Born in Colombo, British Ceylon (present-day Sri Lanka) into a Tamil family in 1877, Ananda Kentish Coomaraswamy was one of the most influential ideologues and scholars of Indian art during the early twentieth century. Along with EB Havell and Abanindranath Tagore, he was among the first intellectuals to argue against the prevalent Western interpretation of Indian art history endorsed by influential British archaeologists such as Alexander Cunningham and James Fergusson.
Born into a family that had spent several generations in Jaffna, Sri Lanka, Coomaraswamy ultimately moved to England with his mother after his father’s death in 1879. He attended Wycliffe College, Gloucestershire, and earned a doctorate in geology from the University of London. Soon afterwards, he was introduced to the works of William Morris, which influenced Coomaraswamy to seek a deeper understanding of craftsmanship and helped develop his eventual interest in the indigenous art and craft practices of Sri Lanka. He returned to Ceylon in 1902 and was named the first Principal Mineral Surveyor of the Mineral Survey of Ceylon in 1905. However, he left the position the following year and travelled to India to conduct art historical research, focusing in particular on the history of Buddhist art and iconography in South Asia. He also founded the Ceylon Social Reform Society the same year, with the aim of preserving and reviving the region’s traditional arts and crafts.
Coomaraswamy spent his time in India between Madras and Shantiniketan, coming in contact with people such as Annie Besant and members of the Tagore family, with whom he maintained a lifelong association owing to their shared concerns about reviving Indian painting and culture. During his time in the country in the early 1900s, Coomaraswamy acquired an extensive collection of Indian art. He was also in charge of the arts section of the United Provinces Exhibition held in Allahabad (now Prayagraj) in 1910–11. He returned to England in 1914 but was exiled from the British Commonwealth in 1917 because of his refusal to serve in the British Army during World War I. Following this, Coomaraswamy moved to the USA, where he was appointed Keeper of Indian and Mohammedan Art at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts — a position he held for the following three decades.
By the 1920s, Indian nationalism had gained considerable influence in art and art history through the writings and works of the Bengal School and its chief proponent, Abanindranath Tagore. Coomaraswamy’s scholarship during the period helped further reinforce this movement. In his seminal book History of Indian and Indonesian Art (1927), he provided a systematic study of the major dynastic and regional schools of Buddhist and Hindu art and architecture from the ancient times to the medieval period.
Coomaraswamy also vigourously refuted the then-prevalent belief that the earliest images of the Buddha in Indian art had origins in Greek and Hellenistic art. Instead, he traced the origins of early Buddhist art to the recently discovered Mathura and Sarnath schools of sculpture. He further argued that the yaksha and yakshi imagery employed by these schools evolved from ancient indigenous traditions in Indian art. He developed his thesis further in a number of texts, including The Transformation of Nature in Art (1934), Elements of Buddhist Iconography (1935) and Hinduism and Buddhism (1943). His influence also extended to art pedagogy, and it was on his recommendation that the industrialist Gautam Sarabhai set up the Calico Museum of Textiles, Ahmedabad in 1949.
Coomaraswamy planned to retire from his position at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston and return to India to compose a new translation of the Upanishads, but the project was left unfinished owing to his death in Massachusetts in 1947.
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