Coomaraswamy, Ananda (1877-1947)*

Ananda Coomaraswamy in 1916, shortly before he started making his films about Asian dance

Ananda Coomaraswamy’s contribution to the history of ethnographic film consists  of a series of films about Asian dance that he shot himself in the 1920s. These films now form part of the Ananda Coomaraswamy Film Collection housed by the NAFC in Washington.

Of mixed Anglo-Tamil descent and brought up in England, Ananda Coomaraswamy trained initially as a geologist at  University College, London. But while carrying out doctoral fieldwork in Sri Lanka in 1902-06, he became  interested in Sinhalese art and returned to London committed to the idea of educating Western audiences about the art of the Indian sub-continent. This led eventually to his appointment to a curatorial position as Keeper of Indian Art at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, USA, in 1917.  Thereafter he would become an internationally renowned writer, not only on Indian art, but more generally on the philosophy of art, metaphysics and religion.

Stella Bloch in Asian dance costume

Shortly after he arrived in the US, Coomaraswamy  came to know Stella Bloch, a dancer of Jewish-Polish ancestry, who was associated with Isadora Duncan’s dance troupe in New York, and who also had a particular interest in Asian dance.  They married in 1922.

Even before then, in the autumn of 1920, Coomaraswamy and Bloch travelled extensively through Asia, studying local dance traditions in India, Sri Lanka, Java, Bali, Cambodia, China and Japan. It was probably during this trip that Coomaraswamy began to make his films about Asian dance. They travelled through Asia again in 1924 and it seems that Coomaraswamy shot further films during this second trip.