What's in a name?

| by Dr Locana Gunaratna

( May 05, 2012, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) Part of a prominent road called "Ananda Coomaraswamy Mawatha" in the cultural heart of Colombo, was renamed recently. Some have already commented publicly on this happening from their different perspectives. But, all seem to convey disappointment about the name change.

Names of places and streets in Colombo often bear reference to the city's colonial past. As we all should know, Colombo was originally built and developed by successive foreign invaders for their own military and commercial purposes. It remained that way for well over three centuries. During the Dutch colonial period it was essentially a racially segregated city. Throughout the British period, the best parts of the city remained alien to the country's mainstream majority. It is therefore not surprising that, with Independence, we would want to claim the city for ourselves. The building of Independence Square and the more recent civic conscious urban design work in its vicinity were indeed exemplary ways of claiming the city. A much more simplistic means frequently employed during the past five decades is to rename streets, erasing foreign names associated with the colonial past. But, if this simplistic means is to continue, there should be a clearly recognized and culturally relevant process for doing so. To me and I am sure to many others too, what is a great shame in the recent name change is that the authorities have ignored the very special relevance of Ananda Coomaraswamy's name to the cultural zone served by that particular stretch of road. The zone contains among others the national headquarters of the Royal Asiatic Society, the Mahaweli Museum, the National Art Gallery, the John de Silva Theatre and the brand new Performing Arts Centre.

Ananda K. Coomaraswamy (1877-1947), the son of a respected Ceylonese Barrister and his English wife, was born here in this city of Colombo. He is best known in Sri Lanka today for his book "Medieval Sinhalese Art" (1908). Even after a century of its publication, the book remains as the standard reference text on the subject. His brilliant personality had many facets. A frequently forgotten fact is that he was a scientist with a prestigious Doctor of Science degree in Geology received from University of London (1906). He had earned that doctorate for research into the minerals of this island. His findings promoted the colonial authorities to establish a new Department for the subject within the government, an agency which he was the first to head.

Dr Coomaraswamy's patriotic outlook caused him to establish the "Ceylon Social Reform Society" (1906) and to function as its first President. It was a society which supported the gathering movement to respect our own cultural values and discourage our people from blindly adopting Western mores. His studies gradually expanded to a broader focus on the Asian visual arts and their bases in indigenous cultures. It was to this area of work that he eventually devoted most of his life. Noting the lack of understanding of Asian art and the gross neglect of valuable oriental artifacts even at their varied sources, he gravitated early in his career to the intellectual opportunities afforded by the United States. The Museum of Fine Arts in Boston was quick to engage him as a Curator (1917). Based there for the better part of his career, he meticulously classified the collection of oriental art and artifacts they already had. He also discovered, identified, acquired and conserved many hitherto unrecognized and neglected Asian works of art and crafts to establish a fabulous collection for that Museum. I consider myself very fortunate to have had the opportunity to explore this valuable collection on more than one occasion.

Dr Coomaraswamy's studies also led him to such acclaimed writings as "The Dance of Siva" (1918), the voluminous "History of Indian and Indonesian Art" (1927) and numerous other works. His book entitled "Transformation of Nature in Art" (Harvard University Press, 1934) is recognized as one of the very best on the theory and philosophy that underpin Asian art. Through all this work and his numerous lectures and writings, oriental art became better understood, valued and respected by the educated, not only in the West but also in those Asian countries then under the yoke of European colonialism.

Even after seven decades of his death, Ananda Coomaraswamy is universally acknowledged today as being among the most respected and erudite art historians of the Twentieth Century. He is by far the most famous. In 1977 the Indian government issued a postage stamp to honour this great scholar and mark his birth centenary. We in our country have also done likewise but that happened more than three decades ago. It should be a matter of great pride for all Sri Lankans to continue to recognize and honour Dr Ananda Coomarawamy as one of our own and find ways to keep his name very prominently alive.

( The writer is a Architect and Urban Planner )