Rasathurai Nadarajah

Educationist who worked for his people

By Bhagavadas Sriskanthadas
A self-effacing person, Kanapathy Nadarajah served in the 1980s and 1990s as Chairman of the Palmyrah Board, Sri Lanka, and on retirement migrated to Australia. On October 12, 2005 his children and grandchildren, remembering this was his birthday organised a party in his Sydney residence that evening. Overwhelmed by the love and affection showered by his loved ones never even for a moment did Nadarajah entertain the notion that the joy he experienced would be short lived. As he shuffled towards the birthday cake amidst laughter and cheer, the phone rang and a sad message was relayed to the party that Nadarajah’s younger brother, Rasathurai, had been shot at close range in Jaffna and succumbed to injuries. Dreadful news turned the party environment into sepulchral gloom, an otherwise calm Nadarajah slumped into the nearest chair.

Mr Kanapathy Rasathurai at the time of his death served as the principal of the Jaffna Central College, one of the leading educational institutions in the north. On the day in question he was to attend a celebration as chief guest that was to take place at the Veerasingham Hall around 4.00 pm.

To this lover of aesthetics, the occasion was more than religious - a cultural event to reflect the value of education and make offerings to Saraswathy, the goddess of learning. Being a paragon of punctuality, Rasathurai arrived in front of the hall a few minutes prior to the ceremony. As the chief guest started walking towards the venue, having parked his vehicle, three men moved towards him to carry out a fiat from Velupillai Prabhakaran, head of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam ( LTTE). One of them pulled a revolver from his pocket and shot the chief guest at point blank range.

Rasathurai was born on the September 28, 1947 to Kanapathy, who led a very disciplined life, and his wife Mrs Sinnapillai Kanapathy, who instilled basic moral values into their children. Young Rasathurai was the fifth child in a family of six siblings, and always acknowledged the hardship his parents underwent to provide the best possible education to their children. After obtaining his early education at Manthuvil Roman Catholic School, he was sent to Chavakacheri Hindu College for his secondary studies.

Rasathurai was not born into an affluent family but he had hitched his wagon to a star and was determined to enter university. A punctilious approach to study and perseverance paved the way for him to realise his ambition. In the early 1970s he was selected to attend the University of Ceylon, Peradeniya.
At Peradeniya, he interacted with undergraduates coming from a myriad of cultural backgrounds, and forged life-long friendships with many. During his undergraduate days he displayed interest in disciplines like political science, literature and education. His debating and thespian skills were honed at the University Students Union and kindred societies. Many of Rasathurai’s university contemporaries looked back at his undergraduate days with a certain amount of nostalgia whenever they had reason to allude to his powerful intellect.
With the completion of his undergraduate studies leading to a Bachelor of Education degree, this assiduous student’s passion for learning didn’t come to an end. His commitment to his studies led to more academic qualifications, including a post graduate degree.

When it came to selecting a profession he opted to be a teacher. Rasathurai saw teaching as more than a mere job, but a vocation that provided an opportunity to instill great values into his students.
As a teacher and principal he served in several schools in various parts of Sri Lanka. However, his greatest challenge was when he was asked in 1996 to be principal of Jaffna Central College: A school founded in the early nineteenth century and given shape and direction under Rev. Peter Percival, an oriental scholar who arrived in the island in 1826. Jaffna Central College not only produced several leading professionals but also many who excelled in sports.

The suggestion that he should fill the vacancy for the position of principal at the Jaffna Central College in 1996 was seen as a challenge and a risk to him. It was only one year prior to the offer being made to Rasathurai that Jaffna Peninsula came under the control of the Sri Lankan armed forces. Most of the Central College buildings were either reduced to debris or in a dilapidated condition following constant shelling from the Jaffna fort where armed forces had billeted in the recent past. With sheer determination to restore the school to its past glory he assumed duties as principal on November 4, 1996. Though some of the locals questioned the wisdom of such decision, Rasathurai made it clear to them that he was prepared to stick his neck out for the sake of providing the younger generation with the best education.

He knew the people of the north and east always held the learned in high esteem. People from this area always spoke in glowing terms about Swami Vipulananda, Dr A.M.A Azeez and Prof. K. Kailasapathy, three great scholars of the past, all undoubtedly sons of this soil. Rasathurai was also aware that the ongoing ethnic conflict resulted in untold misery to the people, which in turn made many children abandon their studies and turn to anti-social activities. Following his new appointment, whenever time permitted he visited the houses of these children and persuaded them to resume their studies. Wherever possible he admitted them to his school or found an alternative place in a nearby school. Without sacrificing the lofty traditions associated with the position he held Rasathurai won the hearts of the Jaffna Central College students as well as the staff. Methods adopted by him to deal with fractious children or teachers skulking about in the corridors, with cigarette butts between fingers, were not harsh but judicious.

