By Maithree Wickramasinghe with Sabreena Niles
The charge of writing a history of the Department of English of the University of Kelaniya is a challenging one, given that history will always be a discerning and contradictory account; in this instance, of time, places, personalities, disciplinary directions, curricula, specialisations, teaching, research, events and activities. The fact that it is based on both written texts and articulated memories makes the process factual yet variable; selective but fragmented; personalised despite being collective; privileged and therefore incomplete. Moreover, it is shaped and structured by the writers to promote meaning from their standpoint of the present.
The Department of English (also referred to as the DoE) was founded during the prolonged transitioning of the Vidyalankara Pirivena (a centre of academic learning for Buddhist monks until 1959) into the University of Kelaniya (a secular university consisting of the faculties of Humanities, Social Sciences and Science) by 1978. Thus the Department of English, along with the departments of Sinhala, Sanskrit, Hindi, Buddhist Studies and Philosophy, is considered to be one of the historic departments in what was called the Vidyalankara University from 1959 onwards.
From the 1950s to the 1960s, there were many changes in higher education as a result of successive political legislation that sought to democratise the university system. This involved An Act to Prescribe the Sinhala language as the One Official Language of Ceylon and to Enable Certain Transitory Provisions to be Made (also known as the ‘Sinhala Only Bill’), by the then Government of Ceylon to make Sinhala the only official language of the country. In effect, however, this Act not only marginalised the English language but also the status of the Tamil language in official discourses. Both Vidyalankara and Vidyodaya universities came into existence in conformity with the national policy of the 1956 government of promoting national languages and culture.
For the most part unrecognised, Regi Siriwardena was the gentle intellectual force behind the founding of the DoE. Of formidable accomplishment, Siriwardena was a teacher, scholar, journalist, literary and film critic, script-writer, translator, poet, playwright, fiction writer, Marxist political commentator, artist, fabric designer and social activist. His critical role with the academic administration of the time to launch the Department was an endeavour described by the late Ajith Samaranayake, former Editor of the Sunday Island, as the challenge of ‘orienting and acclimatising English language and literature to a native Sri Lankan milieu’. This was especially so given the political and linguistic dynamics of the period, and in particular, the subcultures within the newly-fashioned universities.
Yet, ever a bashful man, it is possible that he refers to his role as a founder in this endeavour (and many others) and as an elder in years in his introspective poem, ‘A pity I shan't be there to read it, though’, dated May 15, 2002:
… By time’s mere flux, I am called to play the part
Of patriarch I am unfitted for.
But not for long, I hope…
Despite his unassuming nature, he was eminently equipped to fulfil the ambitious venture of discipline-building and department-building, as with his ‘preoccupation with the history of ideas, literature and the arts, his lively inquiring mind and quiet wit and broad range of humanistic sympathies, he was one of the last few renaissance men’ writes Samaranayake.
The Site and Scene
From the Vidyalankara Pirivena in Peliyagoda and the Gurukula Vidylaya premises, the University of Kelaniya was relocated to the undulating stretch of Minor Camp during the mid-1960s where the DoE was located at Polwatte until 1987, at the far end from the Kandy-Colombo road, somewhat isolated from the rest of the administrative buildings. The Department consisted of a line of four rooms of whitewashed, head-height brick walls, topped with wire mesh and a corrugated tin roof, situated atop a slight knoll in a grassy terrain, intermittently planted with coconut trees. Mildewed cement steps were embedded into the embankment to reach the building. A solitary moss-covered garden bench stood at one end of the grass terrace.
Senior students referred to the departmental building as the ‘Cattle Shed’, especially during the rag season. A graduate from the time recollects that cows belonging to the nearby villagers were often tied to the coconut trees on the property; sometimes, packs of dogs would sport and mate on the grass and be fed by students; at other times, hens would dash by rejecting any human overtures; one day a pig was seen burrowing the edges of the embankment. As another alumnus from the 1980s recalls:
Polwatte. Idyllic. Elysian. Verdant. Villageois. Cows grazing under the coconut trees. Village (canine) bitches in heat being pursued by randy (canine) dogs. And there we were having alfresco lectures on the grass imbibing the aroma of large blobs of cow-dung drying under the noon day sun. Ah there was a little kade down the road into the village where cigarettes were cheap.
These pastoral scenes and sites were cherished with Wordsworthian fervour by students; and the property which was assigned to the DoE - perhaps as an affront by the institution - was embraced with affection as individuality in character. Yet when the monsoon broke and the rain showers came thundering down it was impossible to hear the lecturers, and when the rainwater seeped into the classrooms, rainy days invariably became holidays. During the hot months, the dark, dingy classrooms whipped up a sweltering heat. To overcome some of these drawbacks, one Chair of the Department, Professor D.C.R.A. Goonetilleke had retained a small resource room in the Faculty of Science. In the 1980s, it housed teak cupboards of colonial and postcolonial literature and provided a more habitable refuge for students and staff. Sometimes, this room was also used to conduct lectures for the special degree students.
