Sunday, July 3, 2011

Remembering Peradeniya after Fifty Years

The Island 03/07/2011

by Lanka Nesiah

1961 was a landmark year in the history of the University at Peradeniya. Sir Ivor Jennings, the first Vice Chancellor, had envisaged an autonomous residential university, perhaps numbering not more than 3,500 when all the faculties became functional at Peradeniya. But, sadly, his vision for Peradeniya to be ‘one of the finest small universities in the world’, began to erode after his departure in 1955. There were two major pressures on the University of Ceylon in the latter part of the fifties – one was to increase the intake of students and the other was on the introduction of Sinhala and Tamil as media of instruction.

Jennings foresaw the need for both and, no doubt, had he still been around he would perhaps have been able to handle these pressures without sacrificing the enviable academic reputation built up at Peradeniya. In 1960, the University at Peradeniya was forced to introduce teaching in the national languages in the Arts Faculty; and in the following year, the year in which I entered, forced to accept non-residential students, a landmark departure from Jennings’ vision of a residential university.

The introduction of instruction in the national languages, in addition to English, and the increase in the intake of undergraduate students were both necessary measures but both were undertaken without adequate planning. With English being withdrawn as a medium of instruction in the secondary schools in the fifties, many who entered the University by end of the fifties decade found themselves unable to follow lectures in English. By 1960, it was decided to begin teaching students in the Arts Faculty in Sinhala and Tamil, in addition to English. A sub-department of English had been set-up around 1958 or 1959 to provide an intensive course in English for new-entrants but, for various reasons, this proved inadequate; but the more serious problem was that many of the senior academics were not competent enough to deliver lectures in Sinhala or Tamil and some of them found opportunities in foreign universities and thus began a steady trickle of an academic exodus.

The spread and quality of education in our secondary schools had taken a quantum leap with the upgrading of ‘central schools’ in the forties and early fifties throughout the country. Thus, larger numbers were qualifying for university admission. Wijewardene Hall was built and opened in 1961 but clearly, there was inadequate accommodation for the increased numbers of Arts students and the students of the Science and Medical Faculties who were being moved from Colombo to Peradeniya in the academic year 1961-62. A new category of "external students" was thus created for those entering the Arts, Law and Oriental Studies faculties in 1961. These were those who had qualified for admission but could not be accommodated as residential students. I was in that batch and we were unique in that, I believe from the following year, all were treated as internal students, some residential and some non-residential. So the 1961 Batch at Peradeniya made history, though it may not have been the history which the founding fathers of the University like Jennings may have been proud.

This year marks the fiftieth anniversary of that landmark year. A few of us have got together to celebrate this anniversary by inviting all those who entered the University of Ceylon Peradeniya in 1961 to a batch re-union over lunch on Sunday July 17. We trust all our batch-mates will make it a point to be present at this event, to revive old memories and to renew or strengthen old friendships.

When Professor H A de S Gunasekera who was Professor of Economics in 1961 died some years ago, H A I Goonetlleke, in his tribute to him, wrote:

"To be young and alive at Peradeniya in the

fifties and even the sixties was to taste the

heady wine of academic freedom and the

intoxicating vigour of dialectical discourse."

Ian Goonetileke was in 1961 the intellectually towering figure in the Library. Although at that time the Deputy Librarian, Goonetileke had an international reputation as Sri Lanka’s foremost bibliographer.

The vigour of dialectical discourse that Ian Goonetleke wrote about was quite evident during our time. I remember attending a series of intellectually stimulating evening seminars on Science and Religion held in the Science Faculty. I particularly remember lively and sometimes heated debates on the question of rebirth in which Professor K N Jayatilleke, the Revd (later Bishop) Lakshman Wickremesinghe and a young assistant lecturer Canagaratna (brother of AJ, ‘the rooted cosmopolitan’) made forceful contributions. I also remember some evening debates at Sanghamitta Hall. It was a treat to listen to lecturers like Doric de Souza, W S Karunaratne and Fr Ignatius Pinto, all of whom were past masters in the cut and thrust of debating. We also had many politicians and academics addressing us in the Arts Theatre. The politician’s lectures were usually punctuated with whistles, catcalls and hoots from the audience. But the noisy receptions were received with both good humour and equally devastating repartee. It did not end up with the Police arresting and remanding hooting students.

The Open Air Theatre used to be a hive of activity during our time. It is sad to see the state of that today. We had the privilege of attending inaugural performance of two outstanding folk theatre – Sinhabahu produced by Professor Sarachchandra and Ravanesan produced by Professor Vithiananthan – at this venue. Some parts of both will be staged at our batch re-union 0n July 17. Jayani Kasturiarachi (now Pinnawela), who was the lead singer in Sinhabahu, will lead the singing some of the lyrics from Sinhabahu and Professor Maunaguru, the lead actor in Ravanesan, will be staging some episodes from Ravanesan with his troupe of artistes from the Eastern University. We are proud to count both Jayani and Maunaguru among our batch mates.

July 17 promises to be an exciting time for the batch of ’61. An organising committee headed by Tilak Ranavirajah (Arts) as Chairperson, S M Banduseela (Science) as Secretary and Athula Nanayakkara (Agriculture) as Treasurer has been working hard to make the event a meaningful one for all concerned. In addition another sub-committee headed by M P M Jaleel (Arts) as Editor has been working on producing a souvenir with many articles from scores of batch-mates reminiscing on their time at Peradeniya. Tickets for the event need to be purchased well in advance and those who wish to participate must contact S M Banduseela at

I may end this note by borrowing from the title of book written by a senior who reminisced on her time at Peradeniya – those were days we wished would never end.