Polemics of Decolonisation: The Art Criticism of Sri Aurobindo and Ananda Coomaraswamy by Dr. Sachidananda Mohanty

Shortly after August 1910, on exile from British India at the French enclave of Pondicherry, Sri Aurobindo wrote a rejoinder to an article entitled ‘Comment and Criticism: The Indian Fine Arts critics’, earlier published in The Modern Review of Calcutta (Vol. 8, No.2, pp. 207-13). The Review’s editor identified the author of the article as ‘a student of Ravi Varma, (1848-1906) the famous Indian artist.’ While defending Varma, the article made disparaging remarks against critics such as Ananda K. Coomaraswamy and Sister Nivedita.

Castigating the reviewer for his ‘theatrical wit and school boy impertinence’, Sri Aurobindo thought that ‘the Ravi Varma superstition in India had received its quietus’. For the painter in question, ‘is the grand debaser of Indian taste and artistic culture.’ Sadly, ‘a belated lance is lifted in the August number of The Modern Review for the fallen idol.’ (ECW: 468)

The hostility displayed in the review, adds Sri Aurobindo, is baffling. After all, he says: ‘Dr. Coomaraswamy is a critic of established reputation whose contributions to the study of Indian Art are valued in every country in Europe and Asia where the subject is studied. Sister Nivedita’s ‘literary genius, exquisite sympathetic insights and fine artistic culture are acknowledged by all who have the faculty of judging both in England and in India. Havell has a recognized position in the criticism of Art. One may differ from such authorities, but one is at least bound to treat them with some show of respect.’ While the criticism of Nivedita and Havell are somewhat guarded, possibly because they are foreigners, Coomaraswamy’s credentials, Sri Aurobindo suggests, are dismissed by referring to him, as a ‘geologist’ and a ‘doctor’. The idea apparently is to project the Indian arts critic as an imposter. There is the display of a ‘characteristic specimen of wit’ in the Modern Review: ‘We cannot expect anything better from a Geologist, who naturally loves and is made to love everything rigid and stony.’

The text of Sri Aurobindo’s rejoinder was incomplete and the piece remained unpublished during his life time. However, its contents are worthy of critical attention since these are in line with much of what he wrote on the subject around this time. It illuminates our understanding of several issues of the day and draws attention to unresolved questions of postcoloniality, and contemporary cultural criticism. These include our understanding of the relationship between traditions and modernities, usable traditions and unusable modernities, religious nationalism and secular modernity, cultural continuities/universals vis-à-vis cultural specificities, and finally, the ‘Mission’ and ‘uniqueness’ of cultures versus cultures seen as socio-historical and political constructs.

While I shall allude to some of the above in the course of my essay, I shall primarily focus on the role of the arts in the polemics of decolonisation used by two kindred spirits of the early 20th century; namely Sri Aurobindo and Ananda Coomaraswamy.

While postcolonial critics such as Edward Said, Homi Bhabha, Gayatri Spivak, Aizaz Ahmed, and others have unveiled the colonial cartography in ample measure, there seems to be a surprising omission of the earlier narratives of decolonisation during the early part of the 20th century. Many of these seem to belong to the dominant religious/spiritual traditions of the day. Later and more recent approaches have preferred the secular and cultural materialist position. Modern systems of thought have not paid adequate attention to the question of faith and the notion of the sacred. The upsurge in religious fundamentalism world wide could be one of the many factors that may have caused an intellectual weariness to handle this question. I shall argue in this essay that there is a need to come up with an alternative theory. For; the omission has impoverished postcolonial theory significantly. It has ignored a vital world view and a significant part of the cultural history of South Asia. For my purpose, I shall therefore take up for closer study the art criticism of Ananda Coomaraswamy and Sri Aurobindo against the backdrop of decolonisation that was central to both the figures.


There are remarkable parallels (and notable differences) between Sri Aurobindo (15 August 1872 to 5 December 1950) and Ananda Coomaraswamy (22 August 1877 to 9 September 1947). Their life span makes them contemporaries. Both came from the upper class/caste background and both were products of the modern West. Coomaraswamy’s parents were the Ceylonese Tamil legislator and philosopher Sir Muthu Coomaraswamy and his English wife Elizabeth Beeby. Young Coomaraswamy lost his father at the age of two and was educated and brought up abroad. Moving to England in 1879, at the age of 12, he attended a preparatory school in Stroud, Gloucestershire and graduated from University College, London in 1900 with a degree in Geology and Botany.

