By P. Soma Palan –
I refer to the Article titled “University Of Peradeniya: Utopia Never Lost” by R.P. Gunawardena (RPG) in Colombo Telegraph on 25th January. I unreservedly agree with him that the “1950s era is the best period” of this University. Yes, the 1950s is undoubtedly the halcyon era of the University. But this University in its original name, the University of Ceylon, which was the only one University in existence, was undoubtedly, an”Utopia” in its composite sense, then. But RPG’s view, that “the University of Peradeniya- Utopia Never Lost” cannot be accepted without qualifications. I agree by definition the word “Utopia” means an ideal, a perfect state. That is, where nature, academia and cultural and other associated element blend to form an Utopia. When you describe the University as an Utopia, it means it is an ideal, perfect state in all its composite elements. One cannot isolate one element only. That is, its salubrious clime, verdant landscape, its picturesque natural setting. The reference is to the University and not to its natural physical landscape. But then, a University is a composite whole, which gives it life and grandeur. Any transformation, primarily, in the student population, the quality of its Faculty members, recreational activities, and its traditions can either enhance or diminish the ideal/perfect state of the University. Therefore, it is questionable whether in its integrated whole, the University of Peradeniya, is a Utopia Never Lost. Barring its natural setting and beauty, the University, in my opinion, had undergone changes and it is a lost Utopia, not” Utopia never lost. R.P.G by the phrase “Utopia never lost” means, it still continues to exist. But the reality bellies this conclusion. The Utopian ideal has ‘lost’ itself, in all fronts, other than its physical landscape. The human factor and its activities have robbed its serenity, solemnity and aura.
I am fortunate to belong to the golden era of 1950s. I entered the University in 1959. All what is ‘lost’ can be known only by knowing what we had. The quality and high standard in every sector of its activities we had, during said period, have been lost, unless a conscious resurrection and redemption of its original ideal takes place. This gradual loss commenced from the year 1962, when the first batch of Swabasha educated students entered the University, in my final year. Progressively, the standards and quality deteriorated in all sectors of the University life. It is the harmonious blend of all other elements, reinforcing each other and with the beauty of its landscape, which gave the University its throbbing life and the Utopian atmosphere. Sans these associated elements, the University would be a mere lifeless geographical landscape and nothing more. The University of Peradeniya had lost its Utopian ideal in the following segments:
a) Utopia Lost- in Quality and standard of students
With the increase in the number of students entering the University, consequent to the Swabhasha medium , standards and quality of the students declined. In the 1950s English was the medium of instruction. Whatever said, an education in a foreign language as English, gave the students a sense of discipline and decorum, social refinements, unlike the native language. The students who entered the University in the 1950s, though through the English medium, were, however, drawn from all parts of the country and not confined to elite Colombo city Colleges only, but other outstation Colleges and the Maha Vidhalayas in the rural areas as well. They were all well mannered, disciplined and with social values. This proves that, what gave them the cultured behavior and character was the English language. Being a foreign language, students strived to live up to the standards of that language, whereas, the native language gave laxity in the use of the language. Secondly, the undergraduates of that era, did not have any discriminatory notions of race and religion. It was never in their minds. All considered themselves as one brotherhood of the nation. Thirdly, they were not politically motivated. Their interest in political ideology was primarily of an academic nature, either Trotskyism or Marxism or capitalism. The students were not actively and vociferously in Political Party politics. Each Hall of Residence had its Student Committees on matters of student welfare. The University as a whole had the Students Council to represent students’ interests with University Administration. In stark contrast to these, the post 1950 era saw the emergence of active Political Party politics and Students Unions, with the patronage of the Political Parties of the country, becoming aggressively engaging in agitations, being part of the Inter University Students Federation. Undergraduates’ Protests, Strikes and demonstrations to further political Party ends, became the norm. During the ‘50s, there were hardly any strikes, protests within and without the University Campus. Student Leaders were of a superior caliber. The Student Council President during my time was none other than the present Government Minister, Sarath Amunugama, who typified the then, gentlemanly class. The University lost that class of undergraduates. The University Campus is now painted with Red banners, posters, placards in every nook and corner and every majestic, flowering giant trees. These ugly and chaotic sights besmirched the Utopia, that was then, the Utopia was lost, and not the” Utopia, never lost”. That is how the serene and solemn atmosphere of the beautiful landscape lost its charm, by the human factor.
