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Professor Tambyah Nadaraja, a fine legal mind

The death in late January of Professor T. Nadaraja removes from the scene the doyen of academic lawyers in Sri Lanka. Fifty years on, few can recall the hostility in Hulftsdorp that greeted the creation of the Department of Law in the then University of Ceylon.



Professor Tambyah Nadaraja

The legal establishment of the day led by practitioners and the council of Legal Education viewed law as essentially a practical subject best learned on the job. The Colombo Law College had been responsible for training lawyers for over 75 years and it was felt in Hulftsdorp that there was no need for another centre of legal education.

The Council of Legal Education was initially reluctant to recognise the new Law Degree to the extent of even granting exemptions to law graduates from some of the council's own professional examinations.

These were later granted, probably facilitated by the appointment as the first Professor of Law Sir Francis Soertsz, a retired Supreme Court Judge, who had spent many years in Hulftsdorp and whose credentials there were high. Nadaraja was appointed Reader in Law and concentrated on the organisation of the courses to be taught.

Tambyah Nadaraja was born on 27 December, 1917 to a conservative, Tamil Hindu family. His father, Murugaser Tambyah was a wealthy land owner. His mother, Sivanandam, a most gentle and cultivated lady, was the daughter of Sir Ponnambalam Arunachalam. She was the dominant influence in Nadaraja's earlier years and it was from her that he acquired his life long love of books and learning.

Following several generations of his family on both sides, Nadaraja received his secondary education at the Royal College. Among his contemporaries there were, Pieter Kueneman M.P., H. W. Jayawardene, Q.C., Sam Kadirgamar, Q.C., Glanville Peiris, P. Nadesan and Neville Jansz of the Ceylon Civil Service and Professor Douglas Amerasekera. He won several prizes at Royal, among these the coveted Shakespeare Prize, beating Pieter Kueneman who had won it the previous year and was competing for it again.

After a year at the University College in Colombo, he proceeded to Cambridge where he was admitted as an undergraduate of Trinity Hall to read Law. The choice of college was apt; for it had been founded in 1350 principally for the study of Law and over many centuries it produced several distinguished lawyers in the UK and the colonies.

In this environment, Nadaraja found fulfilment by securing a First in the Law Tripos in 1940 and being elected a scholar of the college. He was also awarded many prizes at the college.

Nadaraja would have liked to stay on at Cambridge and read for a post graduate degree. However, the Second World War had broken out the previous year compelling him to return home. As the Statutes of Cambridge University stood at the time, he would have had to spend a further period of residence at the university to be eligible for a postgraduate degree.

These were amended several years later and this enabled him to be awarded a doctorate (Ph.D) from Cambridge on the basis of his outstanding published work.

While in England, he also enrolled for the English Bar and again distinguished himself by gaining a first class in the Bar Finals and being awarded the prestigious Buchanan Prize by Lincoln's Inn for coming first in that examination.

On his return home, he was admitted to the local Bar as an Advocate. He was attached to the Chambers of S. J. V. Chelvanayagam, Q.C, who was then a busy practitioner. Nadaraja had a high regard for Chelvanayagam's pleadings and advocacy both in the original and appellate courts.

But at heart Nadaraja was a scholar; besides, his diffidence and shyness were not conducive to the rough and tumble of the bar. Even while in practice, he was active in teaching (as a lecturer at the Law College, where among his pupils was Justice Christy Weeramantry) and in research.

He began working on what was to be a monumental work, namely, his book on the Law of Fideicommissum as applied in South Africa and Ceylon and took time off from practice to spend year at Oxford to work under the guidance of Professor R. W. Lee the internationally renowned authority on Roman Dutch Law.

His book on Fideicommissum is dedicated to Lee and many years later Professor Lee told this writer that Nadaraja was the ablest student he had in his many years of teaching. It probably came as a relief when Nadaraja was selected as Reader in Law of the newly established Department of Law at the university.

On the death of Sir Francis Soertsz, Nadaraja was appointed to succeed him as Professor and thus began nearly 40 years of uninterrupted direction of the course of Legal Education in the island. He was fastidious and exacting, encouraging in his students precision of thought and expression. He combined his teaching with extensive research.

The fruit of his research is found in several articles and books. His volume on the Law of Fideicommissa has already been referred to. This was followed by his Historical Introduction to our Legal System, Both his books as well as many articles have been cited both in our courts and in the South African courts. It was a pity that he did not bring out later editions of either volume.

The book on Fideicommissa was rendered largely academic in Sri Lanka by the abolition of Entails by the Sirimavo Bandaranaike Government, but it continued to be used in South Africa for many years. He drew attention in his articles to the need for a Restatement of our Law as a prelude to its eventual codification and he hoped that this would be undertaken by a Law Commission. But this has not been done as yet and our common law continues to be shrouded by "old world dragons."

The Department of Law was the first to move to Peradeniya and Nadaraja successfully supervised that operation. In Peradeniya, he was selected to succeed Professor J. L. C. Rodrigo as Dean of the Faculty of Arts, the youngest to be so elected.

Despite an aversion to administration, he was a successful Dean, though he was often heard during his tenure to complain about the lack of time for research. Subsequently when the Department of Law was converted into the Faculty of Law, Nadaraja was the natural choice as its Dean, a post that he held with distinction till his retirement in 1982.

By then, the Law Faculty had acquired under him a reputation for high standards of scholarship and admission thereto was much sought after. Among its distinguished alumni are Ranil Wickremesinghe, Felix Dias Bandaranaike, Lakshman Kadirgamar, Professor G. L. Peiris (who succeeded him in the Chair), Professor Savithri Goonesekera and her husband, Raja Goonesekera, Ana Seneviratne (ex IGP), Justices Mark Fernando and A. R. B. Amerasinghe, Neelan Tiruchelvam, H. L. de Silva, P.C. and Faisz Musthapha, P.C. He took great pride in the fact that law graduates were serving in many areas of activity within and outside the country.

Nadaraja was shy and some even regarded him as being aloof. But behind this facade was a warm and generous person who readily gave of his time and advice to whoever sought them. He was self effacing and diffident, not exactly the qualities that led to public recognition in modern Sri Lanka. He was too proud to promote himself or to seek public recognition.

His was the old ideal of service for its own sake. Nevertheless, recognition came first in his appointment by Prime Minister S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike as a member of the three man Royal Commission headed by Professor Needham on the future of the death Penalty.

The recommendations of that Commission led to the abolition of the death Penalty. He was for sometime a member of the Law Commission, the council of Legal Education and at, the time of his death, Chancellor of the Jaffna University. He was also awarded Honorary Doctorates of Law (LL.D) by the Colombo and Jaffna Universities.

The classical Association and the Sri Lanka branch of the Royal Asiatic Society elected him their President. The latter pleased him immensely since his grand father, Arunachalam, had been the first Ceylonese President of the Royal Asiatic Society. He reciprocated by presenting an excellent Paper on the Cleghorn Minute.

In retirement, he turned to the study of religion, in particular the Saiva Siddhanta form of Saivism practised in the South of India and in Jaffna. This resulted in an excellent monograph of the Cult of Siva a few years ago, where, among other things, he explains the significance and meaning of the Siva Lingam. At the time of his death, he was also a trustee of the Ponnambalavaneshvara Hindu Kovil and of the Tambyah Chattiram, both founded by his ancestors.

Declining health in the last few years forced him to withdraw from public and social life. He was looked after with great devotion by his wife, Svarnam, daughter of Sir Arunachalam Mahadeva, whom he married in 1944. There were no children of the marriage.

Muttusamy Sanmuganathan, United Nations, New York.

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