Ananda K. Coomaraswamy who was born in Ceylon (Sri Lanka) and grew up in England, taught the West the way to approach and understand the arts of India. His whole life was dedicated to the study and exposition of Indian culture and arts. He said to friends who wanted to write his biography “Assess my works”.
Dr. Ananda K. Coomaraswamy Ananda Kentish Coomaraswamy. It is an intriguing name, the unfamiliar ‘Kentish’ nestling between the familiar ‘Ananda’ and ‘Coomaraswamy’. It makes you wonder about the man’s nationality. Was he a swami? A sanyasi?
Doctor Ananda Coomaraswamy was an unusual man, an extraordinary man. He was a hermit as well as a householder, or perhaps he was neither. As we say in Kannada ‘Food did not break his fast’.
Mother and Son
A day in the year 1879. A passenger ship was on its way from Ceylon (Sri Lanka) to England.
One of the passengers was a beautiful English woman. She held a two-year-old child in her lap and gazed at his face. Her own face reflected both joy and sorrow. The child was brown-skinned, dark-haired, and had lustrous eyes. He smiled at his mother.
The mother remembered her husband Muthu Coomaraswamy Mudaliar who had died two years ago leaving his son fatherless. She could see him clearly in her mind’s eye.
Muthu Coomaraswamy was an exceptional person. He came to Ceylon from far away Tamil Nadu and settled down there. He became a citizen of Ceylon and later was a member of the Legislative Assembly. He was a well-known advocate and was the first Asian to receive a knighthood. (Knighthood is an honor conferred upon a person who has distinguished himself in public service.
Those who have this honor are entitled to add ‘Sir’ to their names. Muthu Coomaraswamy met an English girl called Elizabeth Clay Beevi when he went to England on business. She was captivated by his personality and they decided to get married. They came back to Ceylon. On the 22nd of August 1877, their son was born.
Elizabeth had left her country to come far away to Ceylon with her husband. When she undertook that long journey she was full of enthusiasm and hope. On her voyage back to England, Elizabeth had her son with her who was the image of her husband, but she was bowed down under the weight of sorrow. She had the responsibility of bringing up the child alone. Motherhood had imparted gravity to her personality. What a difference there was between the two journeys!
Her married life had come to an end in a short time. The child in her arms represented the love and happiness of those years. Elizabeth decided to bring up the child to be a worthy son of his father, in spite of the many difficulties that lay in her path. Back in England, Elizabeth devoted herself entirely to the care of her son and his education.
“What Are Those Pictures, Mother?” The child would ask his mother questions about everything she did.
“Mother, why do you close your eye and stand with folded hands?”
“What are those pictures? Who are they in the pictures?”
The mother would smile and explain: “One of them is your father, The other one is God Kumaraswami.”
“I have never seen my father. Where is he now, mother?”
“He is with God Kumaraswami whom you see in the picture next to your father’s”
“Is that picture God’s? But he has six faces!”
“Yes, my son. The god has six faces and he is also known by the name Shanmukha. Your father was a devotee of this deity. That is why you were named Coomaraswamy. Your father used to worship and pray to this god every day. You pray to him too, with folded hands and closed eyes. Pray to him to make you a good person.”
Ananda Coomaraswamy knowing neither God nor devotion closed his impish eyes and stood with folded hands as his mother bade him.
Thus was Coomaraswamy introduced to Hinduism and the Hindu pantheon. Elizabeth used to tell the little boy stories of the great souls of India in words that he could understand.
Ananda Coomaraswamy as a Student
Years went by. Ananda Coomaraswamy grew up in his mother’s care. In 1889 he joined the Wycliffe College. He studied there for eight years.
The child had grown up to be a man. Elizabeth saw in her handsome twenty-year-old son, the reflection of her husband. As an adult, Coomaraswamy was inclined to be serious-minded. He was entirely wrapped up in his studies. Every morning, after a bath, he worshipped Shanmukha and recited from the Bhagavad Gita.
In his spare time, he made a study of Indian culture and arts. When the books that he needed were not available in England, he obtained them from Ceylon or India.
Coomaraswamy was good-looking, curly-hared, and straight-nosed. He had long fingers.
He was a serious-minded young man. He was gentle in his speech and movements.
The Attraction of India
Ananda Coomaraswamy joined the University of London in 1909. He elected to study Geology and Natural Sciences in college. But his soul was drawn towards India and her culture and art.
