Thursday, February 21, 2013




Jubilee Publication of the Jaffna College Alumni Association
  Ontario, Canada
Commemorating the Bunker-Selliah Birth Centenaries

Editor: Satha Wijeyanayagam
Associate Editor: Karuna Wijeyanayagam


Silan Kadirgamar

The advancement of education in Jaffna in the mid-decades of the twentieth century owes much to the strong bonds that we had with India from the mid-nineteenth century, in particular to the contribution made by competent teachers from India who made a major contribution to this development. It is a tribute to the principals of schools in Jaffna, administrators and the management included, that they had the vision to tap the resources available in India at a crucial period in our history. This was reciprocated by the Tamil community in integrating hundreds of these teachers into our society. The teachers from India, mostly from Kerala adapted themselves speedily to life in Jaffna, including the use of the Tamil language and cultural norms prevalent here. The writer has chosen this topic for two reasons. Firstly to acknowledge the debt of gratitude we owe to India and the teachers concerned. Secondly, to underline the fundamental reality that restoring the bonds with India is a paramount necessity if we are to regain the educational eminence we once enjoyed, devastated by twenty-five years of war. This will require the recruitment of teachers from India in all fields, especially to teach in the English medium and also to teach English as a second language. The objective is education in its fullest sense; such as we had in our times, which was the envy and pattern for many others far and near.
It needs to be added that a large number of teachers in Jaffna in the mid-decades of the twentieth century were graduates of Indian Universities. The links that Jaffna College had with Indian Universities stretches back to the 1850s. The first graduates of the University of Madras were C.W.Thamotherampillai and Harold Viswanathapillai, both alumnus of the Batticotta Seminary. Jaffna College was affiliated first with the Calcutta University and later the Madras University. This connection ended around 1900. Subsequently the College prepared students for the London exams culminating with the founding of the Undergraduate Department in 1947 providing courses for the B.A., B.Sc and B.Sc Economics degrees of the University of London which lasted until 1968 when in a short-sighted and irresponsible decision leading to disastrous consequences, the holding of the London exams was terminated by the government. Many of the teachers from India mentioned below made a major contribution to the results achieved by the Undergraduate Department of Jaffna College from 1947 until the mid-1960s.
Another feature was the visit of distinguished Indian leaders. Notable were visits to Jaffna College by Mahatma Gandhi in 1927, and Jayaprakash Narayan in 1969. Principal Bicknell took some of his students and called on Rabindranath Tagore when he visited Jaffna in 1934. The invitation to Gandhi to visit Ceylon initially went from the Jaffna Youth Congress, led by Handy Perinbanayagam then on the staff of the College. Gandhi’s extensive and successful programme in Jaffna was organized by Handy. Outstanding Indian educators graced special occasions in the College. The Vice-Chancellor of the University of Madras Lakshmanaswami Mudaliar was the chief guest when the College Alumni celebrated the 75th anniversary of the association in 1954. Dr. Chandran Devanesan, retired Principal of Madras Christian College, later the first Vice-Chancellor of the N.E.University (Nepal), was chief guest at the hundredth anniversary celebrations in 1980. He was honoured with the Padmashri for his pioneering services to education. In 1956 M.L.Vasanthakumari, one among the illustrious “Madras Quartet” that transformed the musical scene in South India gave performances in Jaffna and Colombo as an invitee of the College and its Alumni.
The landmark Jubilee celebrations of 1947, is etched in the memory of the students of that generation. This event has remained the starting point for all reminiscences and reflections about the College in the past half a century. The College and the community never witnessed again celebrations on that scale, a looking back and a visionary look forward as the Bicknellian era merged with the Bunker-Selliah- Kulathungam era. The Jubilee Number of the 1947 Miscellany edited by veteran editors L.S.Kulathungam and C.R.Wadsworth, versatile teachers of English is a treasured volume for all time. The manager was C.S.Ponnuthurai, a great organizer and in later years was known for his devoted commitment to the Tamil cause.