b) Utopia Lost – in quality of Administration of the University
The University Administration was handled by its first Vice Chancellor, Sir Ivor Jennings. He was a scholar and academic of international repute. He certainly added lustre to the Utopian stature of the University, from the time of its formation. He was succeeded, during my time, by the equally reputed medical luminary, Sir Nicholas Attygalle, a stern disciplinarian. But there was no cause to enforce discipline, then, as discipline amongst the undergraduates was self-evident and taken for granted. The breakdown of discipline from the mid ‘60s,is Utopia Lost.
c) Utopia Lost- High academic quality of the Faculty Members
In the 1950 decade, the quality and standing of the Professors and Lecturers was of a class – par excellence. This core ingredient of the then University that was Utopia, cannot be treated as “never lost”. It was irreplaceably lost. The Professors and Lecturers were outstanding and had an aura of the academia. The Professors and Lecturers of the later era are more commonplace than exceptional. It would take inordinate space to mention them all by name. But as a tribute to them, I shall mention a few, Faculty-wise.
Economics: Prof. Das Gupta from India. Profs, H.A. De S Gunasekera (Principles )and A.D.V.D.S Indraratne (Applied) Tawny Rajaratnam, Dr. Vanden Driesen (E-History) and Dr. I.D.S. Weerawardena (Political Theory)
History: Rev. Fr. Pinto (Medieval European History), Dr. Arasaratman (Modern E-History) Dr. Labrooy (English History) Dr.K.M.G. de Silva and Dr. Tikiri Abeysinghe (Medieval History of Ceylon)
Geography: Prof. Kularatnam (Geology & Geomorphology) Dr.George Thambyapillay (Climatology)
English: Prof.Lyn Ludowyke, Dr. Passe, Doric de Souza
Tamil: Dr. Kailasapillay, Fr. Thanninayagam
Sinhalese: Prof. Hettiaratchi, Dr. Ediriweera Sarathchanra, Sugathapala de Silva
Archeology: Dr. Senarath Paranavitarane
Buddhist Civiisation: Dr. W.S. Karunaratne
Philosophy: Dr. K.N Jayatilleke, Dr. Basil Mendis
Law: Prof. Nadarajah, R.K. Gunasekera
d) Utopia Lost-Cultural activity-Drama and Plays
The above list is not exhaustive. I could have missed some notable names as I am recollecting by memory. Combined with the pursuit of Academic studies, there was a throbbing cultural activity. Production and performance of Plays and Dramas, both English and Sinhala, particularly that of Dr. Sarathchandra’s Sinhabahu and Maname. The leading characters of these were my Seniors, Charmon Jayasinghe, Namel Weeramuni and others..