On 19 June 1902, Coomaraswamy married Ethel Mary Partridge and moved to Ceylon. His contributions to mineralogy led to the formation of the Geological Survey of Ceylon which he headed for some time.

After his divorce and second marriage to an English woman who performed on stage in the name of Ratan Devi, he moved to the United States to serve as the first keeper of Indian Art in the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston in 1917. He had two more marriages, to American artist Stella Bloch in November 1922 and Argentine Luisa Runstein in November 1930. He was a distinguished member of the art circle in New York City, and a close friend of the artist Alfred Stieglitz. In 1933 he became a Fellow for Research in Indian Persian and Mohammedan Art at the Museum of Fine Art.

He wrote more than thirty books on art, sculpture, art history, architecture, philosophy, metaphysics, and East-West Relations and undoubtedly ranks as one of the best known exponents of Indian arts in the West. His middle name ‘Kentish’, marker of a valorised English pedigree and culture, generally unnoticed in his later career, might signify a dethronement of one’s colonial past. Both in his life and vocations, he stands at the cross roads between tradition and modernity, East and the West. He stood for values described as inalienably ‘Indian’ and yet chose places of work and life companions who went beyond national boundaries and political frontiers. He was synthetic and universal in outlook. Part of the close circle of Rabindranath Tagore, he chose the art galleries and museums of the advanced West as the place of work and dissemination of ideas. His many lives flowed effortlessly from nationalism to cosmopolitanism, based on the primacy of the arts. From the English soil he seems to draw sustenance from Victorian critics like, Mathew Arnold, John Ruskin, and Dante Gabriel Rossetti in the latter’s faith in the centrality of art in the Victorian Society. There are also the influences of the earlier historical periods such as the Hellenic, the European Renaissance and other civilization of the World such as the ancient, the pre-colonial India that underlined the importance of the arts and aesthetics in national life. Blake’s vision of a new Hellas or a New Jerusalem that marks the fusion between art and the New World would be a favoured ideal for Coomaraswamy.

Coomaraswamy’s ideas, beliefs and life values, both artistic and creative, were not derivative. He assimilated influences both old and new and forged approaches that were innovative and creative.


Coomaraswamy’s better known counterpart in this essay, Sri Aurobindo, had an equally anglicised upbringing and carried an English style middle name, ‘Akroyd’, after his father’s friend Annettle Akroyd, the founder of the Brahmo girls’ school in Calcutta (Heehs:7). Aurobindo’s parents were Kristo Dhone Ghose (or K. D. Ghose) and Swarnalotta, daughter of Rajnaryan Basu, a leading member of the Brahmo Samaj and Bengal Renaissance. K.D. Ghose who earned a degree of M.D from Aberdeen University, U.K. was thoroughly anglicized and wanted his children to follow his footsteps. Like Coomaraswamy, Sri Aurobindo and his brothers, particularly Manmohan and Barindra Kumar were denied maternal affection .Soon after Aurobindo’s birth, Swarnalotta showed signs of mental disorder which persisted till the end of her life.

At the Ghose household, no Indian languages including Bengali was spoken. The three children were admitted to the Loreto Convent, Darjeeling in 1877. Later in 1879, they were taken to Manchester and left under the care of a congregational Minister named William H Drewett who was asked by K. D. Ghose not to allow the children to ‘make the acquaintance of any Indian or undergo any Indian influence’. (Heehs: 9) Although an agnostic, K.D. Ghose insisted that his children ought to be left free to decide about the question of faith. In his childhood, Aurobindo remained an agnostic. After spending five years at Manchester, Aurobindo studied at St. Paul’s school, London in 1884 and King’s College, Cambridge in 1890. In 1892 he passed the ICS but did not appear at a riding test and was disqualified.