Even in his clothes, he wanted to look Indian.
Though he had to wear western clothes he wore on his forehead sandal paste with a kumkum mark on it.
His love for India and her culture grew. Perhaps because his Indian father’s blood ran in his veins. The study of the Vedas, the Upanishads, the Bhagavad Gita, the Ramayana, and the Mahabharata increased his devotion and reverence towards India. As his mind and intellect grew and matured he became a devotee of Indian culture.
The hallmark of Indian culture, simple living, and high thinking was stamped on his personality.
His coevals found the dark-skinned and grave Coomaraswamy strange, but they regarded him with respect. He was a brilliant student. Even during the afternoon hours of leisure in the college, he was engrossed in his favorite subject in the library.
Another regular visitor to the library, a class-mate of Coomaraswamy’s, Ethel Mary, wanted to get to know him. But his serious demeanor put her off. She shared his interest in ancient India and wanted to learn more.
One day she made bold to go up to him and said:
“Excuse me, I am Ethel Mary, a student at this college. I have read your articles on Indian art and culture and want to learn more. I have introduced myself hoping to learn from you. If it is no trouble to you, could you help me?”
Ananda Coomaraswamy looked up from the book he was reading and said: ‘We cannot talk in the library. Let us go out.” They sat under a tree near the library and talked.
He was pleased to have a friend in England who shared his interests. They met every day and discussed their views on Indian art and culture.
Their friendship continued and deepened.
Ethel Mary expressed a wish to meet his mother.
One day he took her home. Ethel Mary was a beautiful girl and had good taste. Ananda Coomaraswamy wanted to marry her.
He expressed his desire to his mother and she gave her consent. In his twenty-fourth year, Ananda Coomaraswamy married Ethel Mary.
The year after his marriage he obtained his doctorate in Geology. From then he was Doctor Ananda Coomaraswamy. The same year he was appointed as a Mines Research Officer in Ceylon.
He was glad to be able to go back to the land where he was born and where his father had lived and achieved fame. He left for Ceylon with Ethel Mary.
Twenty-three years earlier he had left Ceylon for England with his mother. Then he was an infant and the future was uncertain. Now after completing his education he was returning to Ceylon with his wife. He was an officer in the Department of Geology. He was on the threshold of a new life.
After a voyage of three months, the ship reached Ceylon. Ananda Coomaraswamy was extremely happy. He reported for work the day after his arrival in Ceylon. Though his job was geological research his path lay elsewhere.
The World of Indian Art and Culture
Shortly after he came to Ceylon Ananda Coomaraswamy visited the famous cave ruins.
The visit changed his whole life. He was wonderstruck by the artistic splendor of the ruins. He felt impelled to study this magnificent art and explain its beauty and meaning to the rest of the world. He undertook a systematic study of the art of Ceylon over a period of four or five years with the help of his wife. In 1909 his extraordinary work, ‘Medieval Sinhalese Art’ was published.
This book opened the eyes of the West to the East, which the former believed was barbarian.
With the study of Ceylonese art, Ananda Coomaraswamy felt impelled to take up the study of Indian art and culture. As his study progressed he found himself in a totally new world.
He learned French, German, Latin, Greek, Sanskrit, Pali, and Hindi. He was already acquainted with Italian, Spanish, Dutch, Persian, and Ceylonese.
Besides his mother-tongue English, he attained a scholarship in twelve languages.
In the meantime, there was friction between him and Ethel Mary. The cause could have been Coomaraswamy’s studies. She was young and wanted to go places and enjoy life. But her husband was always immersed in his studies. Their ways were different and a disappointed Ethel Mary went back to her country.
Several months went by and Coomaraswamy’s studies went on uninterrupted. He also developed an interest in the study of Indian music. During this time he came to know a Ceylonese girl called Ratna Devi. Later he married her.
Coomaraswamy thought of his studies day and night. He was not content to learn only through books. He wanted to visit India and see for himself what he had learned from books.
But he was the Director of Mineralogical Survey, an employee of the Ceylon Government.
He held a high and responsible position and much of his time was taken up by his official duties. He resigned from his post so that he could pursue his studies.
Even though he was totally involved in his studies Coomaraswamy did not forget the world around him. He worked hard to eradicate the evils in society. He established the ‘Ceylon Social Reform Society’. He started a newspaper called ‘Ceylon National Review’.
