James T. Rutnam - a versatile servant
James T. Rutnam
ICES Colombo is commemorating and celebrating the 100th birth
anniversary of Dr. James T. Rutnam, scholar, politician, humanist today
at the ICES Auditorium.
Dr. S. U. Deraniyagala, Dr. Kumari Jayawardena, Prof. S. Pathmanathan
and Mr. Silan Kadirgamar are to deliver lectures at this event.
The late James Thevathasan Rutnam hailed from Manipay in the northern
peninsula but spent a good part of his life in Colombo 7 as its popular
and illustrious personality.
His father was a man of means and owned property in Pandateruppu in
Jaffna district. James led a comfortable life in his early years. His
mother was a Miss Dwight.
James Rutnam lived in spacious two storyed house at Baron's Court in
Guildford Crescent, Colombo 7, with a widespread garden around to.
He entered Ceylon Law College as a youth and in the first year
examination won a coveted prize awarded for his highly commendable
performance. Thereafter James Rutnam left Law College and did not pursue
For a short while, James Rutnam adjourned to Nuwara Eliya and headed
St. Xaviers College. An interesting incident of this time was Rutnam's
encounter with a "white planter boss" of a tea estate.
Rutnam was radical in his thinking and inclined to be a leftist in
his ideas, ideals and attitude. He espoused the fair cause of the
labourers in an estate who were on strike. James Rutnam "bearded" the
arrogant authoritarian white planter in his office and strongly
advocated the demands of the labourers.
At a time when the white colonizers believed that the sun never set
on their empire, the heady planter peremptorily gave five minutes to
clear out of his office.
James Rutnam recognized that the odds were against him and gave the
planter the five minutes to be reasonable, and then quit the planter's
office promising to fight another day. Rutnam was tenacious.
James Rutnam's left leanings made him to welcome Maude, later Mrs.
Pieter Keuneman, of the Communist Party at the Colombo harbour and offer
generous hospitality on her arrival.
With such a predilection, Rutnam later on extended hospitality at his
abode to Robert Gunawardena, a left political figure, when he returned
from China after a stint of national service as a diplomat.
James Rutnam was an avid reader and an energetic collector of books,
manuscripts, learned journals, and writings. It was also well known to
the intelligentsia of Rutnam's propensity and eminence as a writer on
politics, government, history, both ancient and modern archaeology and
It is in this capacity that Rutnam visited all the remarkable
libraries, museums, and archives in the United Kingdom, the Soviet
Union, and the United States to record only a few countries where Rutnam
spent time and money reading and collecting valuable books and originals
of literary records.
No wonder scholars and researchers constantly visited James Rutnam
from the universities in Colombo, Peradeniya and Jaffna. He never
forsook his reading and collection of literary material and would go to
great lengths in search of learned publications and rare manuscripts.
It was enlightening to read Rutnam's continuous contributions to 'The
Tribune', a popular journal then among readers of contemporary national
Many will recall Rutnam's revelations in two noteworthy and popular
recounts of the genealogies of two leading national and political
personalities. In similar manner, Rutnam delved into esoteric data to
refute wrong hypotheses propounded by some writers, more chauvinistic
Rutnam had a number of contacts with university dons. researchers,
leading legal figures and businessmen. His stupendous library astounded
one, and many learned personnel often consulted Rutnam and gained much
He would spare time to inform and educate. It was no surprise that
James Rutnam bequeathed his invaluable library to Jaffna College,
Vaddukoddai, and even put up a building in Jaffna to house his rich
bequest of books.
It was named the Evelyn Rutnam Institute and remains under the
American Missionaries as a testimony to James Rutnam's love of research
and learning, and encouragement to young students.
Rutnam took a lively interest in The International Association of
Tamil Research (IATR), the architect and builder of which was the late
Reverend Father Xavier S. Thaninayagam.
James Rutnam gained a prominent role when the Association held its
International Conference of Tamil Research in Jaffna and Madurai. He was
a close associate of Father Thaninayagam, archaeologists, Directors of
Museum and university teachers like Professor T. Nadaraja, W. J. F.
Labrooy and many others.
James Rutnam was an active and regular member of the then exclusive
club, Capri, and his companions and friends with whom he met were
several. Reading, writing and research and travel kept Rutnam happily
engaged in life.
The pursuit of stores of learning and learning itself in spite of a
demanding social life and domestic engagements demonstrated that James
Rutnam led a full rich life.
Although he would often refer to himself as "a successful failure";
really James Rutnam lived life to the best, and successfully, over the
seven score and ten years of the Biblical span.
On the 1st of every month, James Rutnam generously assisted many who
called on him, regularly and repeatedly. He was generous to his former
aides in full measure. June 13th was another special day for James
Rutnam as it was his birthday and he would recall that it is St.
Anthony's day. He celebrated the event happily.
James Rutnam, when young, fell in love with Evelyn and thereby
forfeited the favour of his father who did not like the union. But James
loved Evelyn dearly and tears welled up in his eyes whenever he spoke of
her with undying fondness. James had three daughters and five sons.
Today, I believe, only one son, Chandran, is in Sri Lanka. when
young, James Rutnam did a lucrative business in rice imports from
Rangoon, then capital in Burma, now Myanmar. Being magnanimous, liberal
and sociable, and charitable, he spent as he earned.
Parkison's Disease affected James Rutnam, and in his last days he was
unfortunately and sadly paralyse too, I felt. I called on him then at a
house in Anderson Road off Dickman's Road, Havelock Town. James Rutnam
was a true, faithful, and lovable learned companion. Many are those who
benefitted from Rutnam's erudition especially. Rutnam did try to enter
politics but failed. What national politics lost, yet learning and
culture gained, better fields indeed.