The Trajectory – the Sixties
Regi Siriwardena, the founder of the Department, was known to have been a man of principle. In his obituary, Samaranayake (2004) writes how he resigned from his earlier profession as a journalist at the Associated Newspapers of Ceylon Limited (Lake House), over a cartoon by the famed Aubrey Collette showing Ms. Sirimavo Bandaranaike and Dr. N.M. Perera together in an offensive embrace. As noted earlier, his sweep of interests and scale of versatility as an intellectual is legendary in its interdisciplinarity and its ‘interprofessionality’ (capacity to span and transcend numerous careers, skills and callings). For instance, in the 1970s, he is supposed to have collaborated in introducing the lyrics of a song by Bob Dylan to a new English literature syllabus for the Advanced Level, ‘much to the consternation of the conservatives’. Learning Russian in midlife, he was fascinated by Soviet politics of experimental ‘democracy’ in the 1980s and he became one of the most influential commentators on the USSR. In particular, his translations of Anna Akhmatova’s poetry into English, influenced his own poetic expressions by ‘striving to be faithful to the principles of brevity, lucidity and form’ says Samaranayake. .
D. C. R. A. Goonetilleke says the following about Siriwardena’s own poetic expressions:
He reveals his sensitivity to the tragic situation in which the country, and indeed civilization, is placed in our violent era in ‘Waiting for the Soldier’ and ‘Report from the Front’, which reflect his love of Pushkin’s style, both in the fine balancing of freedom and formal grace and in the equipoise of seriousness and wit.
Not much is known of the Department during the 1960s, apart from the fact that it had a small coterie of lecturers including A. M. G. Sirimane, a noted critic, author and teacher trainer. Gamini Haththotuwegama, dramatist and pioneer of Street Theatre, and A J Gunewardena, writer and cultural figure, were visiting lecturers. David Sidney Kimball, a research student from Cornell University, USA, taught English as a foreign language from 1966 to 1967.
From 1964 onwards, Gamini Haththotuwegama’s many theatrical productions, Ranga Kebili, Sangeetha Sochchamak, Jesu Jerusalamata Pemineema, Akeekaru Puthraya, etc., saw the light of day. It must also be noted, that the first modern mime performance in Sri Lanka was produced and staged by Haththotuwegama (nicknamed Hatha), at the Vidyalankara University in 1968.
In the mid-60s the Department had a small number of students including Ranjith Goonewardene who had the honour of being the first male English Honours student. He is supposed to have been a highly intelligent individual, who, according to the reminiscences of Regi Siriwardena (to his students in the 1980s) had been the most brilliant student he ever taught: ‘during the first half of the lecture, I would teach Ranjith, during the second half, he would be teaching me’. He, subsequently, became a renowned lecturer at the Department until 1985. Inspired by his mentor Regi Siriwardena, Goonewardene is known to have initiated his students into a wide range of writings outside the set curriculum. These included the existentialist writers who were in vogue at the time, and also European, Latin American and Russian writers such as Machado, Anna Akhmatova and Mandelstam. He had relished in provoking the upper-middle-class complacencies of his students who had, for the most part, led sheltered lives in Colombo’s leading elitist schools of the time.
A batchmate of Goonewardene, nicknamed ‘Plato’, is known to have attended lectures during this period from the Angoda Mental hospital – a credit to the University that they afforded him this provision. In fact, alumni have seen Plato roaming outside the departmental premises well into the 2000s.
After the National Higher Education Act no 20 of 1966 was passed, women undergraduates were admitted into the University with the first batch of 319 women students entering Kelaniya in 1967. Unfortunately, we have not been able to trace the first woman student to graduate from the Department as it seems likely that there would have been a number of women students in the batch. The Act secularised the university further, by ensuring that the post of the Vice Chancellor was no longer restricted to a member of the Buddhist clergy, and that appointees to all academic and administrative positions had to fulfil the criteria of the newly created National Council of Higher Education.
The Trajectory – the Seventies
The year 1971 was a historic watershed for higher education in the country due to the first JVP-led student revolt that clouded universities. Several reasons are understood to have led to the youth rebellion. Swarna Jayaweera talks of welfare and redistribution-oriented policies that had not generated adequate economic growth to provide suitable employment opportunities; the rise of the Swabasha classes that had been historically disempowered by the colonial enterprise; and youthful resistance to the status quo or the institutions of governance (possibly inspired by youth movements in other countries during the time).
To quell the insurrection, the universities were closed down, and the State passed the University of Ceylon Act No.1 of 1972 in order to consolidate its control over the campuses. As a result, the universities underwent a radical change as the re-organisation of the higher education system brought all autonomous universities under the aegis of one single university – that of the University of Sri Lanka with several campuses in Colombo, Peradeniya, Dalugama, Gangodawila, Jaffna and Katubedda. Any student wanting to read English had to come to Dalugama where lectures for both the BA General and BA English Honours degrees were conducted. The English Honours degree had a solid base in drama, poetry, and literature on the one hand, and some language components, on the other. Apart from which, English language courses were also taught to the wider student community. Yet, as observed by Tissa Jayatilaka, the facilities at Kelaniya, at the time, were ill-equipped to serve the Department of English, in comparison to the University of Peradeniya which had historically been resourced for literature studies and the humanities in general.
It was a testing time for students when campuses reopened after the student violence in 1972. Apart from the fact that the university was still in transition from a Buddhist Pirivena to a secular campus, the terror of the 1971 uprising was still apparent in the landscape of the university. One graduate of English from the time recalls that the building opposite the DoE which had become the student centre was still surrounded by barbed wire as the premises had been used by the police to house JVP student detainees. The first English Honours batch after the reorganisation graduated in 1975.
