No wonder 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.

ananda-k-coomaraswamy 22AKC-in-garden Coomaraswamy in his garden —Pic from

Coomaraswamy reached the age of 70 years on 22 August 1947 and retired from his post in the Museum.  He was given a felicitation dinner at which he gave his last public speech.  He said “This is my 70th birthday, and my opportunity to say: Farewell.  For this is our plan, mine and my wife’s, to retire and return to India next year; thinking of this as an ‘astam gamana’, ‘going home’ .”

His plans were to go to India and work on a new translation of the principal Upanishads which Schopenhauer described as “the production of the highest human wisdom” after which Coomaraswamy planned to retire from worldly life and become a Sannyasi with renunciation of material desires.  Alas, this was not to be.  A few days later on 9th September he was working in his study on a revised edition of “The Dance of Shiva” when his wife called him out to the garden.  He went out to the  garden and suddenly collapsed.  An ambulance was called but it was too late.  He had passed away peacefully in his beloved Japanese garden.

Roger Lipsey had this to say in his three volume book “Coomaraswamy“: “It is a very strange moment when a man of this kind dies. He had spent much of his time ‘placing’ death, understanding its role in the life of the world and the life of man, investigating all ideas concerning what part of man inevitably returns to dust and what part inevitably returns to the Lord, what the various conditions of the soul can be as it separates out from the body and moves, like an arrow released towards the sky”.  The remains were cremated and part of the ashes scattered in the Ganges and the rest scattered in a river in Ceylon.

It is not surprising that Ananda Coomaraswamy has been described as ‘the most distinguished Sri Lankan of our time’.  Outlines of four selected books out of the 95 books written by him 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 a thousand 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 cap 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 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.  Proof reading of the book was done by Don Martino De Zilva Wickremasinghe of the Indian Institute, Oxford, whose life and work have been described in the August 2014 edition of this Journal.

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. A copy of this first edition was available in the National Library, Canberra, but is now missing, perhaps it has gone walkabout. A copy of the third edition (1979) is available, but the reproduction of the illustrations is inferior. A similar numbering scheme was used, on the suggestion of the late Mike Udabage, for the 10th Anniversary “Collectors Issue” November 2007 edition of this Journal, when each of the 420 copies printed was individually numbered.

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 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”.

Among the subjects discussed and illustrated in detail in this 340 page large sized (35 by 27 cm) comprehensive study of the subject are: Particular account of the Artificers, 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 History of Sinhalese Art.

The release of the book created as much interest in UK as in Ceylon and Roger Fry the leading art critic and member of Virginia and Leonard Woolf’s Bloomsbury set observed that Coomaraswamy “is not concerned with the history of great masterpieces; his work is almost as much sociological as aesthetic; he seeks to investigate and explain the methods of Sinhalese craftsmen, to fix the outlines of an artistic industry and education before it finally disappears…… In this direction Dr Coomaraswamy’s record is likely to be of great value”.

As a typical example of an illustration from the book, Fig 2 shows a 19th century Verandah Ceiling Painting from the Dalada Maligawa, Kandy. The original painting was in shades of brown and green and represents a forest scene with parrots, hares, squirrels and hunters.  The illustration was copied by Ethel Mary Coomaraswamy but the original in the ceiling of the Dalada Maligawa no longer exists.

Dalada Maligawa Ceiling Painting rev1

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.  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’.

Nataraja from Siva Devale (105 cm tall) Colombo Museum  12th century 1.0 m high Bronze Nataraja from Siva dEvale No. 1, Polonnaruva — now in the Colombo Museum

Also illustrated is the stunning bronze of the Goddess Pattini, nearly five feet (1.5m) tall, see Fig. 3.  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, right at the entrance to the South Asian section.  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 about time that it is returned to its country of origin.

Pattini British Museum 1.5 m high 7th/8th centuryBronze Goddess Pattini,found in east Ceylon and now in the British Museum… Pic by Thiru arumugam

The Dance of Shiva

This 196 page book was first published in New York in 1918 and is a collection of 14 essays, mainly about Indian art and culture.  It is one of his best known books.  In the title essay ‘The Dance of Shiva’, Coomaraswamy describes three dances of Shiva.  He describes Shiva’s dance as ‘the clearest image of the activity of God which any art or religion can boast of’.  Of the three dances described, it is the third one that is most commonly expounded in Bharatha Natyam dance recitals.  One of the names of Shiva is Nataraja, or Lord of the Dancers.

The legend is that a group of belligerent rishis endeavoured to destroy Shiva by incantations.  They also created a monster (Muyalaka) in the shape of a dwarf but Shiva broke the creature’s back by placing his foot on him.  Shiva then proceeded to perform a mystic dance and it is in this form that he is portrayed as Nataraja in statues.  In this form he has four hands and braided locks, he is adorned with jewellery, in his hair is a cobra and the mermaid figure of Ganga.  One right hand holds a drum, the other is uplifted to indicate ‘fear not’.  One left hand holds fire, the other points down to the vanquished demon Muyalaka.  The left foot is raised.  He stands on a lotus pedestal from which springs an arch (tiruvasi) which encircles him, fringed with flame.  Fig. 4 is a 12th century bronze Nataraja statue exhibiting all of these features.  It is about a metre in height and was excavated in 1907 at Siva Devale No.1 in Polonnaruva and is now in the Colombo Museum.

All Nataraja statues are basically similar and differ only in detail.  This is because the sculptor in making a statue of a Hindu God has to follow strictly the guidelines and principles laid down in the Shilpa Sastras (ancient texts on architecture and the arts).

