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In Conversation With Dr. Janice Leoshko


On May 21st at 1pm Dr. Janice Leoshko of the University of Texas at Austin will be giving the 2023 Ananda Coomaraswamy Annual Lecture. Her talk is titled, "What They Did: Coomaraswamy's Female Collaborators."  Tickets are free!

Here is the link to a webpage about it. https://www.mfa.org/event/ananda-coomaraswamy-annual-lecture/what-they-did-coomaraswamys-female-collaborators

Laura Weinstein, Ananda Coomaraswamy Curator of South Asian and Islamic ArtMuseum of Fine Arts, Boston spoke to her on this topic.

LW: What first got you interested in studying the life and work of Ananda Coomaraswamy?

JL: My interest in Ananda Coomaraswamy (1877-1947) began through the study of Bodh Gaya, the important Indian Buddhist site recognized as the place of the Buddha’s enlightenment, as I was puzzled by certain interpretive moves he made. I wondered how this interest developed as he explored other issues. Despite his extensive writing about Buddhist topics, it has not garnered much attention beyond certain questions, such as that of the origin of the Buddha image or early forms of Buddhist architecture. Moreover, there are various troubling characteristics in this writing such as the frequent bias for earlier versus later developments. His perspective also aligned with others that cast the significant presence of Sri Lankan Buddhists at Bodhgayā as a conservative force. Yet this was not what Coomaraswamy promoted when he first began to write about Buddhist art. What led to changes in his scholarly practice greatly piqued my curiosity.

LW: Your title suggests that he worked closely with female collaborators. Is this unusual or surprising?

JL: The particular aim of my long term study was to define Buddhist traditions as a central facet in Coomaraswamy’s career, to reconfigure him as a significant participant in the development of Buddhist studies. But as I studied his work and broader career, I found not only that the strands of his rich and complex intellectual life are difficult to separate, but how this is also true for his personal life. While there are simply too many changes to track neat trajectories, it is still desirable to make an effort for a more robust understanding of his life. Coomaraswamy’s collaborations with others, especially his four wives, which often impacted such efforts have not always been well considered. Reflecting on what collaboration means for understanding his development thus seems significant. What women could do independently was often limited, so collaboration could be a good solution, but it has often meant that their legacies has been under-valued. We all lose with this incomplete understanding. I have found that collaboration per se is not unique, but the repeated nature of it with respect to certain topics engaged by Coomaraswamy and those he worked with proves to be distinctive.

LW: Can you pick one female collaborator who you find particularly interesting and tell us about her? Why is she so fascinating?

JL: A difficult choice but I would pick his first wife, Ethel Mary Partridge (1872-1952) because she participated in so many foundational aspects of his intellectual development. She was a major factor in his turn away from being a scientist to writing about cultural issues as she was with him in Sri Lanka for four years (1903 to 1907) while he served as the Director of Mineralogical Survey of Ceylon, as Sri Lanka was then called. Their collaboration is best known stemming from their interest in the island’s arts & crafts, but it also impacted his subsequent development of a canon of South Asian art. Studying Ethel clarifies Ananda’s engagement with education, an important aspect for understanding his later writing. Ethel was involved with the documentation of Sri Lankan arts and crafts material as well his geological efforts on the island for she had long been interested in making photographs of geologic formations. A comparison of the visits recorded in her Sri Lankan notebooks with the itineraries in Ananda’s official reports suggests that their study of crafts was often done in tandem or as an extension of his official tours. Their use of developing technologies such as photography, in conjunction with their considerable skill to assess and record their careful observations, crucially defines the character and importance of their Sri Lankan efforts. He chose not to list her as co-author, however, in what was his first book, Mediaeval Sinhalese Art, even though it is clearly a result of their joint study. This fact obviously resonates with many difficulties faced by women.

LW: Finally, why do you think it is important to study figures like Coomaraswamy and these female artists and scholars he worked with today?

JL: Looking closer at his collaborators is important for they were often widely influential and had lasting effects. For instance, after the couple’s divorce in 1912, Ethel went on to become a distinguished force in the promotion of handloom weaving. She taught and wrote about handloom weaving and traveled widely in the world, including India. Mohandas Gandhi consulted with her when he visited London. Her experiences in Sri Lanka and India especially led her to develop influential perspectives. Understanding Ananda Coomaraswamy’s efforts remains important for the field of South Asian art history as he played such a big role in defining the nature of artistic achievements in South Asia. While his work also led to the neglect of certain issues, he was part of a group of people for whom the pursuit of understanding the past became an important component in fashioning a future. Such interest did much good for promoting  connections among the arts, not just visual but for music and dance, as well as for the significance of art in larger political contexts. I like to think my current project lies within a much broader scholarly re-calibration that seeks to define how early twentieth century interactions across the world were the initial steps towards our present “global” age.

About the Speaker:

Janice Leoshko teaches Indian and Himalayan art at the University of Texas at Austin in the Department of Art and Art History; she has also served as a curator at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Her research has focused on Bodh Gaya, where the Buddha achieved enlightenment and other aspects of art developed in eastern India and Bangladesh. She also writes about broader methodological questions raised by South Asian art exhibitions. Her studies have been supported by grants from the American Institute of Indian Studies, NEH, and the American Institute of Sri Lankan Studies. Recent focus on Sri Lankan art led in 2018 to a residency at the University of Kelaniya where she began research for her current book project on the early writing by Ananda Coomaraswamy (Creating the Canon: Ananda K. Coomaraswamy, Sri Lanka and the Significance of Buddhist Art).


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Dr. Janice Leoshko

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