Professor Ashley Halpe from Peradeniya who served as the Head of the Department from 1973 to 1977, was forced to move to Kelaniya to teach at this central Department of English of the single university. Arjuna Parakrama writes of Halpe: ‘Prof. Halpe was quintessentially a renaissance figure, combining the qualities of an outstanding scholar, an organic intellectual with a uniquely creative spirit, which led him to be an internationally recognised poet, painter, translator and dramaturge’. Given the skeleton of the department and the bare minimum in amenities at Kelaniya, many academics considered these transfers to be a form of exile. However, this was not evident in the academic and other activities of the Department at the time which included an annual Christmas party, at which Halpe would often lead students in comic dramatisations of Shakespearean scenes. As recalled by a graduate from the period, these events as well as batch trips were great bonding experiences between and amongst lecturers and senior students.
Another colourful character who joined the Department as an Associate Professor in 1970 was Doric de Souza, having retired from his political career representing the Trotskyite Lanka Sama Samaja Party; first in Colombo municipal politics and then in the moribund Senate of Ceylon. Though he specialised in English Language, Literature and Semantics, he is supposed to have been a connoisseur of the Arts as well. His commitment to Marxism, and his highly intriguing and dramatic past as a covert political activist for the LSSP during World War II when the party was banned by the British for undermining the war effort, would have, no doubt, spiced his lectures. In the 1940s, he is supposed to have assisted politicians Colvin R. de Silva and N.M. Perera in breaking out of jail, and thereafter, smuggled them to India. Moreover, he had been arrested by the Indian Police during his frequent trips to India.
Ms. Yasmin Rahuman (now Azad) was the first woman lecturer of the Department. From 1974 to 1977 she assisted in ensuring that the Department gained feedback from undergrads on the degree curriculum as well as English language courses, before traveling out to pursue postgraduate studies in Indian and Sri Lankan literature in English that was incipient at the time. Apart from her, there was D.C.R.A. Goonetilleke who joined the Department during this decade. Renowned linguistics scholar Thiru Kandaiah and rustic, postcolonial poet Lakdasa Wikkramasinha were visiting lecturers in the language section. Kandaiah’s work on validating a Sri Lankan variety of English is widely recognized as a forerunner in the field of Sri Lankan English. Profoundly and equally sensitive to the language politics of the period, Wikkramasinha’s poetry embodies a highly political act of defiance by converging on the explosive potential of the poet and by fusing Western cultural traditions with those of the Sinhalese. He would often bring his poems to the Department and share it with his colleagues, recollects Azad.
Graduates from the 1970s also speak of Gamini Haththotuwegama’s growing pre-eminence in the field of Street Theatre that he had developed from around 1974 onwards. Moreover, he had infused a sense of the Sinhala vernacular into his lectures often to the fascination of his fresh young students. Even in the early 80s, it was possible to find ‘Hatha’ in the line rooms of the Department, unexpectedly bursting into song at the beginning of a class, his sonorous voice enunciating lyrics from Professor Sarachchandra’s Sinhabahu or Maname. In 1978, he directed the street theatre Uneasy Lies the Head that Wears the Crown based on a poem by Bertolt Brecht. According to Neloufer de Mel, an undergraduate at the Department during the period,
..the play was first performed at UoK and thereafter at Stanley College Jaffna, and then at the WUSC, Peradeniya. The Colombo performance (at the Goethe Institute) was stopped by the police shortly before the play began ... (due to) the play’s satire on the open economy policies launched in 1977, a year earlier…. rehearsing, participating and touring with the street theatre play was also an eye-opener because for many of us it was the first visit to Jaffna, and when the Colombo performance was stopped, the first time many came face to face with the force of the state. It was also inspiring to observe how Prof. Halpe and Doric de Souza stood by the department, the director and cast of the play at this time. They offered great role models of leadership.
The late 1970s also saw a young woman graduate from the DoE, Manique Gunesekera, being engaged by the Department. She, along with Ranjith Goonewardene and George Braine (a scholar in Applied Linguistics and Teaching English as a Second Language) form part of a long line of departmental graduates who began their academic careers at Kelaniya. In fact, George Braine writes of simultaneously being an instructor in the English language section as well as an undergraduate in the English Honours degree programme of the Department during the early 1970s. An alumna of the period summarises the decade by saying that for all the idiosyncrasies of the academic staff, ‘together, these lecturers were able to teach students about how words addressed the heart; to ‘feel’ what was written; and to respond with one’s heart’.
In the early 1980s, Professor D.C.R.A. Goonetilleke became both the Head and Chair of the Department. A prolific writer and critic, he was able to give the Department an international profile with his corpus of work on postcolonial and Sri Lankan literature as well as postcolonial literary figures, and was a presence at the DoE until 2003. Influential books by Goonetilleke include Salman Rushdie and Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. His book titled Sri Lankan English Literature and the Sri Lankan People 1917-2003 provides a comprehensive account of the emergence Sri Lankan literature ‘in terms of social forces (especially the populist/nationalist revolution of 1956) as well as literary ones. Consideration is given to the central problem faced by writers, that is, reconciling their own sensibility, indigenous traditions, and realities with Western literary and other traditions’ reviews Lakshmi de Silva.
Under his leadership, the Department gave greater visibility to colonial and postcolonial literature. An undergraduate from the 1970s narrates of Goonetilleke:
…. Usually, no one one would sit on the right side of a morning CTB bus heading to Dalugama - as the sunlight would stream on the occupants. Travellers would crowd onto the left side of the bus. But you often found DCRA (as he was called), installed on a right side seat, the sole occupant on that side, completely engrossed in a book, with the balmy, yellow morning sun warming him, sweat pouring down from his brow and dampening his shirt - with his book in one hand, and with the other, holding on for dear life, as the bus thundered its way down the Colombo-Kandy road to Dalugama. He was utterly oblivious …..
