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Ananda K. Coomaraswamy's Essays of Jaina Art


The book under review is part of a series of studies on A.K. Coomaraswamy's landmark art historical books as well as their reprints embarked on by the IGNCA during the last two decades.  Compilation of Coomaraswamy's papers on Jaina painting provides an opportunity for tracing the historiography of studies in Indian art in general and of Indian painting in particular. The editor, Richard C. Cohen has assiduously searched and put together Coomaraswamy's initial writings on Indian paining before his historic 'Rajput Painting' of 1916.  Undoubtedly among his earliest researches is the paper entitled 'Notes on Jaina Art' published in the Journal of Indian Art and Industry in 1914. (He delivered his first lecture titled 'On Mughal and Rajput Paintings' in 1907 at Calcutta, which was published in 1910.  His article on Medieval Painting was published in 1911)>

However, I must draw attention to the fact that most of the art historians who have been focusing on Coomaraswamy's contribution towards at historical studies on Indian painting, tend to portray him as the single-handed pioneer completely by-passing E.B. Havell's spirited cudgels he undertook in Calcutta from around 1895 to 1905.  Very significantly between the two books of Havell, Indian Sculpture and Paintings,  The ideals of Indian Art, published in 1908 and 1911, respectively, from London, there was a lot of coverage on Indian painting.  Besides some historical details and initiating the conceptual methodology of locating references to Indian art from Sanskrit sources, Havell also propounded notions such as (i) Indian spirituality and its pan-Asian influence (i) Co-relating it with the concept that art was the noblest expression of Indian national culture.

This leads us to another lacuna in Richard Cohen's introductory survey, which is the absorption of ideas from the Japanese art historian and thinker, Okakura Kakuzo.  Apparently Cohen has depended on Roger Lipsey's study of Coomaraswamy who had not explored Okakura as a conceptual source for Coomaraswamy as he was also for E.B. Havell.  Lipsey's research on early phase of Coomaraswamy is understandably less detailed, thus there are gaps due to not exploring certain phenomena.  Cohen has not noted these gaps, thus there is a tendency to give Coomaraswamy exaggerated credit for originality of certain ideas.  In the recent years more material is published on Okakura's writings and their impact on the interpretation of Asian art in general and Japanese and Chinese art in particular.  The aims of Asian or Oriental art were already interpreted by him in 1902 as representing the opposite pole of the aims of European Art.  These are those that were termed as 'ideals'.  These ideas were present in Asian art (because 'all Asia is one') and significantly in Japanese art.  At first Sister Nivedita, followed by E.B. Havell, and soon Ananda Coomaraswamy transferred some of these ideas on to the characteristics and growth of Indian art.  (For Coomaraswamy, see his, Essays on Indian Idealism, 1910).  The book, 'Okakura Kakuzo, Collected English Writings; editor: Sunao Nakamura, 1984, Tokyo, Japan', reveals how Okakura had prepared the ground for future appointment of Coomaraswamy at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts where before his death (1913) he had been the first curator of Chinese and Japanese Art.

In his 'Notes on Jaina Art' (1914) Coomaraswamy had derived information on Jainism, Jaina Iconography and Jaina texts, from the publications of George Buhler, James Burgess, Herman Jacobi and Ramakrishna G. Bhandarkar.  as far as Jaina manuscript paintings are concerned his immediate predecessor was yet another German scholar, Dr. Huttemann.  Important observations that Coomaraswamy had made at that juncture were the following: (1) that Jain paintings were the oldest known Indian paintings on paper and represented an almost hitherto unknown school of Indian art, (ii) this schools is based on old traditions but is older than Rajput school, (iii) like his predecessors, that is the earlier generation of German scholars, Coomaraswamy was aware of the manuscript wealth of Jaina bhandaras (mentioned as 'libraries'.) of western India which were expected to reveal even earlier dated illustrated manuscripts as and when they become more accessible.

The lack of chronological information (that is dated folios before thirteenth century) prevented the thinking towards proposition of Jain style as representing the prevailing status of Indian painting before the growth and maturity of 'Mughal' and 'Rajput' schools.  Therefore at that point of time Coomaraswamy made observations in terms of parallels with several known earlier as well as contemporaneous styles which were derived from 'old traditions'.  This he considered as the aesthetic aspect:  Orissan painting, illustrations of oldest Nepalese palm leaf manuscripts, the late Buddhist art of Ceylon.  This he supported by drawing attention to the commonality of characteristically Indian and ancient motifs in all these styles such as hamsa, peacocks, lions and elephants, in all these styles.

