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A Professional Sage

Coomaraswamy: Selected Papers Vol. 1: Traditional Art and Symbolism Vol. 2: Metaphysics

edited by Roger Lipsey
Princeton University Press, 470 pp., $50.00 the set

Coomaraswamy Vol. 3: His Life and Work

by Roger Lipsey
Princeton University Press, 312 pp., $17.50

Ananda (Indian) Kentish (English) Coomaraswamy (Tamil-Ceylonese) is known in America as one of the great scholars of Indian art, the curator for thirty years, from 1917 to 1947, of the Indian section of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Most of his important work was written in the US, but he was formed by a host of influences whose variety his name itself reflects. He was a natural scientist, trained in England as a geologist, and he founded the Geological Survey of Ceylon, of which he was the first director. He was a pioneering and scholarly art historian, and wrote three books which are still classics. And finally he could be described as a “professional sage”: he rightly disclaimed the title of “guru,” but was nevertheless given it by younger admirers during his Boston years.

These were the successive public faces he wore during his career, but, of course, they co-existed and overlapped, each one evolving from the experience of the others. We will not understand them unless we realize how deep was his indignation at what he considered to be the cultural rape of Ceylon and India by the materialistic industrial technology of the West. Coomaraswamy came to see the West’s effect on South Asia as a reenactment of what the West had done to its own spiritual inheritance.

Dr. Lipsey’s work makes it possible at last to see Coomaraswamy whole, and to understand the reasons for the peculiar aggressiveness in his later metaphysical writing. We can see that his doctrines were by no means so detached from personal psychology as he might have wished. This only matters because Coomaraswamy the writer—as distinct from the man—adopted so high a moral tone.

Dr. Lipsey is well aware of ambiguity in Coomaraswamy’s life and work, and of the controversy which surrounded his later attitudes. But he rightly stresses his accomplishment and neatly defuses criticisms in advance. This first biography of the master is fascinating to read and admirably just. The two volumes of selected articles from the last part of his life that go with it contain many of Coomaraswamy’s most important works. But Dr. Lipsey acknowledges that what he is trying to do is to represent the breadth of his subject’s mind; Coomaraswamy’s immense and varied writing should be edited into volumes organized around specific topics.

I well remember the delight with which I first encountered Coomaraswamy’s articles in my father’s set of Speculum. They showed me, as they showed many others, the way into a realm of “transpersonal meaning,” the ancient symbols, motifs, and themes in art and literature that reveal an underlying harmony and unity. As time went on, and I read more widely in the field of symbology, I became more disturbed by aspects of Coomaraswamy’s later work. There seemed to be something fishy in his remorseless abstract intellectualism and his contemptuous hostility to ideas which seemed to me no less important than his own. I am surely not the only one who owes to him a great part of my own awakening to the Perennial Tradition and to Oriental art yet I cannot accept what seems an insulting refusal on his part to accept the integrity of others. He could be magnificently right; but he could also be (I now fear) dishonest in his anxiety that views in which he had invested heavily should be seen to have the absolute value he claimed for them as reflections of Eternal Idea.

Coomaraswamy was born in Ceylon in August 1877, the son of an extremely distinguished Tamil father, who was a member of his own country’s Legislative Council. Sir Mutu Coomaraswamy was also one of the most successful “Westernizers” in the Empire—he had been called to the English Bar, knighted by Queen Victoria. He had even been married to his English wife, a lady of high intelligence named Elizabeth Beeby, by the Archbishop of Canterbury. When Ananda Kentish was not quite two his mother took him to England expecting her husband to join her. He died however, just as he was about to leave Ceylon, intending to stand for Parliament in England. The boy was then brought up in England by his mother, grandmother, and aunt, and he was kept out of direct touch with the East. He went to school and university in England, gaining a first-class degree in geology from the University of London in 1901.

In 1906 he was given his doctorate for work done in Ceylon from 1902-1906, and his results persuaded the British administration to found a geological survey, with Coomaraswamy as director. He lived in Ceylon with Ethel, his first English wife, a skillful photographer, and worked often in remote areas. He became more and more impressed with the vanishing life and culture of the people—which his father seemed to have in effect rejected; so began his fierce and lifelong indignation at the impact of Westernization.

During his geological excursions he collected the material for his first major art historical book, Medieval Sinhalese Art, for which his wife took most of the photographs. It was the first complete expression of his devotion to traditional ways of thought, and to craft as a means of transmitting ancient and transpersonal wisdom. Characteristically, this book could not be published in the East—the resources were lacking—but only in industrial England in 1908, after he had ceased living in Ceylon. He had also involved himself in an attempt to found a Ceylon Social Reform Society, to resist the encroachment of British ways upon the life of the people; but it failed for lack of support.