Noteworthy in this issue is the prominence given to the Jubilarians – celebrating the services of teachers who had completed twenty-five years or more initiating a tradition that has lasted to this day. This section titled “All Honour to Them” includes pen-sketches of ten Jubilarians. They were Samuel S.Sanders, Albert C.Sundrampillai, Daniel.S.Sanders, K.Varghese.George, Samuel T.Jeevaratnam, C.O.Elias, T.P.Hunt Arulampalam, J.Sinnappah, Mrs.E.G.David and Lyman S.Kulathungam. The names are given here in the order in which the sketches appear. Two out of the ten were from Kerala, K.V.George and C.O Elias.
In 1940 out of a total of thirty on the teaching staff of the Secondary School four were from India. They were C.O.Elias, K.V.George, K.A.George (Professor) and M.I.Thomas. By 1950 out of a total of fifty on the teaching staff the number had considerably increased. These were Thomas John (Physics), K.P.Abraham (Chemistry), S.J.D.Issac (Zoology), S.P.Appasamy (English Literature) V.Koshy (Economics and History), M.D.Balasubramaniam (Sanskrit), T.J.Koshy (Botany) and K.C.Jacob (Physics). Mrs.Appasamy helped with the teaching of history for a period. Going by the above figures, during the peak period in the academic achievements of both the Secondary School and the Undergraduate Department, that is the 1940s to the early 60s some 20 percent of the teachers were from India making a major contribution to excellence in the sciences in particular.
The writer has known everyone of these teachers personally with the exception of M.I Thomas and was in particular a student of C.O.Elias, K.V.George, M.D.Balasubramaniam, V.Koshy, S.P.Appasamy and Mrs.Appasamy. Alice Elias was a teacher for a while in 1947. She was a gifted teacher who had the skills to match the legendary Viswalingam (Tamil Literature) whose place she took when he went on leave for his eye operation. Mary Elias and some of the above teachers were colleagues when I was on the staff from 1959 to 69. > Mr.H.P.C.Shetty an honours graduate in Zoology taught for few years in the undergraduate department. He later became the Director of Fisheries in South India. He was from Karnataka. .
While almost all the teachers were from Kerala, S.J.D.Issac came with a Master’s degree in Zoology from Madras University and as the Principal’s report affirmed was from a Lutheran family and a member of the Church of South India. He was Warden of our hilarious H.S.C.Hostel in 1953. S.J.D.Isaac became a Sri Lankan citizen and owned a house in Vaddukoddai and was the last to leave in the mid sixties. K.C.Jacob was Faculty Advisor to the School Council and a very enthusiastic, sometimes over-enthusiastic, Assistant Master for Abraham House. We worked together with several of these teachers in the College YMCA. Jaffna College had the unique tradition of staff and students being members of the YMCA on an equal standing. The president was a teacher. The year I was secretary the soft spoken and gentlemanly K.P.Abraham was president and K.C.Jacob was chairman of the profit making Tuck Shop committee. The P.T.John family was fully involved in the YMCA programmes. T.J.Koshy better known as ‘Botany Koshy’ was an exemplary teacher of Botany spending most of his time with his students in the lab. V.Koshy was Founder-Patron of the Historical and Civics Association under whose leadership we celebrated UN Day and also made our first visit to parliament to witness Dr.N.M.Perera open the 1953 Budget debate - the year of the island-wide hartal.
It is beyond the scope of this article to go into each and every teacher’s contribution. The pages of the miscellany testify to the specific contributions made. It is their overall contribution that matters. At a time when Ceylon University graduates were scarce these teachers filled the need. Together with the native graduates of the University College and Indian Universities, and several trained teachers who through their experience and breadth of reading and knowledge were equal to the graduates, these men and women gave Jaffna College the all-round excellence that the alumni have taken pride in. Referring to the services of Dr.W.R.Holmes, Rev.W.R.Sussbach and Mr.K.A.Sagara an English trained teacher with high qualifications in Sinhalese with many years of teaching experience and author of several books in Sinhalese, the principal wrote that “our boys and girls are much the better off for coming under an international influence of Americans, Germans, Indians and Ceylonese.” Some years later Ben Bavinck from Holland and the Momii’s of Japanese descent further enriched the College.
