|Thursday, 22 August 2002|
125th Birth Anniversary : Ananda Coomaraswamy - Apostle of culture
by Andrew Scott
Ananda Coomaraswamy was born 125 years ago on August 22, 1877 at Kollupitiya. His mother was English and his distinguished father, Sir Muttu Coomaraswamy, was a devoted Hindu and the first Hindu to be called to the English Bar. Ananda Coomaraswamy's father died while Ananda was very young and as a result young Coomaraswamy was brought up in England from where he ultimately graduated in geology from the University of London. He served in Sri Lanka as an active geologist and mineralogist and achieved recognition as a renowned scientist by a series of very impressive discoveries.
Later he became the curator of the Boston Museum of Fine Arts and died in 1947 at the age of 70. As an energetic young man Ananda Coomaraswamy played a dominant role in the regeneration of the Sri Lankan culture at the turn of this century. He was an ardent nationalist who sometimes directed his attacks on the materialism of the West. Ananda Coomaraswamy had an utter contempt for both europeanised Indians as well as europeanised Sri Lankans. He once remarked that these europeanised Indians and Sri Lankans were Indian or Sri Lankan only by name.
What he said about India and the decadent Indian culture at that time is rightly applicable to present Sri Lanka. He always pointed out that schools and churches hastened the decay of eastern culture and remarked: "If you teach a man that what he has thought right is wrong, he will be apt to think that what he has thought wrong is right".
Ananda Coomaraswamy's views on politics too were much varied as his noble ideas about art. He was a nationalist in outlook and he always pointed out the great danger to which nationalism may eventually lead. He elaborated on his warnings in one of his early essays of genius, 'Young India' and advocated that nationalism should positively contribute to resolve problems that face the whole wide world, and no longer merely those of a single race or continent.
His clear intellect ranged over many varieties of subjects such as petrology, philosophy, metaphysics, music, iconography, philology and art. His knowledge of the indigenous arts and crafts was unexcelled and he was even called 'the greatest orientalist of all time'.
In Ananda Coomaraswamy was harmoniously blended both Eastern and Western culture and whether he wrote on politics or poetry, on myths or on metaphysics he wrote with erudition. Whether it was Plato or the Upanishads, the Bible or the Baghavad Gita, the Koran or the Tripitaka, Ananda Coomaraswamy was imbibed with the true spirit of their noble teachings. Taken in the broadest sense he was a truly cultured man. Ananda Coomaraswamy who, as mentioned earlier, began life as a scientist and attained its giddy heights was also keenly interested and equally competent to stress the importance of literacy. He was one of the rare Sri Lankans who emphasised that literacy is an essential commodity for the cultural resurgence of a nation. One of his essays, 'Borrowed Plumes' first published in Kandy in 1905 was his maiden literary effort. It reflects the deep thoughts of a youthful genius.
In this essay he describes very movingly the destruction of native life under foreign domination. This is an interesting essay which should be read and re-read how specially in view of the serious efforts being presently made to reactivate this country's cultural heritage. Those who have not yet read Borrowed Plumes have missed a glorious piece of literature which spurs national enthusiasm too. It rings with choice sentences such as "Sometimes I think the eastern spirit is not dead, but sleeping, and may yet play a great part in the world's spiritual life".
Ananda Coomaraswamy's writings have a vital message for men and nations everywhere who are interested to preserve their moral and cultural integrity. He placed a high value both on his dignity and freedom as well as on the dignity and freedom of others and his independence of spirit and thought continues to inspire us even today. He is very much alive today as he was in the past and his spirit continues to speak to all those who believe that their future rests on the preservation of the individual regardless of race, religion, nationality or social status.
His greatly absorbing and colossal work Medieval Sinhalese Art, for which he collected material when on his long circuits remains a monumental volume in this sphere while from rocks and stones to art and culture, from culture to man and society itself he was an authority as well as a dynamic source of inspiration. There is no doubt that his simple and noble life will continue to inspire the Sri Lankans for many more years.
As a young man of 23 he saw his fist paper on 'Ceylon Rocks and Graphite' in print in the quarterly journal of the Geological Society and by the time he died he had completed writing more than 500 publications including the bulky monuments like Medieval Sinhalese Art and History of Indian and Indonesian Art. For the 14th edition of Encyclopedia Britannica he contributed 8 articles and edited the English words of Indian origin in Webster's New International Dictionary. His books and memoirs, articles and monographs, were published in India, Sri Lanka, England America, France, Germany and Holland.
On his 125th birth anniversary let us remember him as a Sri Lankan who attained international eminence as a philosopher of art and art historian, as an expositor of oriental art and philosophy, as a traditionalist thinker, as sociologist, educationist, a knowledgeable commentator of comparative religion, erudite writer and above all as an essayist with the touch of a prophet. To us who are living in the modern world sundered by broken harmonies Dr. Ananda Coomaraswamy's life serves well as a model that should be emulated.
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