Ananda Coomaraswamy went on a tour of Europe and some of the countries of the East with his wife Ratna Devi. He started a printing press in a place called Broad Campden in England. His book ‘Medieval Sinhalese Art’ was printed here.
He visited Ajantha and Ellora and rejoiced to see the splendor of Indian art. Now he was personally acquainted with the art of India.
The Challenge of Ignorance
In 1910 an incident took place that pained Ananda Coomaraswamy deeply. Sir George Birdwood was an art critic. He delivered a lecture on Western and Eastern art. He said that in the East artist’s produced pictures and sculptures as works of art but they did not know what beauty was. As an example, he spoke of the Buddha figures of the East. “What beauty is there in these?
They are like pies made of sawdust.” Ananda Coomaraswamy was both pained and disgusted. He felt that people like Birdwood knew nothing of the origin and development of the arts in the East. They spoke from the point of view of their own country. But many people in the East believed them and learned to regard their own art through Western eyes. Coomaraswamy felt the injustice of this keenly. The necessity to explicate the eastern arts became clearer.
A little later he wrote the book called ‘Origin of the Buddha Image.’
Ananda Coomaraswamy and Ratna Devi traveled back to Ceylon. Soon after a son was born to them. He was named Narada, ‘Nara’ meaning knowledge and ‘da’, giver.
Coomaraswamy began writing. He published articles on the tradition of Indian art. ‘Art and Swadeshi’ was the first book to come out after his world tour. It was welcomed everywhere in the world of art. Scholars all over the world praised the book.
Other books followed. Among them was ‘The Arts and Crafts Of India and Ceylon’, a 250 – page book with illustrations. It dealt with Indian sculpture, painting, and handicrafts.
Narada was by then past his childhood. He had inherited his father’s brilliance. He had already written a few articles. He wanted to follow in his father’s footsteps. He had a great desire to travel and to acquire knowledge.
Ratna Devi gave birth to a daughter. They called her Rohini.
In the year 1917, Coomaraswamy was invited by the Boston Museum of Fine Arts to Work as a research Director of Indian, Persian, and Moslem arts. This marked a turning point in his life.
He could not refuse the call of America. His wife too was agreeable. He left for America with his family. In Boston they were happy. Coomaraswamy had his hands full and his work was rewarding.
There he met Sister Niveditha. She was Irish.
Her former name was Miss Margaret E. Noble.
She became a disciple of Swamy Vivekananda.
She was deeply influenced by the personality of the heroic sanyasi. She embraced Hinduism and was named Sister Niveditha.
Ananda Coomaraswamy worked with her and brought out the book ‘Myths of the Hindus and the Buddhists’. Even in America, Coomaraswamy continued his Indian way of life. He performed the worship of Shanmukha everyday ceremonially. His forehead was always adorned with sandal paste and a Kumkum mark. He wore a turban on his head instead of a cap even though he wore Western clothes. His turban became well known in Boston. Recognizing the worth of his work in the Boston Museum, the government-appointed him the Director.
Bolt From the Blue
Coomaraswamy’s son Narada had served his apprenticeship as a writer. He was a promising young writer. Rohini who was learning music was a promising musician. Their life was happy for a time. But it did not last. Ratna Devi’s health began to fail.
Coomaraswamy used to make fun of Narada’s passion for travel. He used to say to his son,
“You are rightly named after the Narada of myth who moved between the three worlds. You seem to take after him.”
His father’s words made Narada smile. When he was at leisure he would discuss with his father matters which he had found difficult. Once Narada went on a journey by air. He did not come back. The plane in which he traveled crashed and Narada met with an untimely death.
Ailing Ratna Devi heard the news and the grief killed her. Ananda Coomaraswamy was like one thunderstruck. He turned to the Gita and the Upanishads for solace in his grief – gradually he regained calm of mind.
“Very well, My Child”
A few days later Rohini came to her father and said, “Father, I want to speak to you about a personal matter’.
“What is it, child?” asked the father.
“It may displease you,” she said.
Her father assured her, “it does not matter, child.
Tell me what it is.”
“I love an American, father. I want to marry him. I want your consent, father.”
Her father was astounded.
“Rohini, your brother and your mother are both dead. I had pinned all my hopes on you.
You are well versed in Indian music. I was hoping you would marry an Indian. You can become famous in India.”