In 1981/1982, subunits for English language teaching were established in universities throughout the island. At Kelaniya, the subunit was part of the Department of English. With a staff of about 20 teachers, the unit was mandated to teach English to all students of the University who did not possess English language proficiency. Nonetheless it was Manique Gunesekera, whose work straddled both literature and sociolinguistics, who gave leadership to professionalise language teaching in universities in the 1990s, not only at the University of Kelaniya, but also in the country. In particular, she upgraded the English Language Teaching Unit (ELTU) and initiated courses on Teaching English as a Second Language (TESL). A graduate from Kelaniya, Manique, as she liked to sign off, headed the Department of English and the English Language Teaching Unit in the 1990s and finally became the Chair of the Department in the 2000s.
Gunesekera’s intellectual clarity, exuberance, beauty, glamour and easy style of lecturing captured the imagination and admiration of generations of undergraduates at the Department. Her colleagues at the ELTU note of her work:
Manique’s contribution to the field of English in Sri Lanka largely centres on the concept of Sri Lankan English. Calling for a questioning of the assumption that Sri Lankan speakers of English spoke ‘British English’ or ‘Queen’s English’, Manique promoted in its place the then somewhat revolutionary notion that we should become confident and secure users of a Sri Lankan variety of English. To further this cause, she published her book ‘The Postcolonial Identity of Sri Lankan English’ in 2005.
In the early 1980s, another ‘woman of letters’ Lakshmi de Silva, a well-known, award-winning translator, and critic, joined the Department augmenting its list of famed personalities. As observed by a student of the times:
Students feared her abrupt, staccato delivery of obscure quotations from a Shakespearean text or even a Sinhala classic in mid-conversation – in a full-toned voice, as it often propelled them on frantic searches to discover the unknown texts or sources in an era before the immediacy and connectivity of the Internet and the World Wide Web.
De Silva’s award-winning translations embrace writings on historical figures such as Kuveni, Gajaman Nona, and Saradiel, as well as the literature of Martin Wickramasinghe and Ediriweera Sarachchandra. Her work in translation enriched the Department’s interface with Sinhala traditions founded by the work of earlier departmental academics like Gamini Haththotuwegama, Ashley Halpe, Lakdasa Wikkramasinha, and A. J. Gunewardena.
In the 1980s, Neloufer de Mel, (who subsequently distinguished herself internationally as an English Cultural Studies scholar) started her career at Kelaniya having graduated from the Department. While De Mel’s work focused initially on postcolonial literature and performance studies, she has subsequently gained much acclaim in the discipline for her groundbreaking work on militarization as well as gender, nationalism and justice. In the early 1990s, she moved on to the University of Colombo, and is currently Colombo’s Chair Professor of English. Eisha Hewabowela, another Kelaniya graduate, continued to teach at the Department. Her work has revolved around Victorian literature, as well as European literature, in particular, on Honoré de Balzac, Gustave Flaubert, Anton Chekhov and Joseph Conrad. Interestingly, the first two decades of the Department’s existence had been completely dominated by men academics, whereas from the mid-2000s onwards, this trend started reversing, and today the Department’s permanent faculty consists of women scholars (apart from occasional male temporary assistant lecturers).
The English Students’ Association (ESA) of the Department was remarkably energetic during the 1980s. Prelude, a medley of three short plays was performed at the Lionel Wendt under the direction of Lakshmi de Silva: Sweeney Agonistes by T. S. Eliot, A Somewhat Mad and Grotesque Comedy by Ernest Macintyre and The Tinker’s Wedding by J.M. Synge. Members of the ESA also participated in the Festivals of Dramatized Ballads and Songs presented in Colombo by Haig Karunaratne. There were talks and workshops by the poet Anne Ranasinghe and Regi Siriwardena.
Blink, the official magazine of the Department of English, was started by Sharmini Jayawardana in 1982. The objective of the magazine was to provide a forum to harness the dormant and stirring creative forces of departmental students into a small booklet of poetry and prose. In keeping with the gigantic strides in technology, the magazine went online in 2017 and is today celebrating its 39th year of existence. Manique Gunesekera appraises Blink in the preface to the 2011 edition:
I have witnessed the birth and growth of BLINK, from a fledgling student magazine of short poems to what it is today: a repository of student thoughts spanning a range of topics from Facebook to Nostradamus...At one-time BLINK was all in verse, at another time it was strongly bilingual, in another it was one with the night: death, darkness, war, suicide, pain, totally noir. Today it has morphed into a state-of-the-art magazine by students who are comfortable with themselves... It is a proud moment to acknowledge that our students are no longer passive watchers...
Sharmini Jayawardana’s own poem, ‘Open Ended’, published in the first edition of Blink, was emblematic of student life at Kelaniya from time to time. An extract is quoted below.
Group of defeated students
Glass panes shattered to smithereens
Furniture heaped in the open
Gloomy suffocating fumes
Smoky unending feuds A day of heroism
A show of terrorism...
A noteworthy personality who visited the Department during this period was Hanif Kureishi, the famous British playwright and novelist of Pakistani and English descent, and the author of My Beautiful Launderette. In 1985, the University of Colombo organised an Inter-University Drama Competition which brought together undergraduates from virtually all universities. The Department produced an excerpt from the drama Henry VIII in which the highly acclaimed and versatile actor Ranmali Pathirana played a dignified Catherine of Aragon while Kumar de Silva took on the role of the obnoxious Cardinal Wolsey and Vindana Sirimanne performed as a heavily-padded Henry VIII. The Shakespeare Competition was followed by a drama competition on Bertolt Brecht in 1986; and the Department produced an Act from The Good Woman of Szechwan. In the ensuing year, the Competition focused on Bernard Shaw; and Kelaniya’s choice of a highly stylized production of a little known Shaw play Too Good to be True bagged the third place. After the enforced closure of Sri Lankan universities in the late-80s, the Competition was resurrected in the 90s as a festival to encourage theatrical creativity amongst university students. Unfortunately, this may well have been the very reason for its subsequent demise.
