Colour of India

Colour of India

Thursday, January 28, 2010


Dr Ananda Kentish Coomaraswamy (1877-1947).

Son of a Tamil aristocrat from Sri Lanka and his English wife, Dr Ananda Kentish Coomaraswamy (1877-1947) was one of the finest products of the fusion of two distinct cultures. His achievements extended over a truly wide and varied range.

A scientist by training and outlook, Coomaraswamy was an artist by instinct. While not hesitating to cross swords with elements of 'cultural imperialism' of the West he was all for the dynamic, rational occidental temper. His richly fruitful forays into the field of arts and crafts of India and South East Asia, art history and philosophy of Indian and Asian art resulted in a series of pioneering books, which helped secure for India a better place in the world map of art and aesthetics. Just as Dr Sarvapalli Radhakrishnan carried the message of Indian philosophy and religion from the East to the West, so also Coomaraswamy carried the message of Indian art and aesthetics to the West through his powerful writings on Indian art and its history.

In the first decade of the 20th century, Britannia ruled the waves and the concept that the sun never sets on the British Empire became a global slogan. It is amazing that in such a dark and gloomy atmosphere Coomaraswamy should have become the philosopher of what he called 'National Idealism' and a bitter critic of British imperialism. He also became a great propagandist of Indian nationalism. This is understandable because of his people, (the Mudaliars) and of Tamil culture, which prevailed in Ceylon too. Ananda's wanderings in India in the first decade of the 20th century brought him in touch with the nationalists and intellectuals, especially the Tagores in Bengal. With the Tagores, Abanindranath, Rabindranath and Gaganindranath, Coomaraswamy established a personal rapport instantly. Through them he came to know Nandalal Bose and others of the Tagore circle. He came in touch with Rai Krishnadasa of Benares and Mukundilal, who knew much about the painters of the Himalayan Hills and others. Through these contacts, he was able to understand the intricacies of the cultural component of Indian nationalism. At first hand he could understand the spirit of renaissance that was sweeping through India much before the arrival of Mahatma Gandhi on the Indian political scene in 1915.

In India, Coomaraswamy found throughout the length and breadth of the country, the potters and weavers, the iron smiths and goldsmiths, the basket makers and mat-weavers, while preserving their traditions and norms were in dire economic distress. Under the impact of industrialism, which the British rulers were fast introducing into the country, the millennia-old patterns were changing.

Thus, out of his personal discoveries and many influences, Coomaraswamy forged a philosophy of his own 60 years ago, which has total relevance in the India of today.

At that time, the nationalists were concerned only with greater participation in running the affairs of the country and in greater concessions for the rising Indian bourgeoise than in discovering the splendour 'that was India'. The art-minded Tagores and their friends and admirers belonging as they did to Bengal and its pioneering efforts at cultural renaissance naturally entranced Coomaraswamy. Nandalal Bose's great drawing of the Tagores and Coomaraswamy discussing (in which Bose had included a self-portrait of himself) is indicative of the close relations between the Ceylonese intellectuals and Bengali intellectuals.

Out of the encounter with Indian nationalism came Ananda Coomaraswamy's book Essays in Indian Nationalism published in 1911. In my view this book written 94 years ago deserves re-reading by the present day intellectuals. There is much of inspiration that could be drawn from this slender book. There were 15 essays on topics like 'Indian Nationality', 'Gramophones & Why Not?', 'The Influence of Modern Europe on Indian Art', 'Memory in Education', 'The Christian Missions in India' and 'Music and Education in India'.

A few passages deserve to be quoted from this book. In his preface, Coomaraswamy wrote: 'To a few it may appear strange that in a book devoted to the ends of Indian nationalism, so much space should be given to art and so little said of politics. It is because nations are made by artists and poets, not by traders and politicians. 'I do not believe in any regeneration of the Indian people which cannot find expression in art; any awakening worth the name must so express itself. Only by thus becoming artists and poets, can we again understand our own art and poetry and thereby attain the highest ideal of nationality, the will and power to give'.