“No, father. I want none of that. I have already made up my mind. Please, father, say your consent.”
Coomaraswamy was pained. But Rohini’s happiness was his chief concern. He said, “May God bless you, my child” and gave his consent.
He was now alone. His only comfort was his writing. ‘The Dance of Shiva’, ‘Transformation of Nature in Art’, ‘Christian and Oriental Philosophy of Art’, ‘History of Indian and Indonesian art’, ‘Buddha and the Gospel of Buddhism’ – he wrote all these books.
His life was lonely as a hermit. He cooked his own food and took care of everything himself.
His studies continued. Time passed. He met an Argentinean woman called Dona Lusa in Boston.
She was a widow. She looked after him and proved to be a dedicated helpmate and companion. She took endless pains to edit Ananda Coomaraswamy’s writings. He forgot his sorrows in her company.
Dona Lusa bore him a son. They named him Rama. Coomaraswamy bestowed much care on the upbringing of this child. He sent the boy to the Gurukula University at Haridwar so that he would have an Indian education. Rama obtained his degree and later trained as a surgeon in the Albert Einstein hospital in America. He is practicing medicine in America now.
The End of Dedicated Service
Ananda Coomaraswamy’s life was devoted to the study of oriental arts. His last years were practically a single-minded dedication. Even though he lived in America his soul was in India.
His mind and heart were filled with India, Indian painting, dance, drama, music, scriptures, literature, and culture.
On the 8th of September 1947, he died suddenly. A fortnight earlier he had completed his eightieth year. According to his wishes his son, Rama immersed his ashes in the Ganga. A soul dedicated to India, but dwelling faraway had mingled with India.
He Opened the Eyes of the West
Ananda Coomaraswamy opened the eyes of the West to India at a time when Western critics of repute talked irresponsibly’ of Indian arts, making no effort at understanding. Vincent Smith, Birdwood, Mascal, and Archer were critics who ridiculed and despised Indian arts. They were contemptuous of sculptures of gods and goddesses, which symbolized ancient Indian art.
This disgusted Coomaraswamy. In a series of articles on Indian art and culture, he answered those irresponsible critics in such a way that they reeled under the impact. He showed up for all to see the vitality and timelessness of Indian art.
“Look, This Is the Way”
Ananda Coomaraswamy in many of his books explained the essential difference between Western and Eastern art. “One must give up looking at the art of the East with the mind and eye of the West’ he urged. In ancient India, many makers of chants, sculptors, and poets never put their name to their work. Even when a name is connected with a work no other details are available.
In this country, an artist did not create a work of art deriving entirely from his own imagination.
In making a piece of sculpture, say a Buddha, a Nataraja or Mahishasura Mardini (an incarnation of Parvati), the sculptor did not tell himself ‘Buddha must have been so, Nataraja while dancing must have looked so, Mahishasura Mardini must have been such’, etc. A sculptor would embark on a work of art bearing, in his bloodstream the imagination of his whole society and race. In the West, the artist is an individual. His feelings, fancy, and imagination form the basis of his pictures and sculptures.
But in India, a picture, a song, a sculpture has at its root, the imagination, and belief of a whole community. In order to understand the works of Indian art one has to understand the feelings and beliefs of the whole of Hindu society.
These works are not realistic, they are symbolic. That is, a figure of Buddha, Nataraja, or Ganapati does not represent the way the artist and his contemporaries believed the deity to be. Buddha seated on the lotus does not mean that the artist and the people of the period believed Buddha to be seated on a lotus. The lotus, the two hands, four hands, eight hands, and such other details have a deeper meaning.
One figure of Nataraja symbolically represents the five activities of Shiva creation of the world, protection, destruction, disappearance, and salvation. The drum symbolizes the beginning of creation. The open hand assures protection. The fire in one hand symbolizes annihilation. The uplifted foot indicates salvation. The fourth hand points to the foot, which is the refuge of the soul. The burning ground is man’s soul and heart. Shiva is burning all desire and illusion here.
Thus every detail of the Nataraja figure has a meaning. The sculptor alone did not determine these details. The imagination and the feelings of his whole community are bodied forth in the figure. It is not the sculptor’s intention to say to those who see the figure. “This is how Nataraja looks”.
