2 December, 2021

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A Brief Appreciation Of Late Professor A.J. Weeramunda (1940-2021): A Gifted Anthropologist

By Premakumara de Silva

Prof. Premakumara de Silva

This brief note was written to readout at the commemoration event jointly organized by the Department of Sociology and its Alumina Association on the 22nd of October, 2021.  Professor Anton Joseph Weeramunda, “Weeramunda Sir” as we call him and as his friends say ‘Joe’, passed away on the 13th of August this year. As colleagues, friends and students we are gathered here virtually to celebrate his life. Personally I feel happy that I was able to physically participate at the funeral of my beloved teacher whom I admired well and paid my last respects to him even at a time with the spreading of the deadly Corona Virus.

Let me begin my brief intervention here with a brief biographical note of Prof. Weeramunda (formerly Selvadurai). He was born on the 24th of December 1940 as the 3rd member of a family of 8 siblings. His father was an educationist and a school principal in Negombo. He received his primary education at Maris Stella College, Negombo, and then moved to St. Joseph’s College in Maradana for his Advanced levels. He entered the University of Peradeniya, in 1960, and graduated in 1964 with a first class for English. At Peredeniya, Gananth Obeysekere persuaded him to study Anthropology and as many of his generation of scholars did he went to USA for higher studies and completed a PhD in Cultural Anthropology at the University of Washington. His Ph.D. dissertation was on “Culture and Continuity: A Study of Kinship and Land Tenure in a Sinhala Village” which was completed in 1973. For his doctoral research he conducted ethnographical work at Mulgama, a village in the Kalutara District in 1971 and 72, by then he was attached to the Department of Sociology at Peradeniya. He spent some time at San Diego State University in USA before joining the Department of Sociology at Colombo in 1977, and at the time of his retirement in 2005 as an associate professor, he had served as the Head of Sociology by setting up a strong foundation in which the future department could be flourished into. I was enrolled into the Sociology Special Degree program when he was the Head of the Department. As my friends and colleagues supposed to talk about how we enjoyed his companionship and close association, let me say few words about his publications or research life.

Professor A.J. Weeramunda

If you look at his publication record he was so keen to study the dynamics of ‘Rural Society’ or ‘Peasant Society’ particularly Land Tenure and Kingship like his predecessors did, perhaps he wanted to build on work done by Leach, Yalman, Obeyesekere, and Tambiah. Let me give you two examples; he wrote an article and a book chapter on ‘Kingship and Land Rights in the context of Demographic change. It was appeared in an international journal, Contributions to Asian Studies in 1976. The book chapter on ‘Land, Personhood, and Sorcery in a Sinhalese Village’ in 1976. Volume edited by Bardwell Smith Religion and Social Conflict in South Asia. Both publications were based on his doctoral research.

Then he moved into issues related to agrarian change in the country, and as a result of that, two valuable collaborative publications came out namely, Agrarian change in Sri Lanka, an outcome of a conference on Symbolic and Material Dimensions of Agrarian Change which was held in Anuradhapura in 1984, edited with James Brow published in 1992 as a Sage Publication. This work is regarded as one of the landmark studies to understand the transformation of agrarian society in Sri Lanka and has been widely cited by many scholars of Sri Lankan and South Asian studies.

The other important work in this field is Pul Eliya Re-visited: A Case Study of Agrarian Change. He updated the “Leach-Pul Eliya” study in 2011, published by Agrarian Research and Training Institute, ARTI, co-authored with M.K. Nadeeka Damayanthi. The great strength of this work is that as its starting point it takes rich material from E.R.Leach’s original field research as concrete baseline and compares this with equally solid material from 2008. This valuable restudy was undertaken by Weeramunda after a half century of Leach’s original work in a small remote village, Pul Eliya in Nuwara Kalaviya area and it gives out a serious sociological explanation of rural change in Sri Lanka. Unfortunately, this restudy has not been more widely disseminated or given serious attention by scholars.

He shared his experiences as an anthropologist in a small Town in USA under the book title of Race and Ethnicity in Small Town America: Diary of a Sri Lankan Anthropologist published by ICES in 2009. This is very rare kind of work by a Sri Lankan anthropologist studying another culture and society as an outsider to that society.

Apart from that he undertook many research projects for the Sri Lankan Government and international organizations on various issues related to Sex Workers, Beach Boys, HIV, Ragging and Student Violence, Child Abuse, Water and Electricity Usage etc. and I was fortunate enough to work with him on few of those projects. Though I have many things to say about his life the time doesn’t permit me to do so. Let me say this Prof. Weeramunda is, in sense of the word, a good teacher, approachable senior colleague, fashionable researcher, play actor and director, music lover and on top of that a quality human being who always had a sense of sharing people’s happiness and sorrow as his own at any time.

Let me say this as a final note. ‘There is no death. People die only when we forget them,’ for me Prof. Weeramunda will remain in my memories forever. Good Bye to you Sir!

*Premakumara de Silva, Professor of Sociology (Chair), University of Colombo

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