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Revisiting Coomaraswamy for our times

Kaul, Mayank Mansingh studied textile design at the National Institute of Design, Ahmedabad. His interest in Khadi and the future of hand-technologies led him to be a consultant to the Planning Commission on the taskforce on Cultural and Creative Industries. He recently co-curated Monsoon Fashion, a celebration of the Indian rain through fashion at the British Council, and is involved at the moment in the launch of his signature line of clothing and home-furnishings in handlooms. His interests range from theatre, the creative and cultural economy, appropriate technologies to new paradigms of business and art. He is 23, and lives in New Delhi.

November 2007, Craft Revival Trust

‘The painters of our visions – the makers of our songs – the builders of our houses – the weavers of our garments, these all are touchstone that can turn to gold for us both past and present, if we will it so…They can show to us the significance of little things, the wonder of what is always going on. They tell us that we are what we are …because of the dolls on our childhood games, because of the rivers that we worship as divinities, because of the beauty of women, and the splendid indifference of men to danger and to death’1

Ananda Coomaraswamy is today remembered as a historian and philosopher of Indian art, where he spent most of his life interpreting Indian culture to the west. His writings on Indian art and aesthetics remain extremely relevant today - not only for a deep insight into Indian history, but as a starting point and reference for India’s future; where we may chose to take India in the present world.

‘Each race contributes something essential to the world’s civilization in the course of its own self-expression and self-realisation. The character built up in solving its own problems…is itself a gift which each offers to the world…’ wrote Coomaraswamy in 1917. 2 It is worth noting how an insight into the art of India gave him an understanding of the enormous wealth of Indian civilization and its culture – how the land had shaped, resolved, thought, lived, spoken. If an enquiry into the relevance of craft today is made; similarly; if anything else it offers us a paradigm to think and to live, to view processes of daily life like manufacture, or its experiences through a contemplation and enjoyment of form, colour and material. This paradigm, informed with an understanding of Indian life, then helps us to locate our special place in the world.

In a gloabalised world, where mechanisation creates the ability to replicate what evolves in one part of the world in another, the question of what can be India’s contribution is answered by such paradigms of thought and alternative technologies, among other things. Aesthetics of such technologies, informed by the working of the highest human faculties can help both provide the diversity that is essential to the health of the planet, as well as the texture needed for a holistic life. This is informed further by scientific experiments which have begun to show how the highest development of the brain is possible when the human hands are involved in creative, non-mechanical processes. 3 I am reminded of Martand Singh’s invocation of khadi, hand-spun and hand-woven fabric – ‘a process, in which the head, heart and hand remain in concert, remains…the highest and most advanced technology. Its products will always retain the distinction of striking the finest and innermost human sensibilities and aspirations’. 4

The other valuable directions that such paradigms and Coomaraswamy’s writings remind us of are those of unity and modernity; the unity between things, and the interconnections between streams of thought and disciplines, which place the microcosm in the macro; the individual as many others.

Coomaraswamy’s enquiry into modernity was based on a sharp criticism of the blind Indian imitation of western culture which resulted due to British colonial rule. In these post-modern times, it’s a question I often ask – what is modernity? Are we a modern nation? A modern people? Are there any meaningful outcomes of posing these questions in a country where we live in so many time zones, physical and mental scapes…but often offer ourselves fairly uniform, standard gnomes of classification and definition…? Where do we arrive when we define; is anything lost in such defining…? Intrinsic to such enquiries is the process in which our identities are formed and layered… Strangely enough, for instance, I feel a modernity when I see the work of Asha Sarabhai. Her timeless silhouettes, hand-stitched garments and hand-woven textiles bring me to a state which is not definable…5 I understand modernity when she evokes the luxury of terracotta plates where food is served on fresh banana leaves, as different from the luxury of silver thaals or alligator leather plumes…6 It is a luxury of a different kind of givingness...Modernity perhaps then, is not a function of cost or expression alone, but a state of random, quiet, cool appropriateness…a state which sometimes even material artifacts cannot capture; a state which can only be felt…and in that rare moment if captured, perhaps - poetry is born. A response to the moment. As still as that. It is this synergy, connection, unity – between what is today termed as ‘spiritual’ and the ‘material’ that ancient Indian culture had understood well. Here, the inner and outer worlds, the ‘virtual’ and the ‘real’ played with each other, created the other in a dynamic dialogue…

On raising the connections between organized religion and art in India by Coomaraswamy, I am drawn to religion as a composite of all that an individual/community does and lives, as also how a new definition for it may inform processes and expressions of creativity and art today. Religion, since its inception, with god being that supernatural force at the centre of it, had created the organized grounds for morality. This invoked and channeled human energies towards making possible a harmonious community life. Religion today has many a connotations and meanings for people, if nothing else a symbolic presence which reminds us of a power and force greater than us mortals. If seen however as a way of life - which like before - reveres nature, is a process of connecting with it…of ‘making, being, and doing’ 7 better, then we come to a different use and offering for art itself. Art: as self process – for all as an individual process of connecting with whatever one may want to, not for a select few alone; as an aesthetic prerequisite for a more beautiful life – whether they be better run cities, easier run systems; as providing the platform to explain and make sense of complex things which linearity and monoways of communication cannot capture the complexity and layers of…

And finally, let us remember Coomaraswamy when he shows the way forward with tradition, where tradition ‘helps us to know how to see and what to see…where tradition imparted wisdom and perspective’, where it was neither a static form nor one that broke any continuities… 8


  1. Poem of Rabindranath Tagore appearing in Art and Swadeshi, by Ananda K Coomaraswamy

  2. The Dance of Shiva, Revised Edition, by Ananada K Coomaraswamy, The Noonday Press, New York

  3. Refer to more writings on the Homunculus.

  4. Khadi, The Fabric of Freedom by Martan Singh, Volkart Foundation, 2002

  5. Asha Sarabhai’s work is seen at the Livingston Studios, London and some stores in Italy. Issey Miyake, a few years back launched a line called Haat (read Haath, or hand) and Asha by Miyake Design Studio. She works and lives between Ahmedabad and London.

  6. Khadi – Textile of India, by Bernard Imhasly, KONTRAST and The Volkart Foundation, Zurich, 2002

  7. A phrase often used by Rajeev Sethi

  8. Quoted from a piece on Coomarawamy by an anyonymous writer, who is today I am told in Hyderabad (studied in the NID, Ahmedabad and possible working at the Times of India in Hyderabad). Sir, if you may read this, please please please – I’d like to connect with you. Thankyou.



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