There is a power in the universe that created it, is protecting it, and will annihilate it; that every power will destroy man’s desires and illusions and will grant him salvation – this was what the sculptor intended to convey. Towards this end, he uses the disposition of hands and feet, a detail such as the drum and everything else.
Coomaraswamy was interested in Indian music also. He said,
“Indian music gives the experience of a vast range of emotions. The sorrow engendered by it is tearless, joy without affectation; and the intensification of emotions is calm”.
Of the history of Indian art, he wrote,
“In the religion of the Hindus there is no conflict or difference between beauty and the scientific outlook. In their best works, there is a unity that neither music nor literature nor any other art can separate.”
A Place in the Encyclopaedia
An instance of the effect Coomaraswamy’s writing on Indian art had on the West is to be found in the world-famous Encyclopaedia Britannica. This contains information on everything.
Anyone seeking information has only to turn to the Encyclopaedia, which is the commonly held belief. But up to the 13th edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica, there is no mention of Indian art.
After Coomaraswamy had published several books on Indian art, the compilers of the Encyclopaedia opened their eyes. He was invited to contribute articles. The 14th edition contains eight articles by Ananda Coomaraswamy.
He was deeply grieved that Indians did not know their own heritage. He used to say that the educational system implanted by the British in Indian bred a younger generation of Indians who were neither Eastern nor Western.
While addressing a group of young men who had gone to study in America he said,
“You must never forget your background of Indian culture, tradition, and personality. You must act as ambassadors and wherever you are you must remain Indians.”
He was himself the ambassador of Indian culture to the world.
“Look At My Work”
He was a very simple man and shy. Not much is known of his personal life. An introvert and without pride, he mingled freely with others. But he never spoke of himself and did not want to be praised. He hated precept that differed from practice. He practiced what he believed.
Once a friend of his called Dorai Singh decided to write his biography and requested Coomaraswamy to give him a detailed account of his life.
But Coomaraswamy did not agree. He wrote to his friend, “I want to remain in the shadow. Instead of writing about me, write about my books.
Assess my books. That is enough. I am a worshipper of Indian culture and accordingly, I believe that writing a man’s biography is not conducive to his salvation. I believe so. This is not a show of modesty, it is the principle of my life”.
Ananda Coomaraswamy Books
Elements of Buddhist Iconography, Harvard University Press, 1935.
Figures of Speech or Figures of Thought?: The Traditional View of Art, (World Wisdom 2007)
Introduction To Indian Art, (Kessinger Publishing, 2007)
Buddhist Art, (Kessinger Publishing, 2005)
Guardians of the Sundoor: Late Iconographic Essays, (Fons Vitae, 2004)
History of Indian and Indonesian Art, (Kessinger Publishing, 2003)
Teaching of Drawing in Ceylon] (1906, Colombo Apothecaries)
“The Indian craftsman” (1909, Probsthain: London)
Voluspa ; The Sibyl’s Saying (1909, Essex House Press, London)
Vidyāpati: Bangīya padābali; songs of the love of Rādhā and Krishna], (1915, The Old Bourne press: London)
The mirror of gesture: being the Abhinaya darpaṇa of Nandikeśvara (with Duggirāla Gōpālakr̥ṣṇa) (1917, Harvard University Press; 1997, South Asia Books,)
Indian music (1917, G. Schirmer; 2006, Kessinger Publishing,
A catalog of sculptures by John Mowbray-Clarke: shown at the Kevorkian Galleries, New York, from May the seventh to June the seventh, 1919. (1919, New York: Kevorkian Galleries, co-authored with Mowbray-Clarke, John, H. Kevorkian, and Amy Murray)
Rajput Painting, (B.R. Publishing Corp., 2003)
Early Indian Architecture: Cities and City-Gates, (South Asia Books, 2002) I
The Origin of the Buddha Image, (Munshirm Manoharlal Pub Pvt Ltd, 2001)
The Door in the Sky, (Princeton University Press, 1997)
The Transformation of Nature in Art, (Sterling Pub Private Ltd, 1996)
Bronzes from Ceylon, chiefly in the Colombo Museum, (Dept. of Govt. Print, 1978)
Early Indian Architecture: Palaces, (Munshiram Manoharlal, 1975)
The arts & crafts of India & Ceylon, (Farrar, Straus, 1964)
Christian and Oriental Philosophy of Art, (Dover Publications, 1956)
Archaic Indian Terracottas, (Klinkhardt & Biermann, 1928)