Aurobindo arrived in Bombay on February 6, 1893 and joined the Baroda Service, first in the administration and then as a Professor of English and French at the Baroda College. By 1900, he turned attention to the National Freedom Struggle. He established contact with Secret societies in Maharashtra and Bengal. On 30 April 1902 he married Mrinalini Bose. He plunged actively into the Swadeshi Movement in 1905 over the Partition of Bengal and became the editor of Bande Mataram in 1906. He joined as the Principal of Bengal National College. In 1908 he was arrested in the Alipore Bomb Case and after a year in jail he was acquitted on 6 May 1909. After his acquittal he edited two journals Dharma and Karmayogin. Following a divine command or ‘Adesh’ he reached Pondicherry on 4 April 1910. On 29 March 1914 he met, Mirra Alfassa later known as the Mother who became his spiritual collaborator. From 15 August 1914 to January 1921 the English monthly Arya carried his best known writings. On September 19, 1940, during the World War II, Sri Aurobindo declared support for Allies. He gave the Independence Day message on 15 August 1947 where he spelt out his vision of a new resurgent India and the future of humanity. Towards the end of his life, he devoted attention to his Magnum Opus, Savitri, and passed away on 5 December 1950.

I have spent some time in drawing attention to the key aspects of the life histories of the two figures because I believe the main trajectories of their lives have a bearing on the decolonising agenda they championed.

Sri Aurobindo is widely known as a nationalist, philosopher and mystic. He looked at himself primarily as a poet. His reputation as a spiritual Guru and Saint has somewhat eclipsed his considerably body of critical and cultural writings, a portion of which deals significantly with literature and the arts. As in the case of Coomaraswamy, Sri Aurobindo’s conceptions of art and his significant art criticism are to be seen as the inextricable part of his larger view of life of which decolonisation plays a crucial role. While the Ceylonese thinker’s writings on art are better known than his views on and participation in the political struggle for freedom, Sri Aurobindo’s nationalistic writings are better recognized than his art criticism. Even the more celebrated The Foundations of Indian Culture which appeared in the Arya from November 1918 to January 1921 which contains a significant body of criticism devoted to sculpture, painting, music and architecture have not received the attention they deserve among students of art history and comparative aesthetics.

The chapter on Indian Art offers a comprehensive account on this subject. This and four other chapters gain significance from the opening chapter provocatively titled ‘Is India Civilized?’ The underlying argument is that all aspects of national culture including the arts have to be seen against the backdrop of the Indian nationhood. The discovery of the meaning of the Indian nation against the larger world civilisations is therefore an essential requisite for art criticism of both Coomaraswamy and Sri Aurobindo. There are at least three specific references to Coomaraswamy in the Collected Works of Sri Aurobindo (new edition), Early Cultural Writings, pp. 468-69. Renaissance in India, p. 255 and Karmayogin, pp. 244-48.

Coomaraswamy’s best known work The Dance of Shiva was published by Sun wise Turn Press, New York in 1918 around the time Sri Aurobindo published The Renaissance in India, August-November 1918. The equally notable art criticism of Sri Aurobindo comprised the period between 1909 and 1910 and all of them, namely The National Value of Art, a series of six essays, ‘Two Pictures’, ‘Indian Art and an Old Classic’ and ‘The Revival of Indian Art’ appeared in the Karmayogin. Similarly two other essays in the form of reviews appeared in Arya. ‘South Indian Bronzes’ was published in the journal in October 1915 and in Views and Reviews since 1941. Likewise, ‘Rupam’ was published in the Arya in July 1917 and in Views and Reviews since 1941. Since the journal Arya enjoyed a good circulation and was widely noticed in nationalistic, philosophical and cultural circles, it would be fair to assume that Coomaraswamy and Sri Aurobindo were broadly aware of each other’s writings although we may not have enough knowledge regarding the actual correspondence between the two.

Aside from The Foundations of Indian Culture and Early cultural Writings, Sri Aurobindo underlined his approach to decolonisation in The Secret of the Vedas where he gave a symbolic interpretation of the Vedas from the Indian point of view.


Let me consider Coomaraswamy’s The Dance of Shiva from the points of my arguments implicit in the title of my paper. The book is divided into chapters that include, among others, the following: Indian Philosophy of life, View of art: Hindu and Buddhist, the Dance of Shiva, Status of Indian Women, Sahaja and Young India.

