The True Scholar. Passages from A. K. Coomaraswamy on Art and Scholarship

Selected and Introduced by Roger Lipsey

(Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts, 2013)

It was a privilege, and a joy, in the fall of 2013 to accept an invitation from Dr. Kapila Vatsyayan to offer in New Delhi a lecture on the enduring value of the thought of the art historian and religious philosopher, Ananda K. Coomaraswamy (1877 – 1947). It was to be one element in a celebration of the twenty-fifth anniversary of the founding of the Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts in Delhi, an institution now central to arts scholarship, exchange, exhibition, and performance. On that occasion, in cooperation with my respected elder and friend, Dr. Vatsyayan, we decided to publish a small book of citations from Coomaraswamy’s writings. As this homage to Coomaraswamy won’t have widely circulated, I reproduce here the introduction.

This is an enchiridion, comparable in size and purpose to the handbook assembled by Arrian in the second century of the Common Era from the lectures of his master Epictetus. Coomaraswamy would not object to the comparison: his relentlessness, his clarity, his scope of concerns and provocative ironies are quite like those of the great Stoic philosopher. Certain thinkers insist. They feel the gravity of the human situation, the urgency of recovering truths and on that basis finding the way forward. Ananda K. Coomaraswamy was of this kind.

The passages are selected exclusively from Coomaraswamy’s late period, 1932–47, when he was as much a religious philosopher as an art historian. In earlier years, it is not too much to say, he had given us an Indian art history through monographs, general histories, catalogues, and essays on objects and motifs that drew a vast circumference around the emerging field. Of course he was not alone in doing so: he was a participant. But when one thinks of those years, one thinks of his work. It was his destiny to move on, to strive toward a pure, rather austere understanding of art and artist, and more broadly of our calling as human beings. Once a graceful essayist, he now didn’t mind at all if his writings were difficult. Yet in virtually every essay and monograph in the later years there are passages of breathtaking beauty and clarity. Some of those passages are assembled in these pages.

The true scholar—such he was. True in many senses: devoted to his work with the suffering, poignantly innocent hope that he could reach others and deeply persuade us. True as a child is true to himself, fearless. True also in his search for ancient and unchanging truth at the heart of the traditions of East and West to which he was dedicated.

Not everyone will agree with every thought in these pages—of course not. But there is majesty here.

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