The year 1983 stands out as a black blotch of the decade due to the anguish of the ethnic violence perpetrated against the Tamil people by politicised Sinhala groups. The riots are understood to have led to the sensitisation and mobilisation of the rather insular undergraduates of the Department against Sinhala racism. Eisha Hewabowela relates how the students of the Department collected funds in the aftermath of the violence to rebuild the Jaffna Public Library that had been burnt down by Sinhala mobs, annihilating the entire archived history, language, literature and culture of the Tamil people at the strike of a match.
By 1987, the higher education system was under siege once again by the slow burning brutality of the second JVP revolution. Universities throughout the island (except for Jaffna and Eastern universities that had their own homegrown militant activity) were made to close down sporadically from 1987 onwards and completely from 1988 to 1990. The Report of the Presidential Commission on Youth (1990) reiterates the ever-widening disparity in opportunities for economic advancement between rural and urban youth as being a key contributor for the violence, apart from a persistent sense of injustice, corruption and bureaucratic apathy, and the use of the English Language by the urban elite as a sword of oppression, ‘Kaduwa’, to deny social mobility to rural youth.
During the early stages of the closure, the English Honours students of the Department organised clandestine lectures in Colombo with visiting lecturers like Regi Siriwardena, Yasmine Gooneratne, and Tissa Jayatilaka. Siriwardena always brought in a range of erudite critical theories to the literary topics under discussion. An alumna from the era remembers the departmental founder as a gentle, unassuming, cerebral giant who never once intimated his long history with, or contribution to, the Department. Another graduate of the period shares her memory of ‘one steaming hot August afternoon at a batchmate’s house down a seaside lane in Kollupitiya, where students sat around a dining table, eating Ramazan fare while being transported into the magical realms of James Joyce’s modernist masterpieces with Regi and then to the grim despondency of Eliot’s Wasteland’. Yet another speaks of Yasmine Gooneratne ironically scrutinising the self-conceits of Jane Austen’s captivating character, Emma.
Yet, what was supposed to have been a subversive project of going against the deadly edicts of the JVP by carrying on with academic classes and theatrical productions (of Harold Pinter’s The Lover, co-directed by undergraduates Maithree Wickramasinghe and Shamali de Silva, and Eugene Ionesco’s The Bald Soprano directed by Nedra Vittachchi at the Auditorium of the British Council in Colombo) soon led to despair as the universities showed no sign of reopening. Undergraduates were greatly disillusioned by 1988. Those who could afford it voyaged abroad to complete their degrees in foreign universities while others took on full time employment, with no hope of ever graduating.
Nevertheless, by 1990 the university reopened; there was an immense backlog of students due to the extended closure (that had to be cleared for years to come by taking in double batches). Furthermore, until 1992, the Department had to work from the vacant corridors, corners and crevices of the Faculty of Science while a new building was being constructed for the Faculty of Humanities opposite the Polwatte. The historic and idiosyncratic line of classrooms of the ‘Kadu Faculty’ had already been dismantled to give way to a new building for the Faculty of Commerce and Management Studies. Thereafter, from 1992 until 2015, the Department occupied the ground floor room in the K 2 block of the newly constructed Faculty of Humanities building, opposite the Department of Western Classics. With the move, academic staff were given individual workspaces in the form of glass cubicles, and over time, personal computers, and thereafter, laptops and projectors.
In 1991, Maithree Wickramasinghe joined the permanent academic cadre of the Department. Thereafter, there was a succession of temporary assistant lecturers; Dinali Fernando (who relocated to the University of Sri Jayawardenepura), Ruvani Ranasinha (who later joined King’s College London), and later on, Dinithi Karunanayake (who moved to the University of Colombo). Around this time, Dr. Lakshmi de Silva gave leadership to the Department.
Until the 1990s, as described by a graduate, the departmental English Honours syllabus spanned a spectrum of topics such as:
Shakespeare and his times, the novel from 18th century to Daniel Defoe, drama from the Medieval period, poetry from Chaucer onwards, the European novel, modern literature I (Realism and Naturalism - towards Ibsen’s drama), modern literature II (Poetry of the Theatre), literary criticism from Wordsworth onwards, literary criticism from Samuel Johnson to I.A. Richards, American literature, Sri Lankan and Indian literature, etc. Language courses included lexicography, morphology, politics, semantics, grammar, syntax and so on. A dissertation of 12,000 words had to be submitted 30 days after the final examination paper.
In the 1990’s Sri Lankan universities semi-transformed its higher educational system and curricula from the prevailing British configuration to a more-Americanised course unit system. From the cautious and traditional core of English literature, European work and language studies, the restructuring of the syllabi of the Department began to reflect new disciplinary contents from sociolinguistics, cultural studies, gender and women’s studies, media and liberal arts etc. Gunesekera (who headed the Department for a time) introduced an extensive focus on American literature and socio-linguistics. She ensured that the curricula of the DoE were innovative in its inclusion of professional and personality development skills long before they became mainstreamed into university curricula. Yet, as noted earlier, her chief contribution to the syllabus and to English Studies in general was her championing of Sri Lankan English as a legitimate variety of global English in order to dismantle the social, cultural and linguistic prejudices and politics that complicate the language in the country. Wickramasinghe is credited with revising the Literary Criticism paper to include literary theories spanning Structuralism to Poststructuralism and critical theories of Marxism, Feminism, Postcolonialism and Queer theory. This provided students with the much-needed contemporary theoretical perspectives on literature studies. She also mainstreamed women’s writing to the conventional literary canon hitherto espoused by the Department.