Each race, contends Coomaraswamy, contributes something unique to the word’s civilizations in keeping with its own spirit, its own Swabhava. India’s own contribution would be its Indianness. While there cannot be anything absolutely unique with regard to any nation’s experience, ‘its peculiarities will be chiefly a matter of selection and emphasis, certainly not a difference in specific humanity.’ (p.3)

India’s genius, he says, is found in a ‘constant intuition of the unity of all life,’ and ‘the conviction that the recognition of this unity is the highest good and the uttermost freedom.’ This view has permeated all aspects of her life and is the essential basis of sociology and education. Along with this view, there are several other concepts that lend uniqueness to this approach. Moksha liberates us from Avidya or ignorance. It believes in the will to power rather than the Will to Life that characterizes the dominant commercialism of the modern West. Unlike the Hindu view, the Buddhist advocates an ‘escape from the eternal recurrence’ as the ‘summum bonum’, the wisest purpose of life. There is the ‘religion of eternity’ (Nirguna Vidya) and the religion of Time (Saguna Vidya). The ideal is not to create a distinction between the Sacred and the profane but ‘to illuminate daily life with the life of heaven.’

Other categories are equally noteworthy: Pravritti Marga typified by outward movement, the path of pursuit and self assertion and Nivritti Marga, the path of return and inward self-realization.

While this world view preaches equality among men and women, there cannot be absolute equality, because as Coomaraswamy argues, ‘variation of temperament or inheritance… constitutes the natural inequality of men, an inequality that is too often ignored by the theories of Western democracies’. India’s social institutions including the marriage systems, he adds, have wisely emphasized duties rather than rights. Here again, as in the case of the caste systems, Coomaraswamy seems to be less forthcoming about the pronounced inequity in the Indian society.

The character of the world process follows a rhythmic process; subject-object, self-non self, will-matter, unity-diversity, love-hate birth-death, evolution-involution, descent-ascent, Srusthi and Samhara.

The Chaturvarna that is the basis of the Indian caste system argues Coomaraswamy is ‘designed rather to unite than to divide’. For the members of the different castes enjoy greater commonalities than differences. The system demands higher ethical and spiritual standards from the so-called upper castes. The higher the position in the caste hierarchy, the more stringent is the punishment for transgression. ‘For, responsibility rises with intelligence and status.’ We have here a body of collective privileges and responsibilities akin to guild socialism. There is unfortunately ‘decay’ in Asia because of the shift from cooperation to competition. Such a turn may spell doom for Europe. It will not be able to fight industrialism because this enemy will be entrenched Asia. (20) The objective of human life is not the pursuit of material life, physical objects and comforts, but to develop the ‘mental, moral and spiritual powers latent in man.’


Sri Aurobindo’s exposition of Indian culture, outlined in The Foundations of Indian Culture was written in response to ‘an extravagant jeu d’esprit’ by William Archer, the drama critic in his India and the Future. The latter volume was ably critiqued by Sir John Woodroffe in a defence provocatively entitled Is India Civilized?: Essays on Indian Culture. The epigraph to Woodroffe’s opening chapter is a telling quotation from Archer that sums up the latter’s view of India:

Barbarian, barbarism, barbarous — I am sorry to harp so much on these words. But they express the essence of the situation … There are of course many thousands of individuals who have risen and are rising above it (barbarism), but the plain truth concerning the mass of the (Indian) population — and not the poorer classes alone — is that they are not civilized people (Woodroffe: XII)

How do we judge a culture asks Sri Aurobindo. The greatness of a culture lies in the manner it tries to effect a ‘natural harmony of spirit, mind and body.’ Spirituality is the keynote of Indian culture although others have also had spiritual components to their own. All cultures go through the stages of conflict, competition, concert and finally the spirit of sacrifice and mutual sharing.

We see the desire of Europe, argues Sri Aurobindo, to Europeanize the entire world in its self-image. Either India will be rationalized or industrialized out of all recognition or will be ‘the leader of a new phase.’ Indian Religion has passed through four principal stages. It comprises the following:

A belief in the highest conscious state of existence
A need for self preparation by development and experience
An imperative to provide well founded knowledge and self-discipline
A necessity to sustain an organisation of the individual and collective life for gradual progress.