About 500 years hence it will matter little to humanity whether a few Indians, more or less, have held official posts in India or a few million bales of cloth have been manufactured in Bombay or Lancashire factories; but it will matter much whether the great ideals of Indian culture have been carried forward or allowed to die. It is with these ideals that Indian nationalism is essentially concerned and upon these ideals that the fate of India as a nation depends.

In his essay on 'The Deeper Meaning of the Struggle', he observed: 'One thing, at least, we are certain of, that the awakening must be no waking up in a prison cell, but that of as a free man, full of good hopes, of steady purpose and of perfect strength'. In the same essay, he wrote the following lines which are totally relevant in 2005: 'It is for us to proclaim that industrial production can be organised on socialistic lines without converting the whole country into groups of State-owned factories'.

Ananda Coomaraswamy clearly saw the political storm created by the Swadeshi movement that was affecting India during the period from 1905 to 1914. Leaving aside the economic and political aspects of the movement to others, he confined himself to the cultural side. He made out a powerful plea for the regeneration of Indian arts and crafts and put it in eloquent language. This is how he condemned the vulgarisation all round at that time: 'Look around about you and the vulgarisation of modern India. Our prostitution of art to the tourist trade, our use of kerosene tins for water jars and galvanised zinc sheets for tiles for roof tops, our caricature of European dress, our homes furnished and ornamented in the style proverbial of seaside lodging houses, with cut-glass chandeliers and China dogs and artificial flowers, our devotion to the harmonium and the gramophone. These things are the outward and damaging proof of some mighty evil in our souls'.

These are all days of ISO 9001, ISO 89001 and what not. Ananda Coomaraswamy was a powerful advocate of superior quality of Indian handicrafts and handlooms. Without artistic understanding, Indian manufacture cannot be effectively restored. It is suicidal to compete with Europe on a basis of cheapness. Competition should be on the basis of quality. He was against mass production and stereotyped goods. Instead he wanted diversity, inherent beauty and innate worth.

Ananda Coomaraswamy called upon Indians to believe in the regeneration of India through art and not by politics and economics alone. He was convinced that a purely material idea will never give to us the lacking strength to build up a great enduring nation. For that we need ideals and dreams, impossible and visionary, the food of martyrs and of artists. He emphatically stated that the weakness of our national movement lay in the fact that WE DID NOT LOVE INDIA. We loved the suburban England of that time. We loved the bourgeois prosperity, which we hoped would be established when we had learned enough science and forgotten enough art to successfully compete with Europe in a commercial war conducted on its present lines. He declared: 'It is not thus that nations are made'.

In the India of 1910 we were under British Rule and culturally we were the slaves of England and the West. In the India of 2005, though we may be politically free, yet we continue to be cultural slaves of the Christian West. The warning given by Dr Ananda Coomaraswamy in these days of globalisation is as relevant as it was in the days of British India and Western Imperialism

There is no sound or sign more powerful than OHM. It is neither a letter nor a word, hence there is nothing semantic about it. It is not even Sanskrit, nor exclusively Indian. All religions of Indian origin, including Jainism and Buddhism (also Tibetian, Chinese, Korean, Mongolian and Jananese versions) hold it in the highest esteem especially in upasaana, saadhana, askesis or Yoga. It is described in the Upanishads as the "ONE UNDYING SOUND" and is considered as holy as the Brahman. It is the picture and symbol of the transcendental reality.

The underlying reality is that the supreme reality is beyond words; it is to be found in silence, in wordlessness. But it is the seed-sound, the beejakshara from which all other sounds are formed, and in which all the word-meanings can be found. If it is taken as a word (paada), then the word is devoid of any transactional meaning. There is no word beyond it; it is in this sense the ultimate word (paramam-padam), the supreme position. The goal of all meanings. It is the bridge (sethu) that the Upanishads locate between the words and the silence. It is Anaahata (unstruck, inarticulate).