e) Utopia Lost-Recreational- sports
The University had a large Gymnasium with equipment and appliances, and facilities for variety of recreational activity for undergraduates with a spectator capacity. It also had a ground for Cricket, Soccer, Rugby ,and also a ground with a cinder track for Athletics, in picturesque surroundings. There were Inter- Hall sports competitions in all sports. There were outstanding under-graduates with a combination of sports and intellect. There was a Students Sports Council to deal with sports and the President was none other than Jayantha Dhanapala, the later distinguished Diplomat, who represented Ceylon at the UNO. He himself was accomplished in sports, both Rugby and Soccer, who hailed from Trinity College, Kandy. Then there was my Senior Hall mate, Micheal Roberts, who not only got a First Class in History, but awarded University Colours for several sports like Cricket, Rugby, Soccer, Basketball. There were outstanding Cricketers, who not only played for the University in the Premier Sara Trophy Tournament but also for Ceylon in Test Cricket, like D.H.De Silva later Charity Commissioner, who captained the team. University team was a force to be reckoned with. The team included such renown criketers like Malsiri Kurukulasuiya, Anton Rambukpotha, Micheal Roberts, Merril Gunaratne and Seneca Chickera. There was Chris Guneratne, notable Table Tennis player at National level. D.T.M Senarath, ( later DIG} my batch mate, was an outstanding Athlete at University and National Level ( 5000meters/Track) and M.G. Kularatne, 400 meters runner who is the now the Chairman of Marga Group and also the notable female Atlhlete, University/National level, Nilmini De Alwis ( Shot putt & Discus). There were good scientific Boxers, Anton Tissera and Dingo Dharmapala and not least, the endurance Swimmer, A. V. S. Anandan, who swam the Paulks Straits and English Channel, only one to do so after the legendary Navarathnasamy. Sacrificing modesty for fact, I must mention writer’s ( Soma Palan) megre contribution to athletics & Body Building. I entered the University, having won my College and Public Schools Colours for athletics and also the “Junior Mr. Ceylon” National title. I broke the University Shot Putt record and represented it at the Central Province A.A A Meet in all three years and won this event. I was awarded Peradeniya University Colours for Athletics. While at the University, I represented Ceylon at the 2nd Mr. Asia” Physique Contest at Lahore, Pakistan and won the Tall Man Class title in 1961. In 1962, I won the” Mr. Ceylon” National title.
Above is only a concise record of sports, as space forbids more detailed account. A University is place for ideal blend of the intellectual, physical and cultural and full development of human personality. It is a Utopian classical ideal. In that sense the University of the ‘50s produced such persons. Thereafter, has the University produced a single sportsman at National level or even at University level ? Then, how can one call the” University of Peradeniya- Utopia Never Lost”.
University of Peradeniya was a hive of sports activities, then. On a personal note, I must add that when I entered it, the Weight-training section was almost deserted. The equipments were just idling. When I started my weight-training sessions, some of my Hall mates/friends also took a keen interest in Body-building. Those from other Halls also followed. Thus, this sport was resurrected. In this, I was encouragingly supported by the Director of Physical Education, Mr. Lesley Handunge, who was an accomplished Boxer, and represented Ceylon at Olympics. Soon, there were over ten doing weight-training exercises and achieved reasonable standard. This prodded me to organize the First ever “Mr.Campus” physique Contest in 1961 and the Gymnasium was packed with Campus spectators. It included a variety entertainment with Singers C.T. Fernando and C.D. Fonseka and other related events. The winner was a final year student, Hilmy Manzil and a runner-up was Thalif Deen (now a Notable IPS Journalist/ Correspondent at UN). This continued next year after my graduation. But it died a natural death, thereafter.
The tradition of sport is another “Utopia Lost”. I have not seen in the years following, and I dare say event at date, the University’s imprint in any sport at National level. It has not produced one cricketer to our National Team, nor in other sports. It is a story of a “culture lost”. The pre-eminent Culture of the 1950s era has been supplanted by a culture of dirty politics, student unrest and agitations, and student ‘Strikes’ .
(f) The tradition of Ragging of ’Freshers’
The ‘Ragging” of new students entering the University was an integral part of University tradition and culture. It was done in good humour and in good spirit .It was an exercise to break the ice and become friends with the new entrants. It was done in a decent and civilized manner during the’50s. This is part of the Utopia Lost. Though continued in terminology only, it was subverted and debased, and became an instrument of sadism, torture and cruelty to the person ragged. This reflected the social and native ethos of the new breed of students entering the University.
Taken as an indivisible whole, its salubrious clime and natural environment and all aspects of its cultural activities, one cannot conclude that the University of Peradeniya is“Utopia Never Lost”.
Everything has changed, not to enhance but to diminish, and what remains is only the geographical environment. How could that University be called an“Utopia”? If we are referring merely to the land area only, we can call it an Utopia. That is, it is an ideal and perfect place. But we a referring to a University and calling it an Utopia, which is not, now. Therefore, it is not “Utopia Never Lost” but more correctly Utopia Lost. Can one conceive of Universities of Cambridge and Oxford, without its annual Rowing Boat Races and/or their Debating Societies? It is these, inter-alia, gives Oxford and Cambridge the character of an Utopia.