Ananda Kentish

Ananda Kentish

Coomaraswamy, Ananda Kentish, 1877-1947, art historian, b. Ceylon (now Sri Lanka). Raised in London by an English mother, he returned to Ceylon in his early 20s. After 1917 he became the first keeper of Indian and Islamic arts in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. He was one of the first scholars to recognize the importance of Rajput painting. His first major work, Mediaeval Sinhalese Art (1908), expressed ideas upon which he would elaborate in other writings throughout his life. He stressed the spiritual nature of Indian art and furthered the view that art was produced through meditative yogic practice. In his book Am I My Brother's Keeper? (1947), he expressed some of his perceptions concerning the disparities between Western institutions and Asian thought. He promoted the role of the art object as transmitter of philosophical and religious content. Among his other books are Dance of Siva (1918), History of Indian and Indonesian Art (1927), Elements of Buddhist Iconography (1935), and The Transformation of Nature in Art (3d ed. 1956).

See the bibliography of his writings in I. K. Bharatha, ed., Art and Thought (1947); his selected letters, ed. R. P. Coomaraswamy and A. Moore, Jr. (1989).

Ananda Kentish Coomaraswamy (ஆனந்த குமாரசுவாமி, 22 August, 1877, Colombo - 9 September, 1947, Needham, Massachusetts) was primarily a metaphysician, and wished to be remembered as one, but also he was a pioneering historian and philosopher of Indian art, especially art history and symbolism, and an early interpreter of Indian culture to the West .


Ananda Kentish Coomaraswamy was born in Colombo, Ceylon (now known as Sri Lanka) to the Sri Lankan Tamil legislator and philosopher Sir Muthu Coomaraswamy and his English wife Elizabeth Beeby. His father died when Ananda was 2 years old and Ananda spent much of his childhood and education abroad.

Coomaraswamy moved to England in 1879 and attended Wycliffe College, a preparatory school, at the age of 12. In 1900, he graduated from University College, London, with a degree in geology and botany. On June 19, 1902, Coomaraswamy married Ethel Mary Partridge, an English photographer, who then traveled with him to Ceylon. Coomaraswamy's field work between 1902 and 1906 earned him a doctor of science for his study of Ceylonese mineralogy, and prompted the formation of the Geological Survey of Ceylon which he initially directed. While in Ceylon, the couple collaborated on Mediaeval Sinhalese Art; Coomaraswamy wrote the text and Ethel provided the photographs. His work in Ceylon fueled Coomaraswamy's anti-Westernization sentiments. Partridge and Coomaraswamy divorced after a few years and she returned to England, where she later married the writer Philip Mairet and, as Ethel Mariet, became well known as a weaver and advocate of hand craft. The spirit presiding over much of the early activity of Ananda and Ethel was William Morris, the English craftsman and author, who initiated the handcraft revival in the later 19th century as a response to mass-produced industrial manufacture.

He met and married an Englishwoman who performed Indian song under the stage name Ratan Devi. They had two children, a son (Narada) and daughter (Rohini). He moved to the United States in 1917 to serve as the first Keeper of Indian art in the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. Narada was killed in a plane crash and an already ailing Ratan died shortly thereafter.

Coomaraswamy married the American artist Stella Bloch (29 years his junior) in November 1922. Through the 1920s, Coomaraswamy and his wife lived in two worlds. They were comfortable in bohemian and arts circles in New York City--for example, Coomaraswamy befriended Alfred Stieglitz and knew the artists who exhibited at his gallery. At the same time, however, he was studying Sanskrit and Pali; deepening his knowledge of scripture and religious literature both in Indic and Western traditions; and writing learned catalogues for the Museum of Fine Arts. His History of Indian and Indonesian Art (1927) was the last word on its topics.