While the Chaturvarna in its intention may have envisaged a flexible structure of the four fold order, Sri Aurobindo is firm that the caste system of the later period was an utter caricature and ought to be discarded. He makes no compromises regarding systems he sees are outmoded and therefore must be cast off completely.

For the European mind there is the Indian ‘political incompetence,’ ‘despotism of the Brahmin theocracy’ and ‘absolute monarchy of the oriental’. In reality, however, the Indian polity was based on ‘communal freedom and self-discrimination.’

As Sri Aurobindo wrote insightfully in August 1919 in the Arya:

The mentality of the West has long cherished the aggressive and quite illogical idea of a single religion for all mankind, a religion universal by the very force of its narrowness, one set of dogma, one cult, one system of ceremonies, one array of prohibitions and injunctions, one ecclesiastical ordinance. That narrow absurdity prances about as the one true religion which all must accept on peril of persecution by men here and spiritual rejection or fierce, eternal punishment by God in other worlds (IR: 146).

Both Sri Aurobindo and Coomaraswamy discarded a return to the past, to any form of revivalism, for the clock, they said, cannot be turned back. There is a paramount need for ‘creative introspection preparatory to renewed activity.’ ‘The first expression of national idealism is then a rehabilitation of the past.’ (DS: 166) As he declares aptly:

We would not and cannot return. In India, as in Europe, the vestige of ancient civilization must be renounced: we are called from the past and must make our home in the future. But to understand, to endorse with passionate conviction and to love what we have left behind us is the only possible foundation for power. If the time has hardly yet come for the creation of new values — and it cannot long be delayed — let us remember that time and sufferings are essential to all creation. (DS: 166)

Sri Aurobindo is equally futuristic in his approach while advocating a renewed understanding of our past. Writing in the Arya in May 1918 he outlined his vision of the future that clearly goes beyond nationalism and the project of decolonisation of the Indian Mind. It embraces his prophecy in the terrestrial evolution and the coming of a new spiritual society. He wrote:

Man’s road to spiritual Supermanhood will be open when he declares boldly that all he has yet developed, including the intellect of which he is so vainly proud, are now no longer sufficient for him. Light within shall be henceforth a pervading preoccupation. Then will this philosophy, art, science, ethics, social existence, vital pursuits be no longer an exercise in mind and life, done for themselves, carried in a circle, but a means of discovery of a greater truth behind mind and life and for the bringing of its power into our human existence (Sri Aurobindo: 135)


What then is the conception of art here? Since the defining features of Indian culture is the realizing of the underlying unity of life and the dominant spiritual motif, as argued by Coomaraswamy and Sri Aurobindo, then art should be an integral part of the national spirit.

In the Vedas, Coomaraswamy tells us, the practice of art is viewed as ‘a form of Yoga’ (DS: 24). Art is viewed in deeply psychological terms. For instance, Agni Purana draws a connection between dream and art. The practice of visualization as referred by Shankaracharya is seen identical in worship and art (DS: 27). The artist in order to be effective must realize four required moods of friendliness, compassion, sympathy and impartiality (DS: 27). He must meditate upon Shunyata or non-existence of all things. For, Yoga is ‘not merely a mental exercise or religious discipline, but the most practical preparation for any undertaking whatever’. For instance, Hanuman prays to the Gods before he attempts to rescue Sita in the Ashoka grove. In other words, art, ethics and spirituality go hand in hand in this scheme of things.

The aesthetic emotion — Rasa — in the spectator Rasika is carried through determinants (Vibhava) in Croce’s’s words ‘physical stimulants’ to aesthetic reproduction, consequents (Anubhava), ‘deliberate manifestation of feelings as gestures etc.’, mood (Bhava) 33 in number, ‘induced in the characters by pleasure and pain,’, ‘involuntary emotions’, (Satva Bhava) ‘emotional states originating in the inner nature. For the work of art to produce Rasa, one of the permanent moods must form a master motif in which all other expressions of emotions are subordinated. Degree of excellence in poetry is discussed in Kavya Prakasha and Sahitya Darpana.

