Jayantha Sivanathan (1950-2023): A Reminiscent Tribute
By Rajan Philips –
Those of us who have not been in contact with Jayantha Sivanathan over the last few years, received the news of his passing away in Sydney, Australia, by way of online messaging by his son Shakthidharan. Jayantha graduated in Electrical Engineering at Peradeniya in 1972, worked with IBM in Colombo, Singapore, and finally in Sydney for many years before positioning himself in systems analysis with some of the major Australian banks. Lately, he was afflicted by Parkinson’s disease, which may have contributed to his becoming aloof and avoiding redundant social contacts. Even during his younger undergraduate days at Peradeniya, Jayantha was a supremely self-possessed individual, calm and composed in mind and manner, qualities that would have helped him glide through his last years with grace and dignity.
Shakthidharan’s brief message says as much. He is Jayantha’s only son and child and is a renowned figure in the Australian multicultural and migrant universe of art, music and theatre, as a writer, director, and music composer. He writes poignantly that his “Appa’s body was not fair to him, but he handled it gracefully to the end,” and that he would “relish in some unreasonable optimism.” He recalls his father’s “gentle presence and cheeky smile,” the smile that he now sees in his son Siddhartha. Jayantha was grandfather to Salvatore and Siddhartha, the two sons of Shakthidharan and his wife Aimée, herself an accomplished and acknowledged composer, singer and performer.
Shakthidharan also recalls his becoming “his father’s confidant and carer,” spending many Sundays together, “eating curry and ice cream, discussing the politics of the day followed by the philosophies of the ancients.” The discussion of politics and philosophies between the son and the father in Sydney, Australia, provides an apt segue for me to recall some old memories from Jayantha’s student days at Peradeniya and offer this brief tribute for sharing among fellow Peradeniya friends and colleagues who knew Jayantha then and remember him warmly now.
Jayantha Sivanathan was born in an exceptionally well connected Ceylon Tamil family and later married in an equally or more well connected Ceylon Tamil family. He was the son of Manicam and Manohari (nee Wallooppiliai) Sivanathan. His father was a nephew of Sir Kanthiah Vaidhyanathan, Permanent Secretary to the Prime Minister at independence, later a Minister in the Kotelawala government, and in retirement became a passionate revivalist of the celebrated Tiruketheeswaram Temple near Mannar. M. Sivanathan played cricket at Royal College and captained the team in 1937, served in the Army (the Ceylon Defence Force) during World War II, and later joined the Ceylon Civil Service. When Jayantha was a student at Peradeniya, his father was Permanent Secretary to the Ministry of Industries under TB Subasinghe in the United Front government.
Jayantha’s mother was a sister of Dr. NJ Wallooppillai, Sri Lanka’s pre-eminent Cardiologist, who was also the son-in-law of V.A. Kandiah, well known Colombo advocate in his time and the Federal Party Member of Parliament for Kayts. Jayantha married Anandavalli Satchithanandan, a lauded Bharatanatyam dancer, daughter of K Satchithanandan – principal of a major accounting firm and the first elected President of the Institute of Chartered Accountants, and (maternal) granddaughter of C Suntheralingam – a man of versatile brilliance and the stormy petrel of Tamil politics. Their wedding was graced by the presence of KPS Menon, the doyen of Indian diplomacy and Oxford contemporary of Suntheralingam as well as SWRD Bandaranaike.
The great uniqueness of Jayantha Sivanathan was that the rich family lore sat very lightly on him. He moved through life on campus and after unassumingly, with no hint of his ancestral weight, and no trace of that not uncommon Sri Lankan trait of ancestral worship. For all that Jayantha was a worthy scion in a long line of positive achievers in learning, professional careers and public service.
He studied at St. Thomas’ College, Mount Lavinia, where he excelled, besides studies, in swimming and tennis. Peradeniya did not provide the scope for training to be competitive in either sport (there were plenty of tennis courts but no swimming pool during our time), but according to his son, Jayantha kept up with recreational tennis in Australia for quite a while and even provided coaching for kids in the community.
I came to know Jayantha well during the last two years of our campus life, 1971 and 1972, when we lived at the Akbar-Nell Hall in proximity to the Engineering Faculty on the left bank of the Mahaweli. He was studying Electrical Engineering, part of a small group of students with practically the same number as there were Lecturers in the discipline. In what might be called flippant hierarchizing, Electrical Engineering students may have been the elites; I was ‘with the masses’ in Civil (also civil) Engineering; and in between were the lovable grease monkeys of Mechanical Engineering.