During his tenure of office as principal of the Jaffna Central College, he visited several developed countries to acquaint himself with modern teaching methods and strategies adopted to make the school environment congenial and equitable. These visits also allowed links to be forged with the past students scattered in various parts of the globe and enlist their assistance for projects connected to the development of the school.
On returning to Jaffna, after these visits, Rasathurai also appeared ahead of the local technocrats in comprehending scientific advancement in the west. This came to light when he suggested to the engineering community the need to address the issue of ergonomics prior to designing computer facilities.

In order to disseminate knowledge about information technology in the neglected Jaffna District, he encouraged both private and public sector employees to make use of the facilities provided by the school.
Using the funding from the government and past pupils he got restored the war ravaged school buildings to pristine condition. Not focussing solely on studies, he also promoted sports among his students. At the school assembly whenever he had to refer to sports, very often he reminded the students about N. Ethirveerasingham, an old student who won a gold medal for his country at the Asian Games held during the late 1950s.
Rasathurai held several honorary positions while serving as principal of Jaffna Central College.

It was a love for his people and country that dissuaded Rasathurai to go in search of greener pastures.
Therefore, it is understandable why there was so much grief at his funeral. Within minutes of this gruesome killing news spread like wild fire that the killers carried out the order of the LTTE leader, Velupillai Prabhakaran, a person known for brutality and inveterate hatred for learning. The news also recalled in the minds of the Tamil people living in Sri Lanka about the killing of Charles Anandarajan, another principal of a leading Jaffna school twenty years ago, by the LTTE.

The shooting of Rasathurai, a teacher who always remained apolitical, was viewed by Tamil people as an attack on the values that society held as noble. However, Prabhakaran and his cohorts failed to pay heed to the sentiments of the people and as usual, hid behind an air of insouciance. Nevertheless the resentment and anger manifested by the young and old, men and women, rich and poor at the funeral of Rasathurai sent a message to the killers that they cannot obliterate the achievements of this great educationist.


Re-imaging English Studies

As one of the Joint-Secretaries along with Dr Nihal Fernando, Head of the English Department of the University of Peradeniya, I am still interested in English Studies although the English Association of Sri Lanka instituted by Emeritus Professor Ashley Halpe’ is not now functioning.

Lately I happened to read an interesting article titled “Re-Emerging English Studies” published in Vol 11 Number 1 of a publication called Nethra Review published by the International Centre for Ethnic Studies (ICES) written by Dr Maithree Wickramesinghe of the English Department, University of Kelaniya.
My purpose in this week’s column is to bring to the notice of students of English Literature some of the salient points that the writer makes for further discussion and analysis. My part here is only to comment briefly from the point of a reader and not as an academic critic.

In the article mentioned Dr M W actually reviews a book: Arbiters of a National Imaginary: Essays on Sri Lanka-Festschrift for Professor Ashley Halpe’. The book was edited by Lanka-born Canadian Prof Chelva Kanaganayakam and published by the ICES, Colombo.
Dr M W justifiably pays a tribute to Prof Ashley Halpe’ whose humility and humanness are appreciated by many who admired him.

What is her approach?
Says she: “I approach this collection of essays primarily as a methodologist…To develop this perspective, I have taken Dr Thiru Kandiah’s essay in the festschrift -
“And How Can We Know the Dancer from the Dance? Post Coloniality, the Unified Sensibility, Self-Reflexivity, and Much Else”

Then the writer refers to the ‘disciplinary and discursive evolution of English Studies –in this country and worldwide. Her examples are the writing of Ernest MacIntyre and Chandani Lokuge, Jim MacDonald and Ashley Halpe.’
Dr M W Talks about multidisciplinary and interdisciplinary significance of English Studies as found in the Festscrift.
Adding further, the writer points out that the collection reviewed by her ‘reflects how the discipline today ‘embraces a range in aesthetic form’. She lists the range of aspects included.
M W also adds that “the collection alludes to multiple ideological, epistemological and theoretical standpoints from feminist views to postcolonial analysis; from critical theories to Buddhist perspectives; from neo-liberal outlooks to post modern deconstructions that are supported by the discipline’

Another feature M W observed was that the collection of academic essays “incorporates the array of interdisciplinary methodological practices from visual and literary analysis to creative and critical practice to the translational and deconstructive that is currently applied in English Studies.”
The writer argues that ‘there has to be a paradigm shift when engaging with English Studies in Sri Lanka today.”
This columnist welcomes such a shift as an academic exercise, but to enjoy literature a non-academic teacher and journalist like yours truly feels at home following the traditional practical criticism rather than deconstructing a work and throwing away the author as ‘dead’.