As Coomaraswamy asks rhetorically:

What then is Beauty, what is it that entitles us to speak of diverse works as beautiful or rasavant? What is this sole quality which the most dissimilar works of art possess in common? Let us recall the history of a work of art. There is (1) an aesthetic emotion on the part of the original artist — the poet or creator; then (2) the internal expression of his intuition — the true creation or vision of beauty (3) the indication of this by external signs (language) for the purpose of communication — the technical activity; and finally (4) the resulting stimulation of the critic or Rasika to reproduction of the original intuition or of some approximation to it. (DS: 48)

On the other hand, early Buddhist art is popular, sensuous and animistic. Gandhara art is a mixture of the Eastern and Western formula. ‘Buddhist primitive’ art exists in Amarnath in India and Anuradhapura in Ceylon (Sri Lanka), thanks to ‘energy working in greater isolation’.

For Coomaraswamy, the dance of Shiva is a manifestation of primal rhythmic energy that represents Shiva’s main activities: Srusthi, Sthithi and Samhara. The dance is also symbolic of the world cycle.

Coomaraswamy is at his critical best when defending the many armed images of Indian art. For instance, Vincent Smith finds Indian sculptures that adorn the medieval temples as ‘hideous’, and ‘grotesque’. Similarly, Maskell speaks of ‘these hideous deities with animal’s heads and innumerable arms.’ Sir George Birdwood suggests that ‘the monstrous shape of the Puranic deities is unsuitable for the higher forms of artistic presentation.’ (DS : 80)

Coomaraswamy refutes these charges as completely unfounded. A basic lack of understanding of the spiritual traditions of Indian art is behind such abysmal condemnation. And thus, European viewers are apt to be repelled by the sculpture of ‘Hiranya-Kashipu’. The truth, however, is that it depicts the splendid rendering of the well-known themes of the impious king who met his death at the hands of the avenging deity in Man-lion form’. (DS: 83)

In turning to music, Coomaraswamy sees a similar difference in the attitude to music in the cross-cultural context. There is the European tradition of ‘Chamber music of an aristocratic society’ vis-a-vis temple music where the musician is the ‘Servant of God.’ We can understand this tradition with the help of Raga and Ragini. The Raga is a selection of five, six or seven notes distributed along the scale but the Raga is more particularized than a mode, for it has certain characteristic progression and a chief note to which the singer constantly returns.’ (DS: 90). Ragas are associated with rhythmic ritual of daily and seasonal life. The examples cited here are most telling. There is the parable of the singer who was forced to sing the Deepak Raga, and tragically burst into flame, and the equally symbolic tale of Narada who sang badly and the musical notes in the form of men and women lay ‘weeping over their broken arms and legs.’ (DS: 92). After all, the ‘Indian singer is a poet and the poet a singer.’ Indian music is essentially impersonal.

This view of art also finds parallels in Tagore’s conceptions spelt out in essays that are part of a collection called Personality: Lectures Delivered in America (1917). While arguing that art is created out of a Surplus of Emotions, Tagore went on to say:

The greatness and Beauty of Oriental Art, especially in Japan and China, consist in this, that there the artists have seen this soul of things and they believe in it. The West may believe in the soul of Man, but she does not really believe that the Universe has a soul. Yet this is the belief of the East, and the whole mental contribution of the East to mankind is filled with the idea. So we in the East need not go into details and emphasize them; for the most important thing is this universal soul, for which Eastern sages have sat in meditation and Eastern artists have joined them in artistic realization. (Devy:46)


Sri Aurobindo has a relatively smaller but equally significant body of art criticism that has been mentioned earlier. Of the art forms he does a closer analysis of forms of fine arts, sculpture and architecture while mentioning music in passing. Of literature, literary theory and criticism, he has written plentifully in his Future Poetry, earlier cultural writings and in his letters to poet disciples. Although not trained formally in the artistic tradition, Sri Aurobindo was exposed to the best of the Western and Indian art during his education in England as well as his Baroda days. He kept himself abreast of developments in art especially regarding the Bengal School of Art.

