'Quest For Coomaraswamy' book review: A man for all seasons

Pratapaditya Pal's book presents a portrait of a flawed genius, whose phenomenal erudition was almost comparable to Rabindranath Tagore’s.

Published: 30th May 2021 05:00 AM  |   Last Updated: 30th May 2021 10:26 PM   |  A+A-

Ananda Kentish Coomaraswamy

Ananda Kentish Coomaraswamy

Express News Service

He may have faded from public memory, but at the advent of the 20th century, Ananda Kentish Coomaraswamy's was the lone voice that sang to an indifferent and often censorious West of the glories of Rajasthani and Moghul miniature paintings, of the transcendence of India's ancient sculpture and of the perpetuity of its crafts.

He chided Indians for being oblivious of their legacy, preferring borrowed plumes instead. He was an unsparing critic of urbanisation and industrialisation in the vein of William Blake, John Ruskin and William Morris.

In India, he became involved in the swadeshi movement. He was exiled from the British Empire because he refused to join the British Army during World War I and had to retreat to the US with his priceless Indian art collection.

His seemingly endless writings on his multifarious interests - volumes on everything from geology and crafts, the visual and performing arts to comparative religion and metaphysics - shored up by his prodigious erudition revealed to the world the spiritual wealth of the art of ancient India, its enduring traditions and its deep symbolism within an art historical framework.

His credo was, "Indian art is essentially religious." His later writings on metaphysics may go over the heads of most of us, but his elaborate expositions on Indian art remain relevant, although he went out of fashion for apparently being a traditionalist. However, Coomaraswamy, born into an aristocratic Sinhalese Tamil family in 1877 in Ceylon - Sri Lanka now - was no mere stick-in-the-mud or a nostalgist.

Cosmopolitan by upbringing, he kept an open mind, and the book under review underscores, among many other unknown aspects of his life, the singular role he played in the acceptance of photography as an art and his accomplishments as a skilled draughtsman and a keen photographer.

But then Coomaraswamy’s complex character was shot through with contradictions. From the time he discovered "Rajput painting" quite early in his career, he wrote admiringly about "'modernist' revolution of our own time...": "…This art is also metaphysical and saturated with ideas…"

He was a vegetarian yet he was an enthusiastic angler. He considered marriage a sacrament, yet he had married four gifted Western women in his lifetime.

Pal examines his relationship with his mother, an outstanding Englishwoman, and his four wives, who were responsible for kindling in Coomaraswamy, a geologist by training and profession, his interest in the arts and crafts of India and Ceylon that subsequently became his lifelong mission.

As Keeper of the Indian collection of the Boston Museum of Fine Arts from 1917 till his death in 1947, Coomaraswamy worked himself to death cataloguing and explaining thousands of items. It was on his proposal that Alfred Stieglitz’s photographs were included in the museum’s print department.    

This is the second biography of Coomaraswamy to be published after three long decades, the last one by Roger Lipsey in 1977. Of Lipsey’s three-volume work, only the last was devoted to his life, the first two dwelling solely on his immeasurable intellectual achievements.

Coomaraswamy was dead against his biography being written and did not leave behind much meat on which such a narrative could be based. Not a surprising standpoint coming as it does from the man who wrote: "…imitation and portraiture are lesser aims than the representation of ideal and symbolic forms".

But in the event of a portrait being painted, Coomaraswamy was against his character being "whitewashed", and Pal presents us with the portrait of a flawed genius, whose phenomenal erudition was only comparable to Rabindranath Tagore's, although the latter’s creativity was beyond compare. Pal admits he had the advantage of being born an Indian, and a Bengali to boot, which allowed him to peruse source material in the vernacular.

Calcutta and the Jorasanko ancestral home of the Tagore family, where Coomaraswamy spent a good deal of time between 1907 and 1911, played a vital role in shaping Coomaraswamy's sensibility. Of special interest is the inclusion of the hitherto unpublished correspondence between Coomaraswamy and Tagore.

It highlights the rapport they enjoyed. Pal had succeeded Coomaraswamy as Keeper of the Indian Collection of the Boston Museum of Fine Arts in 1967, albeit after a gap of two decades. 

This is an eminently readable book with a fine selection of images that besides painting a convincing, subtly shaded and human portrait of a man with a towering intellect throws light on those exciting times when the modernist movement was causing a kerfuffle and Indian ideas were beginning to impact Western thought.

One of the joys of reading it lies in Pal's unvarnished prose that never lapses into jargon, a trait that casts a blight on much Indian art writing. But being one of the most eminent art historians of our times, Pal is not obliged to wear his scholarship on his sleeve.

Quest for Coomaraswamy: A Life in the Arts, 

By: Pratapaditya Pal, 

Publisher: Bayeux Arts Inc, 

Pages: 328, 

Price: Rs 15,945


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