16 October, 2019

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Siri Gunasinghe, Scholar And Artist

By H.L. Seneviratne

I was saddened to hear this morning of the passing away of Siri Gunasinghe, the expatriate Sri Lankan scholar of distinction who was also a poet, novelist, artist, designer of theatre costumes, and film maker. Trained as a scholar of Sanskrit, he gradually moved in the direction of art and art history, on which he has published widely in English, French and Sinhala.

Siri Gunasinghe was one of the most prominent leaders of the cultural renaissance that took place in mid twentieth century centered in the Peradeniya University at the height of its glory. Its foundations were laid by the intellectuals of all ethnic groups of Sri Lanka, then Ceylon, who had a vision of a complex and cosmopolitan cultural identity, that contrasted with the narrowly ethno-religious Sinhala Buddhist identity that reached political empowerment in 1956. The cosmopolitan and inclusivist Ceylonese identity that would have led the nation to happiness and prosperity was made possible by the bilingualism of an intellectual and aesthetic elite, that nevertheless was far more in touch with the island’s indigenous-ness, than was the narrowly ethno religious Sinhala Buddhist identity. Siri Gunasinghe epitomized that complex and cosmopolitan identity founded by such figures as Ananda Coomaraswamy, and colorfully manifest in the artists of the ’43 Group.

Unfortunately for the nation, it was the narrowly ethno-religious identity that triumphed, and it was clear that such an identity could lead only to social disharmony, economic ruin and cultural malnourishment. Among manifestations of despair at this turn of events was a flight of the intellectuals that became quite apparent starting about the time when the ethno-religious agenda of the 1956 government was gradually being put into effect. The loss that Peradeniya suffered in this became the gain of different universities across the globe, including such renowned centers of learning like Cambridge, Harvard, Chicago and Princeton. Siri Gunasinghe’s leaving Peradeniya to take up a position in Art History at Victoria, British Columbia, was part of that exodus.

Siri was an adoring husband, father and grandfather. He loved the company of friends, and will be remembered by friends and others who knew him for his great warmth, compassion, generosity and kindness.


Colombo Telegraph reproduces here a collection of essays by internationally known scholars written in celebration of Siri’s 90th birthday two years ago:

Happy 90th Birthday Professor Siri Gunasinghe! – Hemamali Gunasinghe

Siri Gunasinghe, A Reminiscence – By Prof. H.L. Seneviratne 

Siri Gunasinghe, Tradition, And Language Reform – By Dr. Garrett Field

Three Poems By Siri Gunasinghe – By Dr. Ranjini Obeyesekere 

Thinking Of Siri – By Dr. Sarath Amunugama

Words Of Gratitude For A Teacher I have Never Met – By Prof. Charles Hallisey 

The Complex Art Of Teaching Poetry – By Prof. Wimal Dissanayake 

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Latest comments

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    Sarathchandra Ediriweera, Sirigunasinghe…. good history everyway. [Edited out]

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    There is something to be added to the excellent note by H.L.. Seneviratne on 25 May in the Colombo Telegraph.
    One who reads the last para of that write up will get the impression that Siri left Sri Lanka according to his own decision. It was not so. I was a witness to the drama of his exit.I was a junior colleague of his in the Former Faculty of Oriental Studies in the pre-1972 University of Ceylon at Peradeniya. The Samagi Peramuna government of 1970 panicked after the 71 Revolt and its pundits came to the conclusion that the universities were hotbeds of revolution because they were producing unemployable graduates who studied what they called “soft options” such as Sinhala,Pali,Sanskrit,Tamil etc. The University Reorganization was intent on discouraging these studies. Siri who was in the Department of Sanskrit was a victim of this policy. Let me recount what I know personally. Siri had gone on sabbatical leave and was working in the Univ. of British Columbia in Canada on a contract appointment. He wanted his home university to grant him a couple of months extra leave to finish his contractual assignment. But the mandarins of the University Administration at the time, who were controlling the affairs of all the universities from their central office in Ward Place, quite unexpectedly,refused such an extension of leave. This was contrary to the usual practice and Siri felt duty bound to complete the assignment that he had already undertaken and was thus forced to quit and find employment in Canada. The Mandarins , no doubt had no qualms about losing at Sanskrit lecturer. What they refused to realize was that this man was much more than a mere Lecturer in Sanskrit . Siri was in the habit of visiting SL often after his “exodus” and every time we met we used to talk about this unfair treatment.

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    Prof. KNO is absolutely correct that Siri was not just a lecturer in Sanskrit. Canada benefitted from having him in Victoria as an authority on the history of art forms. His love he developed for Indian, French and srilankan art forms was shared with Canadian students who saw the eternal value of his this scholar. If the scholars in Srilanka today need to feel proud of being Srilankans, they need to study and comprehend great artists and scholars like Siri Gunasinghe with immense respect .

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