Why Ananda Coomaraswamy (still) matters

The International Centre for Ethnic Studies (ICES) in collaboration with the American Institute for Lankan Studies (AILS) hosted a lecture on the intellectualist Ananda Coomaraswamy on 29 October at the ICES building in Borella.

The event was attended by a blend of young and old alike from contrasting backgrounds but sharing a common interest in the arts and cultural development of Sri Lanka.

Moderator Hasini Haputhanthri gave a brief introduction on the main speaker Janice Leoshko, Associate Professor, Art History (South Asian Art) for The University of Texas – Austin and co-host Jagath Weerasinghe, Professor at the Post Graduate Institute of Archeology, University Of Kelaniya before delving into the topic of discussion.

In assessing Coomaraswamy’s achievement, it needs to be remembered that the conventional attitude of the Edwardian era towards the art of Asia was, at best, condescending, and at worst, contemptuous.

In short, there was, in England at least, an almost total ignorance of the sacred iconographies of the East. Such an artistic illiteracy was coupled with a similar incomprehension of traditional philosophy and religion, and buttressed by all manner of Eurocentric assumptions. Worse still was the fact that such attitudes had infected the Indian intelligentsia, exposed as it was to Western education and influences.

The mid 20th Century was a time when the conceptualising of art was evolving and the interpretation and categorising of South Asian art in particular deemed a particularly precarious venture.

Being of Sri Lankan descent, Ananda Coomaraswamy was drawn into the world of art, as he felt the need to better explain the origins and process of the South Asian artist to the rest of the world. His detailed descriptions and analysis of Indian art in particular were published in a number of books that he devoted a considerable part of his time and effort into.

When it came to Sri Lankan mural paintings, he was non-apologetic in his comments with regard to the originality of the paintings, as he stated that all Sinhalese artistic ventures in the early days were highly influenced by Indian artistic style and methods. South Asian art in general, did not impress upon him and he was highly critical regarding a lot of it.

Traditional art, in Coomaraswamy’s view, was always directed towards a twin purpose: a daily utility, towards what he was fond of calling “the satisfaction of present needs,” and to the preservation and transmission of moral values and spiritual teachings derived from the tradition in which it appeared. A Tibetan thangka, a medieval cathedral, a Red Indian utensil, a Javanese puppet, a Hindu deity image — in such artifacts and creations, Coomaraswamy sought a symbolic vocabulary.

The intelligibility of traditional arts and crafts, he insisted, does not depend on a more or less precarious recognition – as does modern art – but on legibility.

Traditional art does not deal in the private vision of the artist but in a symbolic language. By contrast, modern art, which from a traditionalist perspective includes the Renaissance and, generally speaking, all post-Renaissance art, is divorced from higher values, tyrannised by the mania for “originality”, controlled by aesthetic and sentimental considerations, and drawn from the subjective resources of the individual artist rather than from the well-springs of tradition. The comparison, needless to say, does not reflect well on modern art!

Among the many areas of interest that he wrote upon and studied as well, he would have fit a number of different profiles, a scientist, geologist, sociologist, colonialist, philosopher, archeologist activist, modernist, metaphysicist; and the list goes on.

However, if we were to set him apart from the rest, he would have to be thought of primarily as a modernist activist.

Although intellectually gifted in abundance, he struggled with his personal relationships, having four different spouses at different times in his life and struggled to find acceptance in England, where his property was finally confiscated from him as he then sought refuge in America; although, his real desire was to settle down in India, which was the inspiration for a lot of his literary works.


By Nihan Riza