They were not set in the same mold. Some were quick tempered, others patient and calm. Some were demanding be it in the classroom or in the sports field, some others puritanical and frugal in life-style. M.D.Balasubramaniam, a Telugu Brahmin “held a first class honours degree from Annamalai University in Sanskrit and was a good sportsman.” (Principal’s report 1948). A versatile personality he maintained rigid silence on Sundays. Some of us had the privilege of studying Sanskrit in the third form under him. He brought to life and made interesting an often difficult to learn boring classical language. I recall how patiently he coached me (a person without natural sports aptitudes) how to play tennis.
Mani Iyer gave distinction to the Music Academy founded by B.K.Somasundram. He enriched the lives of the whole community with his memorable renderings of Subramaniya Bharathi’s famous songs of freedom in his rich and resonant voice in that historic year of Indian Independence (1947). S.P.Appasamy was an outstanding teacher of English literature. If drama and Shakespeare was Lyman Kulathungam’s forte, the novel and Jane Austen in particular was Appasamy’s specialty – and with what elegance and clear grasp of the subject he lectured to us helping us to enter the prestigious and highly selective and demanding Department of English in the University of Ceylon. In addition he was advisor to the Young Idea and was active in the SCM. The general rapport with the rest of the teaching community in the College was good in a conservative Peninsula where prejudices and negative attitudes to people from the north was commonplace. Several held office as President and or Secretary of the Round Table (teachers’ guild).
The services of several of these teachers came to an abrupt end due to the stringent immigration laws and the Ceylonization policies launched by successive governments. In the late 1940s there were hardly any Ceylon University graduates available to the teaching profession in Jaffna. By the late 1950s Tamil Arts graduates were facing unemployment. The pressure was high on many of these teachers to seek alternative employment back in India. By the mid-1960s this remarkable period of partnership in education had virtually come to an end.
K.A.George, Thomas John, K.P.Abraham , M.D.Balasubramaniam and S.P.Appasamay had been professors in Indian Colleges prior to taking up positions in the College. M.D.Balasubramniam, S.P.Appasamay and K.P. Abraham later became Professors and Vice-Chancellors and highly placed science research personnel in India. Dr. Abraham living in retirement with his wife in Bangalore and Mr. Isaac residing in Toronto still retain vital links with the Alumni.

The tributes paid to the five Jubilarians mentioned below give us some insight to the quality of service rendered by that whole generation of teachers and to the diverse talents that they brought to the community. Here are some comments on these jubilarians at some length. C.O. Elias and K.V.George were among the first to arrive. The Elias and George families eventually adopted Ceylonese citizenship. Escalating violence in the country forced several members of these families to return to India or go elsewhere. Nevertheless, some of them had established a recognized place in the national life of their adopted country as recorded in the impressive and colourful volume consisting of a thousand pictures aptly titled “The Indo-Lankans”, which now takes its place as a definitive pictorial history of this community.
Here are some extracts. Commenting on a picture of prime Minister Dudley Senanayake and Moni Elias together with daughter Prameela (now Professor of Music at the University of Madras) taken at the latter’s vocal arangetram, Mutthiah comments, “Moni Elias, graduated in music from Queen Mary’s College, Madras. Her father C.O.Elias had joined Jaffna College in 1922 to teach history together with other teachers from Kerala like M.I Thomas (History) and K.V.George (Art). Moni Elias went on to head the Tamil Service of Radio Ceylon, and then, for 24 years was the Head of its Educational Service. Her sister Alice (sic}, should read Mary, taught at Jaffna College for 35 years and another sister worked as a nurse in Colombo.”