It is in the series of essays under what came to be known as The National Value of Art that Sri Aurobindo defines his concept of aesthetic nationalism. ‘The first and lowest use of art’, says Sri Aurobindo ‘is purely aesthetic, the second is the intellectual or educative, the third and highest the spiritual’. (ECW: 439). Each plays an important role. The aesthetic aspect of life is of crucial importance. He observes: ‘We do not ordinarily recognize how largely our sense of virtue is a sense of the beautiful in conduct and our sense of sin a sense of ugliness and deformity in conduct’. (ECW: 442). However, ethics and aesthetics have had a troubled relationship in the West. There were four gradations Sri Aurobindo says in the Greek ethical thought — ‘the euprepis, that which is seemly or outwardly decorous, the dikaion, that which is in accordance with dike or nomos, law, custom, standard of humanity based on the sense of fitness…, thirdly the agathon, the good based partly on the seemly and partly on the just and lawful, and reaching towards the purely beautiful; then finally the supreme kalon, that which is beautiful, the supreme standard… The progress of ethics in Europe has been largely a struggle between the Greek sense of aesthetic beauty and the Christian sense of higher good (ECW: 443).

Beyond the aesthetic and intellectual utility of art, there is the spiritual. For, ‘spirituality’ he says, ‘is a wider thing than formal religion – and it is in the service of spirituality that Art reaches its highest self – expression.’ (ECW: 450) Why is the cultivation of the arts important to the life of a nation. As Sri Aurobindo explains:

It is not necessary that every man should be an artist. It is necessary that every man should have his artistic faculty developed, his taste trained, his sense of beauty and insight into form and colour and that which is expressed in form and colour, made habitually active, correct and sensitive. (ECW: 153)

Sri Aurobindo brings to bear on his essays and reviews such as ‘Two Pictures’, ‘Indian Art and an Old Classic’, ‘The Revival of Indian Art’, ‘Rupam’ and ‘South Indian Bronzes’, his understanding of a spiritualized aesthetics and the role it can play creatively in the new Indian nation. And thus in “Shama’a” edited by Mrinalini Chattopadhyay, he singles out the English artist, J. D. Fergusson’s ‘Rose Rhythm’ and the accompanying article on his work by Charles Marriot. Sri Aurobindo finds in this portrait ‘a strong psychical truth’. ‘The impression given is the materialisation of a strong and vivid astral dream.’ The difference between this and the psychic manner in which the East will at once appear’ by turning to the ‘gracious and subtle Indian painting’ in the first number. (ECW: 626).

The same aesthetic skill is displayed in Sri Aurobindo’s review of O.C. Gangooly’s South Indian Bronzes, ‘an opulent collection of nearly a hundred fine plates proceeded by five chapters of letterpress, one side of the artistic work of the South’. Sri Aurobindo disproves the theory that divides the North and South on racial lines and posits instead the existence of two types of culture in ancient India. In discussing these bronzes, especially Nataraja, the Dancing Shiva in the ‘self-absorbed concentration the motionless peace and joy’, Sri Aurobindo alludes to the dominant spirit of Oriental art. ‘All characteristic Oriental art’, he declares, ‘indeed seeks to go beyond the emotions and the sense; a Japanese landscape of snow and hill is as much as image of the soul as a Buddha or flame haired spirit of the thunderbolt.’ (ECW: 582)


To conclude: Ananda Coomaraswamy and Sri Aurobindo manifest close parallels and some differences with regard to culture and nationalism. Products of the modern West, both critics turned to Indian sources for fashioning out a new national imaginary. Decolonisation was central to both. Yet both rejected forms of nativism or insular chauvinism. Instead, they espoused a cosmopolitanism firmly rooted to a critical understanding of Indian traditions. Coomaraswamy spent most part of his career in the West with western companions. Sri Aurobindo after early life in Baroda, and an active political life (1905 – 1910) in Bengal, retired to Pondicherry to ‘the cave of Tapasya,’ where with the French mystic Mirra Alfassa, he worked out a new destiny for mankind, based on his theory of a future evolution of Man. While Sri Aurobindo is more versatile in a multi-disciplinary context, and takes up art criticism as part of his larger oeuvre, Coomaraswamy’s knowledge of the history of arts is more focused and professional. Between the two, Coomaraswamy appears to be somewhat conservative in some areas of social living, yet both of them pioneered a radically new approach in the first half of the 20th Century.