At that early stage of study of Jaina art the peculiarity of the male and female physical types had been particularly observed, that is the strikingly sharp hooked nose and large eyes.  Coomaraswamy observed, that the sword edged nose was also characteristic of medieval Nepalese bronzes and Orissan sculpture, much admired in most Hindu circles.  According to him the further eye was made to project from the outline of the cheek in a most extraordinary way.  Remarkable was also the prolongation of the outer corner of the eye, almost to meet the ear.  The feature of Jaina painting was district from other schools of Indian painting.  However, the significant parallel with Rajput painting is the adaptation for human figures the rather narrow lion-waist along with hugely developed chest.  This mannerism is represented in the large 'Krishna Cartoons' from Jaipur.  Although in Jaina manuscript illustrations the drawing is indeed very highly accomplished, but Coormaraswamy felt that these were rather of a workshop character and not deeply felt.

Boston Museums Catalogue Part IV, 'Jaina Paintings and Manuscripts' (1924) was mostly based on illustrated Jaina manuscripts from his own collection which had been purchased by Dr. D.B. Ross for the said museum.  In comparison with his earlier 'Notes of Jaina Art', it was more comprehensive and included a further re-assessment of the stylistic qualities them in terms of pure draughtmanship.  These paintings are brilliant statements of the facts of the epic, that is the life of Mahavira.  It is an art of symbols and indifferent to representation.  The drawings are like script made to be clearly and easily read, but do not have the elegance of calligraphy.  Rather they have the perfect equilibrium of a mathematical equation.  Theme and formula compose an inseparable unity, text and pictures form a continuous relation of the same dogma in the same key.  Coomaraswamy classed the Jaina paintings along with the 'primitives' of all ages including 'Rajput Primitives'.  However, in spite of certain 'light and casual' handling in Jaina paintings, he found in them a 'perfect adequacy' befitting the direct expression of a flashing religious convicition.  Coomaraswamy made a significant observation that while human interest and charm are represented in Ajanta painting and in lat Rajput art, Jaina painting on the other hand is 'not the most emotional nor the most intriguing.'  Many formulae of Jaina painting exhibit numerous resemblances and parallels to those of Rajput and other Indian paintings.  One example is the 'elevated view point' so that in landscape subjects the horizon reaches nearly to the top of the page, leaving only a narrow strip of the sky in which are depicted heavy storm clouds.  Coomaraswamy had concluded that 'unlike Rajput painting, but like Napalese Buddhist Art, Jaina painting is a formal art of hieratic tradition'.

As far as the themes are concerned, these were already listed in his 'Notes on Jaina Art', such as Lives of Mahavira and other Jainas, which he condensed from Jacobi's Kalpa Sutra.  Coomaraswamy had acknowledged the Miniaturen zum Jainacarita (Miniatures illustrating the Lives of the Jainas) published by Dr. Huttemann in 1913.  Coomaraswamy also gave the summary of the story of Kalakacharya, (Also derived from Jacobi's German traslation) as well as short notes on Jaina cosmology.  In the Boston Museum Catalogue he expanded the description of themes by adding a summary of the story of Salibhadra, referring to the work of M. Bloomfield on this topic.

The significance of Boston Museum Catalogue of Jaina painting is very limited today, excepting that it comes from the pen of Coomaraswamy.  Much significant documentary work has been done since 1920s by Norman Brown and post-Indipendence Indian shcolars such as Sarabhai Nawab (who was also an art collector), Motichandra, U.P. Shah, Manjulal Mazumdar and Saryu Doshi.  Sponsoring a comprehensive monograph to represent study of Jaina painting as it has accumulated by the end of twentieth century would have been a much more useful art historical project.  The descriptions of paintings, either their iconography or narrative episodes from life of Trithankaras or related textual sources have been repeated in several publications by several Jainalogical scholars.  The fresh and post - Coomaraswamy documentation pushes the existence of Jaina painting as far back as tenth century.  Also a perception among many art historians is gathering conviction that it is the kind of pictorial form which prevailed in most parts of India serving as the spring board for the development of Rajput and Mughal schools from mid sixteenth century.  This point has not been noted by the editor, Richard Cohen.