Providing a picture of three George brothers together with Mrs.Abraham Kovoor, a sports enthusiast, Muthiah writes, “holding a national athletic record for many years was V.G.George who served in the Ceylon Army… V.G.George (was) for many years the Ceylon High Jump champion and record-holder.” Also in the picture are Kurien George and Joseph George. “Mathew George, the fourth brother who is not in the picture was also in the Army and captained Ceylon in Basketball. He was the moving spirit not only behind Army basketball but also basketball in the Island. (see “The Indo-Lankans: Their 200-year saga” by S.Muthiah. The Indian Heritage Foundation, Colombo 2003. p. 216 & 228) The large gathering present at Mathew George’s funeral as he was buried with full military honours (2004), testified to the esteem the family had in the country. The connection of the Elias family with the College lasted until Mary Elias retired in 1988. The passing away of these two brought to an end the distinguished and long connection the two families had with the college and the land in a very special way.
I quote here what Principal Selliah had to say in his prize-day report of 1956 about the above two Jubilarians. “Mr.C.O.Elias retired after thirty-four years of continued service in1956. He was recruited by Mr. Bicknell to help the college in diverse ways, especially in view of his experience and training in the YMCA. He started out as Warden of the Senior Hostel and Scout Master. He was pioneer teacher-agriculturalist and did much to stimulate home gardening and animal husbandry among the educated people. In the class he taught, besides his subject History, various subjects like Ethics, Civics, Physiology and Hygiene, and Bible. Apart from his own contribution, his family has done much to stimulate interest in Oriental Music.” Mr. Elias’ gardening and farming expertise are well known, and many a child born to families in the College community, including my son, was nourished in the wholesome and undiluted cow’s milk supplied by the Elias’ home. In the early decades the Elias home was a centre for Indians in Jaffna and for visitors from other parts of the country. New arrivals from India to assume duties often had their first few meals in the Elias’ home
Mr.K.V.George retires on his reaching his sixtieth year after thirty-six years of meritorious service. He started out as a teacher of Art and through perseverance and hard work became a graduate and today he divides his teaching between Art and Botany. An unostentatious and capable teacher, who knew each of his students personally visiting many of them in their homes he has taken a great deal of interest in the sports activities of the College and has been House Master for many years. He was himself a gymnast in his own day. While the Elias family helped to revive Oriental Music, the George family gave to Jaffna College some of the outstanding sportsmen of our history. We are happy to find that he too has decided to spend his years of retirement in Vaddukoddai.” Mr.K.V.George was the unofficial “medical officer” of the College. His services came to the rescue of injured footballers, cricketers and athletes and even “with a mumps case here and an enteric case there.”
Glowing tributes were paid to Mr.M.I.Thomas when he retired. President Bunker in his notes in the 1949 Miscellany wrote, “ Mr.Thomas retired after twenty-five years of distinguished service. Mr. Thomas was a scholar by temperament, but also a most successful teacher. He was head of our History department throughout, doing practically all of the higher work in History for most of those years, and bringing real distinction to the college by his gifts in this field. Principal Selliah quoting a well-known saying “A teacher can be great only if he is a student” added, “This was what made Mr. Thomas the great teacher of History that he was. Not only was his knowledge of this vast subject deep and wide, it was his master passion too and it consumed him. No constitution puzzled him, no political upheavals or contortions baffled him, and no intricacies of government eluded his grasp. He was a master with a capital M of his subject. He was jealous too – of the results of his students. A constant high percentage of passes in History with several distinctions that will turn any rival green with envy, and that was Mr.Thomas’ record here.” His early retirement was due to health reasons and his services very much missed by the College at that time.