Art historians need to make a fresh assessment of Coomaraswamy in the light of the criticism of Nihar Ranjan Ray, K.G,Subramanyan, Amritanayagam and others

The analysis of the art scene in this context must cover the days of the Company School of Art during the height of the Raj, the role played by Rabindranath Tagore, his nephews and the brothers Gaganendranath and Abanindranath, and others like Nandalal Bose. Yet others such as art administrators like E.B. Havell, the Principal of Calcutta School of Art, institutions like the Visva Bharati at Santiniketan, played an equally important role in the resurgent interest in Indian art

Although periodic assessment of the Bengal Renaissance continues to be made, art historians and critics need to make a similar evaluation of the contribution of early critics of Indian Art against the backdrop of Swaraj in ideas.

Sadly, both Sri Aurobindo and Ananda Coomaraswamy are neglected today, much to the detriment of theory and cultural criticism. It is hoped that a renewed interest in both vis a vis the role of the arts will help create a new meaning for the intellectual thought of modern India.


Note: An earlier version of this essay was presented at the national seminar on Ananda Coomaraswamy at the Department of Philosophy, University of Hyderabad, Feb 3-5 2011.I thank the Department of Philosophy especially Professor S.G. Kulkarni for inviting me to present this paper.


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About the Author: Dr. Sachidananda Mohanty is Professor, Department of English, University of Hyderabad. He is the recipient of several national and international awards including those from the British Council, the Salzburg, the Katha and the Fulbright. He has to his credit 21 books in English and in Oriya including D.H. Lawrence Studies in India, Writers’ Workshop,1990, Lawrence’s Leadership Politics and the Defeat of Fascism, Academic Foundation,1992, Understanding Cultural Exchange, Vision Books 1997, Literature and Culture, Prestige, 2000 Travel Writing and the Empire, Katha, 2002; rpt. 2003, Early Women’s writing in Orissa, 1898-1950: A Lost Tradition, Sage Publications, 2005, Gender and Cultural Identity in Colonial Orissa, Orient Longman 2008, and Sri Aurobindo: A Contemporary Reader, Routledge India, 2008; 2009. His essays and articles have appeared in some of the leading journals and forums in the country including India Today, The Hindu, The Indian Express, The New Quest, The Book Review and Economic and Political Weekly.


8 Replies to “Polemics of Decolonisation: The Art Criticism of Sri Aurobindo and Ananda Coomaraswamy by Dr. Sachidananda Mohanty

  1. It is always a pleasure and an inspiration to read Dr Mohanty’s papers written in an utter catholicity (in the largest meaning of the term). Viva!

  2. I thouroughly enjoyed reading this article and deepest thanks Anurag and Overman Foundation, for making it avalable ! I remember that Sachi – i mean Dr. Mohanty – was my english teacher for a short while in the Ashram School at Pondicherry..and i was immensely helped by his valuable advice and suggestions in attempting to write poems ! he had the gift of correcting and saying everything very clearly , deeply and completely – in the minimum possible words ! i was, and still am – even more now – in awe of him !

  3. Dear Anurag,

    I went through Sachidanand’s article immediately. I never miss reading S.M. when his article appears in The Hindu. In the beginning I used to go through simply because it was by one of our students, a little brother writing. But now I read him with the same awe that I have read The Dance of Shiva once upon a time. S.M.’s research is a creative one and his articles read more like inspired writings than just scholarly dissertations on a chosen subject.I feel I am meeting a limpid mind, certain, confident and that is why convincing. An absolutely sincere approach and pursuit of the task he gives himself, endow his writings a richness and a maturity that win the reader immediately and for good.It fills me with a sense of pride and happiness for him as well as for our institution. S.M. certainly has in front a wonderful goal. Wish him good luck and congratulations. And thanks to you for giving me this article right here in my room.

    Carry on. With love.


  4. A most interesting and informative article. I also feel Sri Aurobindo’s writings on Indian culture have been neglected, good to see this being rectified

  5. Reblogged this on Vande Mataram and commented:
    ‘We see the desire of Europe, argues Sri Aurobindo, to Europeanize the entire world in its self-image. Either India will be rationalized or industrialized out of all recognition or will be ‘the leader of a new phase.’

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