By 1907 Coomaraswamy had returned to England and became part of the crafts movement that had been inspired by Ruskin and William Morris. Inherited wealth enabled him to settle in a beautiful restyled manor house in the Cotswolds, and from that status he preached the arts of the folk. He installed Morris’s Kelmscott press and printed a special edition of Medieval Sinhalese Art on it. He also developed a deep sympathy for the religious work-ethos of the artist and writer Eric Gill, with whom he continued to correspond in later years. He discovered William Blake, whom he saw as a great modern Western visionary and whose writings he often quoted because his “theories of imagination and art so closely approach Oriental aesthetic.” He published articles not only on Indian arts and craft but also on the craftsman in England. In particular he became an apostle for the southern French poet and patriot Frédéric Mistral, who tried to revive the writings and customs of the pays de la langue d’oc at the end of the nineteenth century, seeing in him the prototype of the men who were needed to foster the resurgence of national feeling and cultural pride everywhere in the East.

Upon his return to India in 1909, he met just such a man in the poet and dramatist Rabindranath Tagore. As a writer and speaker Coomaraswamy involved himself in the cause of Swadeshi, Indian National Freedom, from the aristocratic vantage point of the Tagore family circle, often staying in their luxurious family mansion, Jorasanko, near Calcutta. The Tagores were the leaders of the Bengali revival, and Rabindranath is credited with virtually single-handedly converting Bengali into a flexible modern language. During this Anglo-Indian period of 1909-1914, Coomaraswamy was trying once again to find a place for himself in the East, at a suitable social level, and to commit himself to the revival of Indian national consciousness, perhaps by becoming the William Morris of the East. In this he failed.

For years he had been building up a collection of Indian art during his travels, primarily Rajput miniature paintings. He tried to get this collection adopted as the nucleus of an Indian National Museum, with himself as director; but without success. India had to wait until 1950 for her National Museum. He sought a post in Banaras University as Professor of Indian Art and Culture. Here too he failed. For not only did he have a doubtful political reputation, but also his subject—art history—had no place in Indian academic conceptions. His collection, however, provided him with the basis for his second major art historical book, which in turn led him directly to the United States, the least traditional and most industrialized country in the world.

The book was Rajput Painting. Cut off from India in England by the outbreak of the First World War, he gave himself up to completing the text. It was sumptuously published in 1916. The title itself indicates Coomaraswamy’s achievement; for it was he who first clearly distinguished Rajput from Moghul painting and laid the foundations for all subsequent analysis and appreciation of it. He correctly explained the links between art, Hindu religion, music, and love which give the Rajput miniatures of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries their distinctive meaning. This book was the greatest success to emerge from the “Anglo-Indian” period of his life.

The year 1916 was fateful. Coomaraswamy was thirty-nine, and a fullfledged art historian. His belief in craft as a fundamental expression of cultural identity made him reject as invalid any distinction between craft and fine art. But his reputation as a social-political sage made his standing in England at war highly equivocal. As an Indian nationalist “agitator” who denied the responsibility of any Indian to fight for the British Empire, he was not likely to be looked on with favor by the British establishment. He seems also to have been a conscientious objector to war as such. So he succeeded only with some difficulty in leaving England in 1916. He accompanied his second English wife, who went by the name Ratan Devi professionally, on her first concert tour of Indian music in the United States. No doubt with forethought, he seems to have carried a copy of Rajput Painting with him, and probably other photographs of his collection.

When he met Dr. Denman W. Ross, the great patron of the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, Ross was able to decide promptly to purchase the entire collection for the museum, thus establishing the first Indian department in US museums; he then persuaded the trustees to appoint Coomaraswamy as its first curator. So in 1917 Coomaraswamy left England for the last time to settle in Boston. Some of his property was confiscated; but he managed with difficulty to get the entire collection and a fair amount of money out. His feelings of bitterness toward the imperial-industrial power that dominated India and Ceylon were probably given a final boost.

In the United States Coomaraswamy confined himself for the first thirteen years to strict art-historical publication. Boston’s Oriental collections were already vast, and he settled down gratefully into his curatorship. In ten years appeared his classic History of Indian and Indonesian Art (1927)—clear, factual, scientific, and by his later criteria, cold in tone. It is still a basic text, and was backed up by a series of purely art-historical reports and articles in the museum’s bulletin. He also published a set of catalogues raisonnés: Indian sculpture (1923), Jaina painting and manuscripts (1924), Rajput painting (1927), and Mughal painting (1930).

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