Ms. Mary Elias (Tamil and Sanskrit) had all her education at Jaffna College and graduated from the Undergraduate Department. Joining the staff in 1953 she belonged to the second generation of “Indian” teachers (though actually a naturalized Ceylonese) and had the distinction of being appointed Supervisor of the Lower School and subsequently of the Junior School. In the principal’s words (Miscellany 1977), “she was the first lady appointed as an officer of the College and this gives strength to co-education in the College.” She was also for several years Warden of the Undergraduate Women’s Hostel, House Mistress and conducted the Tamil Choir. She was in charge of the Girl Guides Company in the College and was Guide Commissioner in the Northern Province and represented the Sri Lanka Guides association for a workshop under the auspices of the World Association of Girl Guides and Girl Scouts in Singapore. She was also selected to participate in the “Women & World Project” of the United Church of Christ in the USA. She retired in 1988.
K.A.George, the simply clad bachelor, true to his nickname was in fact professorial in his academic standing, ways and manners much revered and respected. He was an acknowledged agnostic in a College campus with a strong religious ethos, and that alone made him unique and his presence a notable acknowledgment of the liberal tradition at Jaffna College. His concern and care for the troublemakers and near dropouts was well known. He did not know me and I had not even spoken to him until my seventh year in the College. How dare one approach the professor! He stopped me one day in the corridors of the quadrangle and asked me whether I was so and so. I had been elected President of the School Council and he naturally wanted to know who this fellow whom he had not hitherto met was. He was cut and dry, but hidden beneath that seemingly stern exterior was a man who cared for others. He is known to have walked into a senior classroom one day and had called a student by name – the son of a well-known personality – and had ordered him to be present at his home for tuition in mathematics much to the embarrassment of the student.
When he retired from the Secondary School in 1956 the Principal in the report cited above said, “ Mr.K.A.George is the Head of the Mathematics Department and has wielded a wholesome influence on the College. He is perhaps the only person whose advice and help is sought after freely by both by students and teachers alike and in whose judgment great reliance is placed by all, including the administration. He has genuine love for his students and has given of his time most unstintingly to solve many a problem of a personal nature connected with students. We could not have hoped for a more conscientious and inspiring teacher than ‘Professor’ George, as he is affectionately known. It is remarkable how he is able to devote so much individual attention to his students in his teaching ... We are happy he has decided to make Vaddukoddai his home. Mr. Elias and the two Georges have so completely identified themselves with the people of the locality that no one looks upon them as strangers in our midst.” Prof. George continued to lecture in the Undergraduate Department until 1964. Though having made the decision initially to live in Vaddukoddai, he finally decided to return to Kerala.
The Centenary Publication of the Jaffna College Miscellany commemorating the first issue of October 1879 (issued in 1981) invited greetings from eight distinguished personalities known for their lengthy association with the College. Here are extracts from the greetings from Mr.K.A.George of Kerala: “I recollect with immense gratitude my enriching experiences at Jaffna College. I am sure that if I am to start my life again, I would teach in that great and noble institution. … I would say to students, and teachers and others connected with Jaffna College, uphold its valuable traditions without compromise. Let not temporary upsets in your life sour the whole of it. Plan your life early so that you may not have too many regrets at the close of your life. Seek out opportunities to serve and render service lovingly and with humility. Humble service is twice blessed. Let your work, whatever its nature be, enrich Jaffna College and yourself.”
A message as relevant to the present times, as it was twenty-five years ago, a message that may passed on to the youth of today, the children and grand-children of the Alumni scattered around the globe as we celebrate another notable anniversary - an appropriate note on which to end this tribute to a generation of teachers from across the Palk Straits.

Acknowledgements: This article could not have been written without access to the Wijeyanayagam Collections (a small though valuable archives in Toronto) containing items relating to the history of Jaffna College collected over a lifetime. Thanks are also due to Mohan Elias and Rajan Kadirgamar for useful information.

1 comment:

  1. I am the granddaughter of CO Elias, daughter of his elder son, Thomas Elias (Mohan). It's so interesting to read about the Elias family's contribution to the early years of Jaffna college. Thank you.