The significance of the dance is described as follows, “The Supreme Intelligence dances in the soul….. for the purpose of removing our sins.  By these means, our Father scatters the darkness of illusion (maya), burns the thread of causality (karma), stamps down evil (mala), showers Grace, and lovingly plunges the soul in the ocean of bliss (ananda).  They never see rebirth, who behold this mystic dance”.

 Am I My Brother’s Keeper?

This 110 page book is a collection of seven essays written by Coomaraswamy between 1943 and 1946 and was published by The John Day Company, New York, in 1947, which was the last year of Coomaraswamy’s life.  The book has an Introduction written by Robert Allerton Parker who was a Journal Editor and Critic.  Publication of the book was arranged by Coomaraswamy’s friends as part of their campaign to nominate him for the 1947 Nobel Prize for Literature.  Alas, this was not to be, because Coomaraswamy died suddenly of a heart attack on 09 September 1947, a few days after his 70th birthday which was on 22 August 1947.  That was the end of his nomination for a Nobel Prize because the prize cannot be awarded posthumously. It is a pity because Ceylon missed a chance of having its first Nobel Prize winner.

The 1947 Nobel Prize for literature was awarded to the prolific French writer Andre Gide whose work centres on a continuous search for intellectual honesty.  Interestingly, Coomaraswamy quoted Andre Gide in his last speech which was on the occasion  of a 70th birthday felicitation dinner for Coomaraswamy  when he said “Perhaps the greatest thing I have learned is never to think for myself; I fully agree with Andre Gide that ‘toutes choses sont dites deja’ (everything has already been said) and what I have sought is to understand what has been said”.

The title of the book comes from the Bible (Genesis 4:9).  Cain and Abel were the sons of Adam and Eve.  Cain was a farmer and Abel was a shepherd.  They both made offerings to God but only Abel’s offering was accepted.  This upset Cain and when they went to the fields, Cain killed Abel.  Later when God said to Cain, “Where is Abel your brother?”, he answered, “I do not know; Am I my brother’s keeper?”  Cain’s words have come to symbolise people’s unwillingness to accept responsibility for the welfare of their fellow human beings.

The first essay in the book has the same title as the book.  It is a stinging attack on Occidental imperialism, especially upon the cultural imperialism which arrogates to itself a civilizing mission.  He says that “Systems of education (in the East) should be extensions of the cultures of the peoples concerned, but of these the Western educator knows little and cares less”. He goes on to say that “If  West races are in future to do anything for the peoples whose cultures have been broken down in the interests of commerce and ‘religion’, they must begin by renouncing what has been aptly called their ‘proselytizing  fury’.”  He says that he is “speaking for those who once before ‘bowed low before the West in patient, deep disdain’.”  About Art he says that “The disintegration of a people’s art is the destruction of their life, by which they are reduced to the proletarian status of hewers of wood and drawers of water, in the interests of a foreign trader, whose is the profit”.  In other words, the West has failed to be the “brother’s keeper” as far as the East is concerned.

One of the essays in the book is titled ‘Spiritual Paternity’ and the ‘Puppet Complex’.  ‘Spiritual Paternity’ is described as the belief by some Australian Aboriginals and Pacific Islanders that during conception a spirit-child has entered the woman, and the ‘Puppet Complex’ is the Balinese view (inherited from their Indian genesis) that the body is like a puppet pinned together at the joints and that what pulls the string is that Being within us.  This 14 page essay is an example of the prodigious depth of Coomaraswamy’s self-taught scholarship, remembering that his University education and Doctorate were in Botany and Geology.  The short essay is followed by 86 References and End Notes referring to this essay only.  The References and End Notes run to 12 pages in a smaller font than the 14 page essay, and have a higher word count than the essay.  Typical references are to Plato’s Laws (his last Dialogue);  Dante’s Paradiso (the third part of his Divine Comedy); the Summa Theologica of Thomas Aquinas; a quote of Harvard Professor Ashley Montagu (“in spite of our enormous technological advances we are spiritually, and as humane beings, not the equals of the average Australian aboriginal”); and to India where he has numerous quotes from the Rigveda, Upanisads and Bhagavad Gita (“Thy concern is with the action only, not with the result”).

It shows the width and depth of his all-embracing self-taught scholarship.

Editor’s Note: This article is a considerably expanded version of an article which appeared in ‘Thorathuru’ February 2015.

AKC to durai


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EMAIL COMMENT from Rex Olagesegaram in Sydney, June 2021:

Dear Michael, That is a very good article on Ananda Coomaraswamy.

You may be interested to know that I was a keen History student in my school days, winning the class ( GCE ‘O” Level)History prize at St. John’s College Jaffna and later the Ceylon History Prize (HSC) at S. Thomas’ College, Mount Lavinia. When I entered the University , I thought I will do History Honours. However, at the GAQ exam I did very well in Economic(second highest score) and Geography and secured an Ordinary pass in History. DR. H A de S Gunasekera persuaded me to opt for Economics . Perhaps ,this served me well as I did a special in Accountancy and ended up winning a Ceylon Government scholarship ( through the University) to do Chartered Accountancy, being articled  at Ford, Rhodes, Thornton& Co. ( now called KPMG) and qualifying as a Chartered Accountant ( Ceylon). While working at Bartleet & Co. (Chief Accountant) , I did the English Cost and Management Accountancy ( now Chartered Institute of Management Accountants of England) and later became a Fellow of both Accounting bodies. Prior to migrating to Australia in 1977, I was Finance Director and Company Secretary of Singer Sri Lanka Ltd ( earlier , Singer Sewing Machine Co.) .

In Australa, I added The CPA (Australia) to my list of qualifications . I was with the NAB Group for 22 years until retirement in 2002.

Best wishes. Rex

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