Among Jayantha’s Electrical Engineering batchmates were Chandru Mirchandani (who was kind enough send me the online message of Jayantha’s passing) and Mano Devasirvatham, both of whom live in the US; Lakshman (BL) Ramanayake and Indra Kumar Jayawardene who are in Australia; Emmanuel Pieries who went to Sweden and became a Medical Doctor; and the late I. Rabindran, the programming wizard who settled in Canada. Their Lecturers included W Jayasekera, WMG Fernando, JA Gunarwardena, Kumar David, Harsha Sirisena and N Rambukwela, all of whom taught students in the other two disciplines as well during their first two years.
I was in Sri Lanka in April, and I was able to meet with Prof. S Sivasegaram, who was in Mechanical Engineering, and his wife Premala Sivaprakasapillai – Sri Lanka’s first female Engineer and daughter of the late T. Sivaprakasapillai, one of the founding triumvirate of the Faculty of Engineering with EOE Pereira and RH Paul. Dr. Sivasegaram reminded me that it was during our years at Peradeniya that the Faculty began to have its best complement of teachers, with ageing dons still holding strong and new PhDs returning in numbers during the 1960s.
There was another side to the culture at the faculty, and that was the openness to and inclusion of things and interests other than engineering. A recurrent undertone of this extracurricular proclivity happened to be politics, but it was not the politics of banality and there was no ‘politicization’ of any kind. Nor was everyone interested in politics, for there was and there is still far more to life than either engineering or politics. Those who were interested were motivated by political ideas, if not ideology, and not career considerations.
The leading lights of political debate emanated from among the lecturers, primarily Kumar David, Sivasegaram and Vickremabahu Karunaratne. As students, we were fascinated by the debates and differences among them. But they had been exemplary pupils and turned into serious and demanding teachers; so, there was no nonsense of politics infiltrating their classrooms.
The backdrop to campus politics at that time was the overall political situation in the country. There was the on-campus student-army clash in January-February 1969; and the Peradeniya campus became one of the sites of activity in the 1971 JVP insurrection, but not at all deadly like the one 17 years later. Our final year, 1972, was the year the First, albeit short lived, Republic was born. Jayantha and I were on the Engineering Students Union (ESU) Committee, with our mutual friend the late Lakshman Tillakaratne as President. The Committee decided to invite Dr. Colvin R de Silva, the architect of the First Republican Constitution, to deliver the Deans Day address that year.
Jayantha and I approached Kumar David, who took us to a public meeting in Kandy where Colvin was speaking, and the invitation to address the Deans Day gathering was extended and accepted. The event proved to be a resounding success, with the large Engineering auditorium packed with students and lecturers from both sides of the river. Prof. AJ Wilson from the other side of the river led off with an overview of Sri Lanka’s constitutional evolution, and Colvin followed with his peroration on the new constitution – “the exposition of my product,” as he characteristically called it.
We were into the second year of publishing Gauge, the ESU journal, and I was its editor. Jayantha was my critical sounding board on editorial matters and the selection of articles. Remarkably, Gauge continues to this day, albeit in all its electronic effortlessness, worlds apart from the labour of love that we gladly went through – from handwritten and occasionally typed texts, to typesetting by hand, heavy-eyed proof reading, and finally offset printing at an old press in Kandy. There were instances of typesetting howlers and humour, two of which are worth recounting.
Prof. T. Sivaprakasapillai had given us two long and informative articles, one entitled, “The evolution of Engineering in the History of Ceylon;” and the other, “The shapely thinking of the ancient Greeks.” The typesetter, or rather his fingers, had his or their own thoughts. The title of the first article for the galley proof page was creatively transposed: The evolution of History in the University of Ceylon!. The second involved a simple change but was a delight: The shapely things of the ancient Greeks!
University life is never all work and no play. Convivial evenings were never too few or too infrequent. Chinese dinners in Kandy, eating hoppers, and downing ‘barracks’ (arrack in beer) at the old Charles’ Bar were not uncommon. The good times we had on campus could not have been better. The early prospects of good times continuing were also pleasing. But within five to ten years of our graduation, the country was turned 180 degrees from parliamentary rule to presidential rule, and from autarkic socialism to open market economy. Long simmering ethnic differences blew open into periodical riots and a prolonged civil war.
Neither Jayantha nor me, nor several others in similar situations, would have thought of leaving Sri Lanka for good before 1983. It was not to be after 1983. Forty years have rolled by and there is now confirmation that there will not be any lasting prosperity, not to mention peace, in Sri Lanka until 2048. As a generation, we have reached our evenings in life, with more to look back than ahead, and say good night to parting friends. Yet, there is room for optimism in the midst of pathos and poignancy. Jayantha Sivanathan apparently relished optimism even if it were unreasonable. He was not alone, and I am as guilty.
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