Although the couple divorced in 1930, they remained friends. Shortly thereafter, on November 18th, 1930, Coomaraswamy married Argentinian Doña Luisa Runstein (28 years his junior) who was working as a society photographer under the professional name Xlata Llamas. They had a son, Coomaraswamy's third child, Rama Ponnambalam, who in later years became an eminent physician and traditionalist Catholic author of great force and learning. After her husband's death, Doña Luisa was famous among students of Indian art and those interested in Coomaraswamy's writings as a generous guide and resource.

In 1933 Coomaraswamy's title at the Museum of Fine Arts changed from curator to Fellow for Research in Indian, Persian, and Mohammedan Art.

He served as curator in the Museum of Fine Arts until his death (in Needham, Massachusetts in 1947), having been an important and prominent figure in bringing the study of Eastern art to the West. He played an important role in the collection of Persian Art for the Freer in Washington, D.C. and the Museum of Fine Arts as well.

His contributions

Coomaraswamy made important contributions to art, literature, and religious thought over the course of a long working life. As a young man in Sri Lanka, he applied the lessons of William Morris to Sri Lankan culture and produced, with his wife Ethel, a groundbreaking study of Sri Lankan craft and culture. In India, where he was equally at home, he moved in the circle of Rabindranath Tagore and other artists, and contributed as an author to the "Swadeshi" movement, an early phase of the struggle for independence. In the 'teens of the 20th century, he made pioneering discoveries in the history of Indian art (especially the distinction between Rajput and Moghul painting), and his book Rajput Painting was and remains a classic exercise in scholarship and connoisseurship. At the same time he amassed an unmatched collection of Rajput and Moghul painting, which he took with him to the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, when he joined its curatorial staff in 1917. Through 1932, from his base in Boston, he produced two kinds of publications: brilliant scholarship in his curatorial field, but also graceful introductions to Indian and Asian art and culture, typified by The Dance of Shiva, a collection of essays that have lost none of their attractiveness and remain in print to this day. From 1932 until his death in 1947, he was yet another man, another mind. Deeply influenced by Rene Guenon, he became (as noted elsewhere in this article) a founder of the Traditionalist school. His books and essays on art and culture, symbolism and metaphysics, scripture, folklore and myth, and still other topics, offer a remarkable education to readers who accept the challenges of his resolutely cross-cultural perspective and insistence on tying every point he makes back to sources in multiple traditions. He once remarked, "I actually think in both Eastern and Christian terms—Greek, Latin, Sanskrit, Pali, and to some extent Persian and Chinese." Alongside the deep and not infrequently difficult writings of this period, he also delighted in polemical writings created for a larger audience -- essays such as "Why exhibit works of art?" (1943). Coomaraswamy was a heroic scholar.

The Perennial Philosophy

He was described by Heinrich Zimmer as That noble scholar upon whose shoulders we are still standing. While serving as a curator to the Boston Museum of Fine Arts in the latter part of his life, he devoted his work to the explication of traditional metaphysics and symbolism. His writings of this period are filled with references to Plato, Plotinus, Clement, Philo, Augustine, Aquinas, Shankara, Eckhart, Rhinish and other Asian mystics. He was responsible for creating the collections of oriental art for the Freer Museum, Washington D.C., as well as for the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. When asked what he was, foremostly Dr. Coomaraswamy referred to himself as a Metaphysician, referring here to the concept of perennial philosophy or Sophia Perennis.

Along with René Guénon and Frithjof Schuon, Coomaraswamy is regarded as one of the three founders of Perennialism, also called the Traditionalist School. Several articles by Coomaraswamy on the subject of Hinduism and the Perennial Philosophy were published posthumously in the quarterly journal, Studies in Comparative Religion, alongside articles by Schuon and Guénon (among others).

Although he agrees with Guénon on the universal principles, his works are very different in form from Guénon's. By vocation, he was a scholar, who dedicated the last decades of his life to searching the Scriptures. He offers a perspective on the tradition which complements well that of Guénon. He had a very highly active aesthetic perceptiveness and he wrote dozens of articles on traditional arts and mythology. His works are also intellectually more balanced. Although born in the Hindu tradition, he had however a deep knowledge of the Western tradition and had also a great expertise and love for Greek metaphysics, especially that of Plotinus, the founder of Neoplatonism.

