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K.N.O. Dharmadasa - linguist who doesn't rest on his laurels

This week Reminiscences features one of the pioneers of the discipline of Modern Linguistics in Sri Lanka. He writes on a variety of subjects both in Sinhala and English and his books have been published locally and abroad. This scholar of international repute is none other than Dr. K. N.O. Dharmadasa, Professor Emeritus, and the former Dean of the Faculty of Arts, Peradeniya University.

Rather than spending his retirement in the salubrious climes of Kandy, he spends week days in Colombo under difficult conditions working as the Chief Editor of the Sinhala Encyclopaedia. It shows nothing but his total commitment to continue the work carried out initially by his Guru, late Professor D. E. Hettiarachchi. We found his memories of a bygone epoch very poignant and illuminating.


Dr. K. N.O. Dharmadasa

KNO was born in a little village called Oruthota North of Gampaha. His childhood was a happy one spent in nearness to nature. “Our house was situated on a little hill overlooking a large paddy field with a stream running. It was a beautiful area. I went to school in Gampaha. We went by bullock cart and sometimes we walked. They were pleasant childhood days,” he recalled.

University system

He studied at Nalanda College and gained admission to University of Ceylon, Peradeniya. “Actually the turning point in my life was entering university in 1959. It was a very pleasant time and I was fortunate to have studied under great scholars like Professors D. E. Hettiarachchci, Ediriweera Sarathchandra, D. J. Wijeratna and P. E. Fernando. We also had very fine younger lecturers like Dr. Sugathapala de Silva and Dr. Hemapala Wijewardhana. The university system worked like clockwork during my four years as an undergraduate. There were no disturbances or university closures.”

After graduating from the Peradeniya University, he taught at a school for about three months and then joined the Peradeniya University as a temporary Assistant Lecturer. In the meanwhile he applied for the SLAS examination. However, he did not sit for the examination because he got a permanent lecturer's post in the university.

He recalled that Prof. Hemapala Wijewardhana, two years senior to him, had sat for the SLAS examination and became first in the island but opted to remain in the university. At that time the university teaching was attractive both in terms of prestige and salary. K.N.O. also recalled that his batchmates, such as Dixon Nilaweera, who joined the administrative service rose to very high positions in the government and did extremely well. The good thing about that time was that people could choose their career paths according to their likes and dislikes.

“There was a tradition at that time. Professor Sarathchandra made it a point to teach the first year students. This is how an undergraduate should be treated. They should listen to the best scholars in their first year itself.” KNO explained that when he became professor, he continued this tradition until his retirement. Even as the Dean of the Faculty of Arts, he did not stop taking first year lectures.

KNO thought that the presence of giants (men of stature) acted as a stabilizing factor in the university system. Students had great lecturers to look up to and admire.

He related an interesting episode: “Sarathchandra was a very good judge of people, especially when it came to student unrest. His stature was such that if there was a huge commotion or a riot, the very minute he walked into the place, the place became quiet. One day in the Open Air Arts Theatre, with a very large audience, a play was going on and the students were making disturbances. Professor Sarathchandra walked onto the stage and the entire place became silent. He said: This means you don’t want this play, so for today the play is cancelled. No other person could have got away with that. The play was cancelled and no one even asked for refunds. They just had to walk out.”

KNO is a specialist in linguistics and one of the pioneers of the discipline of Modern Linguistics at the Peradeniya University.

“Linguistics as a discipline was introduced to the university system by Professor Sugathapala de Silva. When he returned from London in 1958, we had the opportunity to study under him. First J. B. then Meegaskumbura and I; we were the three people who continued the tradition established by Sugathapala de Silva in linguistics. J. B. Dissanayake specialized in Structural linguistics, Meegaskumbura in Historical Linguistics and I, in Socio- Linguistics. I was the person who really introduced Socio-Linguistics; my two books are still used as text books in universities. That is how we became pioneers in the 60s.”

Historical evolution

KNO was proud to say that under the instructions of Sarathchndra, then the Head of the Department of Sinhala, he completely revised the first year syllabus. In place of the narrow field of traditional grammar, he added a new section introducing the principles of Modern Linguistics, structures, historical evolution, and social functions. This innovation was followed by all the universities in later years. There is a general complaint in the country that the Peradeniya University which has a proud heritage of having great Oriental scholars of international repute in the past has failed to sustain that momentum. After the retirement of KNO in 2004, Peradeniya University was not able to fill the chair of Sinhala.

Asked for the reasons for this general deterioration, KNO explained that a part of the blame should go to the university reorganisation scheme which was introduced in 1972.

Asked for the reasons for this general deterioration, KNO explained that a part of the blame should go to the university reorganisation scheme which was introduced in 1972. “It destroyed the university system, especially the Arts, in particular oriental studies: Pali, Sanskrit, Sinhala and Tamil which are the core areas of our cultural tradition. These disciplines were practically wiped out. In Sri Lanka Pali and Sanskrit studies have been there from time immemorial.

These are the things we can show the world. We have people from other countries coming here to study these subjects. That is what should have been nurtured and fostered. We were not allowed to recruit young lecturers to the department. Naturally there is a big generation gap as a result.”

KNO also spoke of the decline to the deterioration of the standard of English in the country. There is a famous saying by Max Muller: “He who knows only one knows none.” To know the beauty of your language you must be able to compare it with other languages. Some of the greatest studies in Sinhala are in English. Without knowing English, you can’t even study Sinhala. That is a fact. K.N.O. feels that the mistake was not really the switch over to Swabhasha education, which was inevitable, but the complete neglect of English education. When the subject was under discussion in the early 1950s the then Education Minister M. D. Banda had consulted several scholars. They had all advised him to sustain a high level of English knowledge in the education system. K.N.O. said that it was feasible at that time because the standard of English in schools was not bad at all. He himself came from a rural background but studied in the English medium. The mistake was the neglect of English language in the aftermath of the 1956 changes.

KNO insisted that his emphasis on English Language is not to devalue the capacity and the use of Sinhala language as a medium of expression. In this regard, he related an interesting episode. Prof. P. E. Fernando was a great Sinhala scholar and he was instrumental in drafting the 1972 constitution, because Dr. Colvin R. de Silva had insisted that the document should be drafted first in Sinhala.

This was unusual because the normal practice in the country has been to draft official documents first in English and then translate them into other languages.

K.N.O. is married to Sumangalika, the eldest daughter of late Minister M. D. Banda who held several portfolios under UNP governments. Irrespective of his party affiliations, he was highly respected as an honest and decent politician. Asked about his recollections of M. D. Banda, K.N.O. admitted that Mr. Banda belonged to a rare breed of politicians who spent their personal wealth to do politics in the service of the country. However, when it came to government property, they drew a clear distinction between official work and family affairs. He never used his official vehicle to send his daughters to school or to attend to any family matters.

They had to go either by bus or use their family car. That was indeed a different era altogether.

 

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