In the volume under review have been included further writings giving a description of subsequent additions made to the Boston Museum holdings of Jaina art.  Among significant additions were the illustrations of Balagopalastuti and Kumarasambhava of Kalidasa executed in the familiar style of Jaina manuscripts.  It is the discovery of such non - Jaina, in particular Vaishnava themes, which had prompted the coining of a term of wider implications such as 'western-Indian style'.  Cohen attributes this term to have been introduced by W. Norman Brown and Stella Kramrisch.  But the editor has not elaborated this important art-historical re-thinking which should have included the mention of the term 'apabramsha' by Raikrishna Das of Banaras.  This term has an implication vis-a-vis Jaina and Ajanta styles which is similar to that of linguistic phenomenon of Prakrit in relationship to Sanskrit languages.

Cohen has quite rightly observed a shift in Coomaraswamy's methodology in his last publication on Jaina painting, entitled 'The Conqueror's life in Jaina painting: Explicitur Reductio Hace, Artis Ad Theologiam'.  Published in 1935, Cohen calls it a 'most interesting think-piece on Jaina painting' and is in conformity with the series of late essays which are essentially metaphysical and interdisciplinary.

Coomaraswamy reverts back to the themes of Jaina paintings, the iconography of the Tirthankaras, life episodes, and the symbolism of the objects appearing to Trishala in her visionary dreams.  Even when referring to certain Jaina theological formulations, he contends that these formulations are not 'private property of the sect that makes use of them'.  While the ultimate explanation can only be found in Vedic metaphysical tradition, as well as cognate traditions, but also in the last analysis the pictorial illustrations of Tirthankaras form part of a universal 'Book of Genesis' (bhava vrtta, jatavidya) or cosmology.  They belong to the varying recessions of archetypal formula of which the date of fixation can hardly be determined for want of documents.

To state his position Coomaraswamy opens his essay be referring to authoritative accounts of W. Norman Brown and T.N. Ramachandran, with respect to iconography  of Jaina painting in western and southern India.  He categorized their scholarship as 'denominative' and in order to define his own position he quotes a passage from Hemachandra's Trisastisalakapurusacaritra.  In a description of those who are considering a painting, the first place is given to those 'versed in Holy Writ' (agama-vit), whose judgement is based on the picture's agreement with the 'meaning of the writ' (agamarthavisamvade).  The second place is given to the 'very pious' persons who delight in the representations (bimbani) of the holy personages.  The third place is given to the 'technical experts' who criticize the draughtmanship, and fourth to those others who are charmed by the colours.  These points of view correspond approximately to the well-known classification of references as respectively, anagogic (paramarthika), moral, allegorical and literal.  The editor of this volume, Cohen, explains that Coomaraswamy places Brown and Ramachandran in the third category and invites his reader to join him in Hemachandra's 'first position', that of the agamavit.

We mention here one example of the representation of an episode from Mahavira's life that is the transference of the conqueror's embryo from the womb of the Brahman Devananda to that of the Kstriyani Trisala, which has been taken up for eleborate symbolie interpretation.  Detailed explanation is built up of 14 objects of Trisala's dream visions, such as that of Sri, Flames of Fire and Purna Kalasa.  Most interesting is Coomaraswamy's interpretation of a remarkable picture of the 'Fortunate Sunrise' (Sri Suryodaya) of the morning following the night of Trisala's dreams morning following the night of Trisala's dreams and actual conception. It is virtually a highly metaphysical construction with many analogies of what otherwise would pass as a representation of a landscape.  It is an hour when the Great Hero has been actually born and the 'Universe is resplendent with one light' (Jyotir Jyotisam).  The last section, of the essay which Coomaraswamy refers to as conclusion, is devoted to an eloborate philosophical analysis of the practice of 'continuous narration', the characteristic feature of Indian painting in general.  However, he also contended that continuous narration is rather simply 'primitive', but clarified that this method of narration is possible in visual art although difficult in words.  He contrasts the mode of representing succession of events in 'spatial' simultaneity with the 'realistic' type of art in which a strictly momentary condition is depicting the 'World-picture' in which all that belongs to every where and every when takes place immediately and is seen at a single glance without duration or spatial analysis.  For Coomaraswamy 'the continuously narrative art tends rather to the representation of the now of eternity apart from temporal and spatial extension, than to the now envisaged by the painter of effects and events'.


Essays of Jaina Arts by Ananda K. Coomaraswamy; Edited by Richard C. Cohen.  Publishers IGNCA.  Co-publisher Manohar; 2003; P.P. 110. Price Rs.1450/-


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