The 1990s saw departmental productions such as Caryl Churchill's Cloud Nine. Directed by Ruvani Ranasinha, ‘the finely effective production of Cloud Nine was as sharp and glossy as a deft scalpel, an incredible performance for amateurs which showed her skill in developing students’, writes Lakshmi de Silva. The ESA also produced Harold Pinter’s Mountain Language in the 1990s. There were talks organised by the ESA from time to time which included readings by Richard Murphy, Ernest McIntyre and Michael Ondaatje. Novelists Romesh Gunesekera (best known for Reef) and Shyam Selvadurai (of Funny Boy fame) also visited the Department. During the late 1990s, the Inter-university Drama Festival was resuscitated by the ESA with the participation of the University of Colombo and the newly established Sabaragamuwa University.
From 1996 to 2001, the DoE students (including Shyamani Hettiarachchi, Prabha Manuratne, and Mahishi Ranaweera) were invited by Professor Gunesekera to teach on the Orientation and GELT (Global Englishes for Teaching) courses of the ELTU. They were also instrumental in designing the Advanced Level General English textbook used between 1999-2016. These activities, in the spirit of service and adventure, provided departmental students of the 1990s with internship experiences (without it being termed as such) and subsequently channelled some of them to careers in teaching.
Another development in the early 1990s, was the launch of a gender circle prompted by Wickramasinghe, to discuss gender-related issues. It provided the scope for students to initiate discussions on gender inequality and inequity, women’s oppression, and patriarchy as it affects literature, language, advertising, culture and life in general. By the late 1990s, students Prabha Manuratne and Mahishi Ranaweera re-launched the gender circle as a bi-lingual platform. Compared to the student violence of the previous two decades, the 1990s can be summarised as a relatively calm era for Sri Lankan universities.
The Department entered into the new millennium of the 21st century rather quietly, ‘not with a bang but a whimper’ to quote T. S. Eliot’s lines. Graduates from the mid-2000s recollect a paucity of senior personnel in the Department during these years, as most of the permanent cadre were on study leave or sick leave. Prabha Manuratne, a graduate from the Department was engaged as a lecturer in 2003, followed by another Kelaniya graduate, Tanya Uluwitiya. ‘At one point, Ms. Tanya Uluwitiya had to conduct lectures virtually single-handedly’, observes a student from the 2000s. Visiting lecturers like Dinali Devendra were called upon to augment the cadre. At the same time, it must be noted that lecturers like Professor Sarathchandra Wickramasuriya, Kumar de Silva, Lakshman Fernando and Lyn Ockersz have all lectured at the Department at some point or the other during the course of the decades.
When Professor D.C.R.A. Goonetilleke retired in 2004, Professor Manique Gunesekera was appointed the Chair of the Department while Eisha Hewabowela was appointed the Head of the Department. Gunesekera, as the Chair, further expanded the existing soft skills courses aimed at enhancing the employability of students through courses on professional genres of writing, as well as on projects, proposals and presentations. These courses gave the students exposure to a wide range of employment opportunities as several imminent personalities representing an array of occupational sectors, including alumni who have excelled in their respective fields, were invited to share their expertise with students. Over the years, this was followed up by another innovative feature in the syllabus in the shape of formal student internships that were envisioned to introduce undergraduates to the world of real-life work. The students of the DoE were thus interning in the corporate sector, in NGOs, and in schools etc., as far back as in the 2000’s.
As Head, Hewabowela concentrated on upgrading the infrastructure and facilities of the Department, as well as putting in place some of its administrative practices. A graduate of the 2000s describes Professor Hewabowela:
She was always the hostess of the Department - always bringing in a boxed cake that she would feed to both staff and students as well as visitors. Although she had zealously screened off her cubicle with blood red curtains, we loved to find peepholes so that we could look into her room which was festooned in the style of Mrs. Havisham’s house from Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations – a roomful of excess in the drapes and tablecloths and carpets and mats, crowded bookcases and romantic pictures, ornaments, bric-a-bracs, and so on… There wasn’t a single unoccupied space.
The Department had one temporary assistant lecturer at the time who was Imali Wijesekere. After Hewabowela, Manique Gunesekera succeeded as Head once again in 2007 until she was appointed the Dean of the Faculty of Graduate Studies.
Following the tradition set by Gunesekera, the students of the DoE were again invited by Dr. Romola Rassool (the Head of the ELTU) in 2008 to teach on their intensive English course. Undergraduates, including Mahangu Weerasinghe, Andi Schubert, Dayani Abeysekera, Madhu Subasinghe, Varuni Karunaratne, etc., taught their non-English speaking juniors at the University.
In the late 2000’s, a group of undergrads headed by Andi Schubert set up and ran Kadu Panthi - a movement to connect volunteer English student teachers from the DoE with students from other departments who needed language support. Overall, students during this period had batch representatives in the student unions of both the Faculties of Science and Social Sciences. They produced street theatres and organised stalls at Bihidora Abiyasa, the annual exhibition organised by the University Students’ Union. In 2008, when a graduate from the Department, Vivimarie VanderPoorten won the Gratiaen Prize for her poetic work Nothing Prepares You, the DoE organised a felicitation.