However, I salute her suggestions that she makes. I quote her:
“To begin with, there needs to be institutional acknowledgement of these trends and concerns as well as institutional responses to accommodate such disciplinary diversity in future programmes”.
One of her questions is: “Do we need to reorganise and gender mainstream English curricula keeping such gender imbalance in mind?”

The rest of her essay should be read and thought about to bring in changes in understanding English Studies.
Maithree Wickremesinghe concludes her well argued review with these comments:
“We would need to think in terms of professional degrees in Translation Methods, Interpreting, editing, Pedagogy, Journalism, and research to assist graduates into jobs that have political relevance as well as to ease them into professions that would further the discipline as a whole.”

Here is a suggestion by her which I endorse very much. That is:
“We would necessarily have to think in terms of English Faculties that would constitute departments of English Literature, English Language, English Linguistics, Professional English, Interdisciplinary and Multidisciplinary English Studies, English Pedagogy and Policy Studies, Sri Lankan English and so on.”
As a person interested in Thamil Literature as well, I wish that the Departments of Thamil in various universities in the country should reorganise the faculties in the manner suggested by Dr Wickremesinghe interchanging “English” to “Thamil” appropriately.



Lion Ladies fund-raising show

The Lion Ladies of the International Association of Lions Clubs – Dist. 306 B2 Sri Lanka are hosting a gala evening of music and fashion on October 31 at the Cinnamon Lakeside Colombo to raise funds toward a very worthy cause.
This annual event held on a grand scale and an immense success each year, will this year focus on raising funds for an Ophthalmic Laser Machine for Diabetic Retinopathy at the Lions sight First Hospital in Kadawathe.
The Lions Club 0f Dist 306 B, headed by Lion Ariya Rekawa this year, is striving to achieve its mission of ‘One Family; One Goal’ and has spearheaded many CSR projects in this respect.
This annual fund raiser organised by the Lion Ladies Association, its committee spearheaded by the able and effervescent Lion Lady Elsie Rekawa, draws an approximately 750–1000 captive audience to its gala events and is much looked forward to on the Lion calendar each year.
It will feature music by the Gypsies together with Sunil and Ronnie Leitch, a fashion extravaganza choreographed by Aslam Hussain of GeeBee’s fame, guest performances by Member of Parliament, Dayasiri Jayasekera, Channa and Upuli dance troupe and a skit by Colombo’s one and only Koluu.
Tickets for your support of this worthy cause are available at GeeBee’s Fashion Store, Duplication Road, Colombo 3, and with Chairperson of the Organising Committee, Lion Lady Sriyani Jayasuriya, who can be contacted on 0773070470.


A genius of our time

In memory of Piyaseeli Wijegunasinghe: Sri Lankan Marxist, literary theorist and art critic

By Darshana Medis
“When a true genius appears in this world, you may know him by the sign that the dunces are all in confederacy against him” – Jonathan Swift
The star that was shining so brilliantly in the global cultural sky is no more – a well-known Sri Lankan Marxist intellectual, literary theorist and art critic, and retired Dean of the Faculty of Sinhala at the University of Colombo, Professor Piyaseeli Wijegunasinghe has passed away. Her contribution towards uplifting of modern literary criticism, though little in volume, was immense and weighty in essence. There is no doubt that genuine artists, connoisseurs, scholars, students as well as workers with a consciousness were shocked by expiry of one of the finest literary minds of the world in the recent past.

Piyaseeli broadened the horizons of literary theory by giving new dimension to the artistic appreciation by treating the work of art as a revolutionary weapon. Her materialist approach, both as a theorist and a critic, resembles that of Walter Benjamin who considered the work of art as a revolutionary tool in the age of mechanical (mass) reproduction, so that one could have tagged her “Oriental Benjamin.”
Piyaseeli was a critic in her own right. Based on classical Marxism, she penetrated into very depth of a given work of art and examined the artistic value and its impact on the connoisseur and on the society as a whole. She produced a number of reviews on wide range of literary works with great intellectual insight and passion. Oscar Wilde once wrote that the critic himself is an artist. Piyaseeli too was a real artist in that sense. Many of her critiques, just as masterpieces of art, are remarkably rich. It is not easy to fill the huge vacuum created by her untimely death at sixty seven.