He built a bridge between East and West that was designed to carry a two-way traffic: his metaphysical writings aimed, among other things, at demonstrating the unity of the Vedanta and Platonism. His works also rehabilitated original Buddhism, a tradition that Guénon has for a long time limited to a rebellion of the Kshatriyas against Brahmin authority.

Works of Coomaraswamy

  • Figures of Speech or Figures of Thought?: The Traditional View of Art, (World Wisdom, 2007) ISBN 978-1933316345
  • Hinduism And Buddhism, (Kessinger Publishing, 2007) ISBN 978-0548124420
  • Introduction To Indian Art, (Kessinger Publishing, 2007) ISBN 978-1432577636
  • The Dance Of Siva, (Kessinger Publishing, 2006) ISBN 978-1428680302
  • Buddha and the Gospel of Buddhism, (Obscure Press, 2006) ISBN 978-1846647390
  • Indian Music, (Kessinger Publishing, 2006) ISBN 978-1428680319
  • Buddhist Art, (Kessinger Publishing, 2005) ISBN 978-1425464066
  • Guardians of the Sundoor: Late Iconographic Essays, (Fons Vitae, 2004) ISBN 978-1887752596
  • History of Indian and Indonesian Art, (Kessinger Publishing, 2003) ISBN 978-0766158016
  • The Essential Ananda K. Coomaraswamy, (World Wisdom, 2003) ISBN 978-0941532464
  • Dance of Siva Fourteen Indian Essays, (Kessinger Publishing, 2003) ISBN 978-0766129252
  • Myths of the Hindus and Buddhists, (Kessinger Publishing, 2003) ISBN 978-0766145153
  • Rajput Painting, (B.R. Publishing Corp., 2003) ISBN 978-8176463768
  • Early Indian Architecture: Cities and City-Gates, (South Asia Books, 2002) ISBN 978-8121505185
  • The Living Thoughts of Gotama the Buddha, (Fons Vitae, 2001) ISBN 978-1887752381
  • The Origin of the Buddha Image, (Munshirm Manoharlal Pub Pvt Ltd, 2001) ISBN 978-8121502221
  • Perception of the Vedas, (Manohar Publishers and Distributors, 2000) ISBN 978-8173042546
  • The Door in the Sky, (Princeton University Press, 1997) ISBN 978-0691017471
  • Mirror of Gesture, (South Asia Books, 1997) ISBN 978-8121500210
  • The Transformation of Nature in Art, (Sterling Pub Private Ltd, 1996) ISBN 978-8120716438
  • Spiritual Authority and Temporal Power in the Indian Theory of Government, (Oxford University Press, 1994) ISBN 978-0195631432
  • A New Approach to the Vedas: An Essay in Translation and Exegesis, (South Asia Books, 1994) ISBN 978-8121506304
  • What is Civilisation?: and Other Essays. (Oxford University Press, 1991) ISBN 978-0195623734
  • Yaksas, (Munshirm Manoharlal Pub Pvt Ltd, 1998) ISBN 978-8121502306
  • Metaphysics, (Princeton University Press, 1987) ISBN 978-0691018737
  • Coomaraswamy: Selected Papers, Traditional Art and Symbolism, (Princeton University Press, 1986) ISBN 978-0691018690
  • Bugbear of Literacy, (Sophia Perennis, 1979) ISBN 978-0900588198
  • 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) ISBN 9780486203782
  • Time and eternity, (Artibus Asiae, 1947)
  • Am I My Brothers Keeper, (Ayer Co, 1947) ISBN 978-0836903355
  • Archaic Indian Terracottas, (Klinkhardt & Biermann, 1928)



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