The world of Sir Muttu Coomaraswamy | Sunday Observer
British shadows and Sri Lankan dreams

The world of Sir Muttu Coomaraswamy

20 August, 2023

The name of Sir Muttu Coomaraswamy remains obscure in the modern intellectual circles of Sri Lanka or elsewhere as his illustrious son Ananda Commaraswamy outmatched the father as a pioneer of art criticism, perennial philosophy and many other disciplines. Yet the yearnings and achievements of Sir Muttu deserve to be appreciated albeit their less significance, compared to his legendary son Ananda.

Dwelling on Sir Muttu Coomaraswamy is not a mere attempt in reiving a 19th-century relic collaborated with the British who apotheosised their values, but it is rather an unfolding picture of fathoming the psyche of a colonial subject who determined to be treated equally from his colonial masters.

Sir Muttu was born in 1834, one year after the Colebrook: Cameron reforms were introduced, which altered the socio-political landscape of the island by welcoming the waves of capitalism. Having been born to a vellala Hindu family in Mutwal, Colombo, his childhood upbringings were coloured by two crucial dimensions.

First, his father Mudaliyar Coomaraswamy expected that young Muttu would emulate his loyalty to the British which was regarded as the paramount importance in reaching high on the career ladder. Secondly, the adopted aristocratic status filled with pomp in his family emboldened him to think of himself as an oriental prince, which was no more than a created status to secure the grace of the British.

As Kumari Jayawardene aptly writes in “Nobodies to Somebodies”, this was a process that prevailed among many of the Sinhalese-Tamil families in the 19th century to uplift their social status parallel to the newly acquired financial prosperity by virtue of the seeds of capitalism. Thus, Sir Muttu’s pampered childhood that elevated him to an oriental prince was a sheer reflection of his age.

First generation of scholars

Sir Muttu belonged to the first generation of scholars at Colombo Academy, which is known as Royal College today, the premier government institute that produced Maculay’s progeny for the needs of the colonial administration. At Colombo Academy, Sir Muttu excelled in Latin, and Greek and he impressed the governor of Ceylon by proposing a toast, which eventually fastened his steps to success under the British patronage.

At the age of 22, Sir Muttu entered the Ceylon Civil Service as a cadet officer and acted as a police magistrate for a brief period, but his administrative career was short-lived. His fascination with classics and devotion to oriental scholarship prevented him from confining his career to a tedious official rank in the bureaucracy. He lived in a world of antiquity and fables, in which Sir Muttu was the core of the attraction.

In an epoch dominated by racial prejudices and colonialism, Sir Muttu carved a niche to be a recognised Easterner among the British in Victorian England, where he was admitted to the Grey’s Inn as the first Non-European barrister and it rose him to eminence. His obsession with the British and its ethos should not be evaluated based on any value judgement, because the upper-class natives belonging to his generation in both Ceylon and India had no other place to idealise than Britain, the very epi centre of the empire.

Indian writer Ashish Nandy provides a vivid explanation of the psychology of colonial stooges like Sir Muttu from a psychological point of view in his seminal work “Tao of Cricket”. Nandy identifies such characters as men who lived between two worlds as they were neither accepted by the home countries nor the British colonial officers, whose admiration was limited to a patronising gesture. This was predominantly visible in the case of Sir Muttu Coomaraswamy as his successes in Britain were not well received by the local colonial administration in Ceylon or his kith and kin.

Through his pretentious oriental charm, Sir Muttu penetrated every nook and corner of the British aristocracy, which even won him the friendship of British premier Benjamin Disraeli, who later nominated Sir Muttu for knighthood from Queen Victoria. Yet his glories were subjected to many unpleasant encounters.

The very British society he revered viewed him as an inferior Oriental who tried to be on par with the British, especially the comments of the British newspapers when he was admitted to the English Bar shows the arrogant attitude maintained by the British intellectuals towards him. Even his biggest admirer Prime Minister Disraeli was not completely willing to acknowledge the achievements of Sir Muttu and it is said that the character built by Disraeli called “ Kusinara” for his last unpublished novel was inspired by Sir Muttu Coomaraswamy.

Display of oriental knowledge

Kusinara’s character embodies the values espoused by Sir Muttu, the display of oriental knowledge and little knowledge of Upanishads and many more. From a vantage point, Disraeli’s attempt to make his fictional character based on his association with Sir Muttu denotes how Disraeli treated the former’s self-proclaimed status of an Oriental prince.

In assessing the life of Sir Muttu Coomaraswamy as folks living in the 21st century, we should be sympathetic to the bigger aspirations he longed to achieve as they were largely culled by the timely needs. Although he was not sincerely committed to preserving and revisiting the oriental wisdom, his efforts in translating some important Buddhist classics such as Datavansa, which carries the history of sacred tooth relic generated an interest in the West towards Buddhist studies.

His knowledge of Indo-European languages could have made him a greater scholar in introducing South Asian studies to the West, but his choice of leading a flamboyant life among the Westerners impeded him from reaching such greater heights.

His representation in the legislative council as the unofficial member for the Tamils made no significant effects by addressing the issues of his community through his frequent visits to the UK. Indeed, the life of Sir Muttu Coomaraswamy was undoubtedly a celebrated one, but he failed to transform it into a unique one and this failed mission was later carried out by his son Ananda Coomaraswamy as the uncrowned pioneer of Asian art and culture to the West.

Ananda Coomaraswamy went beyond the peripheral realities where his father was stuck by reaching the grassroots levels of his studies related to art and culture. Like his father, Ananda Coomaraswamy was not amused by the British charm regardless of his academic training from British universities. On the contrary, his obvious choice was to deny his father’s illusionary world by devoting his life to unveiling the artistic and cultural splendours to the West, in which he excelled himself as his name remains as a highly cited one around the world.

In his last years, Sir Muttu translated the Sanskrit play Harischandra into English, which was presented to Queen Victoria. When he passed away in 1879 in Colombo, Sir Muttu had established some kind of a rapport with the British and it was the highest stage that anybody could attain in such a turbulent age.

However, his son Ananda and his nephews, the famous Ponnambalam brothers went beyond the limits of Sir Muttu’s achievements as they aptly blended themselves with the local culture by addressing them sincerely. Perhaps, all of them realised the colonial psyche inculcated by the British by making a person like Sir Muttu Coomaraswamy a distorted one.

The writer is a lecturer at the Faculty of Law, Sir John Kothalwala Defence University