By the early 2010s, the Department’s image was boosted further by the presence of three professors, the Chair Professor Manique Gunesekera and merit professors Professor Maithree Wickramasinghe and Professor Eisha Hewabowela.
In 2012, Maithree Wickramasinghe was appointed the Head of the Department. A specialist on gender, she is a scholar whose work interfaces research, teaching/training, policy development, evaluation, advocacy, speaking, and activism at both national and international levels. Her work spans a number of subjects/disciplines as evinced by her publication portfolio in the fields of critical and literary theory; women’s poetry; research methodology; gender and sexuality studies; as well as the intersects of gender in relation to development, disaster management, legal studies and medicine. She is best known for her work Feminist Research Methodology - Making Meaning of Meaning Making. As she was also the founding Director of the newly-established Centre for Gender Studies at the University of Kelaniya (CGSUK), the work of the Department and the Centre was collaboratively carried out. Lunchtime staff lectures by interdisciplinary speakers, as well as a festival of trilingual poetry in collaboration with the CGSUK and the departments of Sinhala and Linguistics were some of the cocurricular highlights of the time. The festival was an open air event which included readings and performances of poetry in English, Sinhala and Tamil by and of leading women poets in the country like Seetha Ranjanee, Vivimarie VanderPoorten, Sitralega Maunaguru, Kumari Gamage, Ramya Chamalie Jirasinghe, Leena Saputhanthri, Selvy Sivaramani, Monica Ruwanpathirana, Kamani Jayasekere, Vijayalakshmi, Anoma Rajakaruna and Sumathy Sivamohan.
A former special degree student recalls:
As students of the special degree, we got to share a unique relationship with Professor Maithree. We got to know her in ways that others didn’t; we knew that she enjoyed the simple things, that she was a foodie and had a sweet tooth, that her treats were to die for, and that she had a friendlier soul than she cared to let on. She is remembered for the silent questioning gaze - more like a death stare - that was characteristically hers and was the bane of the existence of the first years. It was her way of getting us to develop our own insights. It is certainly to her credit that graduates of the English Department are a headstrong bunch with strong opinions! She, a perfectionist, would not accept anything less than our very best, even when it was a non-academic matter of departmental festivities. “Let’s visualize” she would say, “we don’t want to miss anything”.
There were changes to the syllabi during this period that incorporated cutting-edge, thematic courses including those on diversity, gender and sexuality. Dinali Fernando was instrumental in introducing literary and language pedagogy courses into the syllabus so that English graduates would have theoretical and practical underpinnings for a future in teaching.
In 2013, the students represented the Department at the first interdepartmental debating competition organised by the Faculty of Commerce and Management Studies. The English team emerged winners of the tournament, capturing the prize for best debater (Sheshadri Kottearchchi). The DoE also produced an original play - an amalgamation of Ibsen’s prolific writing that recast some of his most dynamic women characters. Co-directed by Sabreena Niles and performed by the students of the Department under a Banyan tree (or the Mee Ambha Sevana) in the premises of the new senior common room building, the play titled A Reading of Henrik Ibsen’s Plays used minimal sets and props to explore and experiment with a range of new dramatic techniques. These endeavours were important in showcasing the versatility and creativity of departmental staff and students.
Professor Kamal de Abrew, Lakshman Fernando and Dinali Fernando were engaged as visiting lecturers to teach language and linguistics during this period. Moreover, ELTU/DELT (the English Language Teaching Unit became the Department of English Language Teaching in 2017) lecturers Romola Rassool, Hasitha Pathirana and Kaushalya Perera have often been associated with the Department as both lecturers and examiners. In particular, Lakshman Fernando, with his extensive knowledge of global literature has taught at the Department from time to time over many decades.
Another graduate from the DoE, Sabreena Niles joined the Department in 2013. Temporary lecturers of the DoE from 2011 onwards included Anton Pushparaj, Dinindu Karunanayake, Andi Schubert, Thilini Meegaswatte, Lakshani Willarachchi, Nethranjali Dissanayake, Nandula Perera, Arundhati Hettiarachchi, Thilini Prasadika, Avanthi Jayasuriya, Thavishi Dharmawimala, Aparna Hettiarachchi, Isuru Rathnayake and Lihini Boteju.
From the year 2014 to the end of 2015, Dr. Romola Rassool from the English Language Teaching Unit headed the Department of English. It is to her credit that she was able to manage the Department very resourcefully - without actually being a member of the departmental staff. She took the lead in laying the groundwork for the relocation of the DoE to spacious premises in the first floor of the Faculty of Humanities in 2016. During this period, special measures were taken to attract potential students to the DoE. For instance, during the orientation programme, leaflets were distributed among the students providing details of departmental faculty and the range of courses included in the syllabi.
An alumna notes: Dr. Romola Rassool was popular as the ‘lecturer who carried the designer handbag’. She was a very ‘real’ person and would share her every day frustrations with us so casually that we felt very close with her. When she came to the ESA food-stall, she wore the most ridiculous looking prop and took photos, and we were thrilled. In fact, she was the most ‘crazy’ person at all our events. When she finishes a sentence we wait for her ‘ha ha ha’ laugh and know that something has either gone extremely right or terribly wrong. She was a pro at wearing a composed face in times of trouble. When we panicked and looked to her for assurance we were sure to see her seated very straight and smiling or nodding very seriously. She was so good at multitasking and would always drag us into the ‘support crew’ and we loved it! During Dr. Romo’s time we could revive a lot of events of the ESA because she was very supportive.