My memory of Piyaseeli Wijegunasinghe traces back to early 1980’s. We – a handful of young art enthusiasts just finished schooling who sought ways and means of artistic appreciation were drifting among various literary schools. Having got dissatisfied with various concepts such as Rasavada of ancient India, Tolstoy’s theory of art, bourgeois naturalism, Stalinist socialist realism and petty-bourgeois populism, we were searching for an alternative. Even though we have read basic works of Marxism to a certain extent, none of us knew that there exists a Marxist Aesthetics. In the course of time we came across the booklet Culture & Socialism and Art & Revolution by Leon Trotsky, which changed our direction instantaneously. Then we found Piyaseeli Wijegunasinghe’s first jewel, Literature: A Materialist Study (1982). This serious work, which establishes dialectical materialist outlook against philosophical idealism in art criticism, demanded that we read it not once but several times challenging our humble knowledge. It not only was capable in fulfilling our deep thirst but also generated the necessity for voluminous additional studies. We were forced to learn a number of relevant works, which eventually attracted us towards Trotskyism.
“We all come out from Gogol’s Overcoat”, said Dostoevsky. Likewise, we are reborn from Piyaseeli’s Materialist Study.

Pioneers of the Marxist aesthetic theory – Georgy Plekhanov, Leon Trotsky and Alexander Voronsky – had already established that art, like science, is a way of cognition of reality. Piyaseeli Wijegunasinghe, developing it further, formulated that art not only cognises reality but also serves (or serves, while cognising reality,) as “a (super-structural) practice of overcoming reality.” It is not an exaggeration to say that the critique of Guptila Kavya* which she added in order to prove her thesis is the best review on the subject ever written. It concludes: “The work Guptila reveals that the basic reason for the tragic end of Musila is not the thought and act of Guptila and King Bambadath but economic, political and social conditions, which led to the above thought and act too. Thus, the work Guptila implies that a tragedy such as Musila’s can be avoided only through a transformation of economic, political, and social conditions... Why many of the connoisseurs (including Buddhists) who enjoyed Guptila identifying with Musila’s effort to overcome oppressed reality, are shocked by his tragic death? Because, the poet Wethawe, in spite of his ideological sympathy to the Bosath Guptila, identifies with Musila’s practice of overcoming reality”(My translation – writer).
This excellent work is one of the milestones of world literary criticism and I doubt that whether she herself estimated the universal value of her theory (It is detrimental that this book is not yet published in an international language).

A Sri Lankan could produce such a marvelous contribution to Marxist Aesthetics solely because she was a member of the revolutionary world party, Fourth International led by the International Committee, which inherited the Bolshevik tradition and was an active fighter of the political struggle launched by this party not only against capitalist ideology but also against all sorts of deviations, distortions, and falsifications emerging from time to time even within the workers movement worldwide.

I got acquainted with her at the threshold of the decade 1990 – just after she had published her second piece Modern Sinhala Literary Criticism: A Marxist Study (1987). In this work, while criticising idealistic, bourgeois and petty-bourgeois methodologies of three literary giants, Martin Wickramasinghe, Prof. Ediriweera Sarachchandra and Dr. Gunadasa Amarasekera, which dominated the island in the recent past, she again established firmly the method of dialectical materialism. To express my pleasure for this valuable book, one day, I went to the Colombo University to meet her. I had in my mind a profound and proud personality that manifests the tremendous authority acquired through those two books. To my astonishment, I encountered a simple, soft-spoken, lovely figure with a pleasant smile, wearing a casual dress instead of Saree – traditionally and officially accepted costume of a respected lady. Mixed with this beauty, she also possessed a touch of glory that suits sharp intelligence. We became friends so quickly. When the topic deepens, her language and gestures aptly shifts to a more serious manner. I used to visit her residence frequently and those evenings filled with lengthy and healthy discussions on art and politics, which eventually shaped my world outlook. She liked my love poems but disliked my tendentious works, which she criticised immature just as Trotsky treated Vladimir Mayakovski. I was fortunate to be her contemporary – to have a chance to associate with her closely.
Famous Sri Lankan cinematographer Ashoka Handagama, in his obituary to local newspaper Ravaya emotionally stated that somebody who conveyed him her passing away by saying: “Loss of the most beautiful lady in the world.”

Expressed in a subjective manner, here lays a powerful objective truth: Piyaseeli’s life was a rare occurrence which manifested all three qualities – beauty, humanity (her inherent humane qualities are well-known), and intelligence – in a single woman. It was neither a co-incidence nor an island character but a world phenomenon. To say more precisely, she was the Asian representation of the genre to which both Rosa Luxemburg and Larissa Reisner belonged. Dressed in red and marched lofty in the front shouting slogans during May Day demonstrations of the Revolutionary Communist League / Socialist Equality Party, she was a distinguished female character within the workers movement of Sri Lanka in recent times. We used to call her simply Comrade Piyaseeli.
(To be continued)