Thereafter, Dinali Fernando became the Head in 2016, having re-joined the Department in 2012. During her tenure, she strengthened the department’s links with the English teaching community by conducting teacher training seminars on teaching literature and language for outstation English teachers. This was an activity that was immensely appreciated by teachers who constantly requested additional seminars. Another successful highlight was the academic and literary collaboration with the students of the Department of Linguistics and English of the University of Jaffna in 2016 - the North- South Academic and Performance Collaboration funded by GIZ-FLICT Sri Lanka, so as to contribute towards the process of ethnic reconciliation in the country. The production titled (E)Merging Memories was conceptualised based on the work of several acclaimed poets and performed in the University of Jaffna and the Punchi Theatre, Colombo. Directed by Chalana Wijesuriya and Akhila Sapumal, the dramatic production was received enthusiastically by audiences. From 2015, the Department initiated an Undergraduate Research Symposium for students titled Gnosis. This provided the platform for student research to be presented to the academic community, which in turn, led to students experiencing the intellectual interactions of audience criticism and gaining the self-confidence of riposte.
One graduate shares her memories of Fernando:
Ms. D, as we fondly call Ms. Dinali Fernando, can be spotted in any crowd with her trademark messy hair, radiant smile and bubbly personality. (Alternatively, you could just tune your ears to her quirky, slightly high-pitched voice - probably saying something like “and then I saw this huuuuge signboard with the name ‘Game Kade’, and thought what a funny name and then it clicked me that it was actually ‘Gamey Kadey’. Interesting, isn’t it?”). She has the knack of making Varieties of English/ World Englishes etc. interesting to anyone and we used to love her lectures. … Ms. D is sure to be there when it matters the most and give us a hug of welcome whenever our paths cross. Replying to a comment I once made about me being a literature person than a language person, one of the most memorable advices given by Ms. D was “don’t limit yourself to one camp. Be an all-rounder”.
In December 2015, the students and alumni of the DoE were shocked and distressed to learn of the untimely demise of Professor Manique Gunesekera who had been greatly loved and admired by the academic community. Her dynamic and effervescent presence is missed not only by the Department, but by the English Language Teaching Unit, as well as all in the fields of English Studies and English Language Teaching both in tertiary and in secondary education. In fact, it was her far-sightedness in 1998 that led to the appointment of the first cadre position of a lecturer (departmental graduate Romola Rassool) in an ELTU within the university system, which later paved the way to a fully-fledged English Language Teaching Department at Kelaniya and subsequently in all other Sri Lankan universities.
As a tribute to her memory, the Department launched the Kelaniya English Literary Festival (KELF) in 2017. The event was a celebration of Professor Gunesekera’s life and work and the subsequent theme for KELF 2018 centred around her vision to enhance the accessibility of English and English Literature. Today, the festival is an annual event; it attracts schoolchildren and visitors to the University to experience departmental activities in the form of dramas, literary readings, seminars, talks, film shows, Kuppi classes for Advanced Level students, teacher trainings, a scrabble corner, etc. It has also provided the platform for various acclaimed writers like Sunila Galappatti, Ashok Ferrey, Ameena Hussein, Vivimarie VanderPoorten, award-winning filmmaker Anomaa Rajakaruna, as well as undergraduates to showcase their writing and performance skills - sometimes with extracts from Blink. It is a combined endeavour by the Department and the English Student’s Association and has been lauded as an important venture for branding and enhancing the image of the university.
In January 2016, the Department was relocated to a more spacious room in the first floor of the Faculty of Humanities. This upgrade allowed for a small reception area, a basic pantry, a carpeted floor, air-conditioning, floor cushions and a central community table that has stimulated regular luncheon meetings and birthday celebrations of comradery and cooperation.
The latest addition to the DoE is Dr Shashikala Assella who joined the department as a senior lecturer in 2018. A graduate from the Sabaragamuwa University, she holds a PhD from the University of Nottingham and an MA from the Jawaharlal Nehru University, India, and has developed an interest in the emergent field of Digital Humanities amongst other expertise in women’s literature and feminist studies.
In 2018, merit professor Maithree Wickramasinghe was promoted to the position of Chair Professor of the Department. In 2019, Dr. Prabha Manuratne was appointed the Head of the Department. Manuratne’s work is located in feminism and cultural studies and she has numerous publications, including translations to her credit. She has consistently promoted inclusivity both as a departmental theoretical interest, as well as a university policy and practice. She possesses an impressive linguistic acuity, array and authority - in both English and Sinhala discourses that has served to empower the Department.
If you are at the Department of English, and feel a gust of wind pass through you to another department, rest assured that it is Dr. Prabha Manuratne. She would have 1001 commitments on her plate, but she would still find time to go through every word I have written and tell me how I can improve. And if one wants to learn critical theories, Dr Prabha is the place to be. When I came out to Dr Prabha as queer, she made sure that her cubicle door has a sign that says “safe space”. She is that lecturer who left an indelible mark in your heart and that ally who made this homophobic space a safe space for you. Her calm personality and fierce work ethic inspire me every day, mentions a student of Manuratne.
Two temporary assistant lecturers, Isuru Rathnayake and Lihini Boteju are at the forefront in the Department today working diligently under COVID conditions, shouldering much of the Department’s cocurricular activities, while the Department’s Staff Management Assistant (formerly known as Clerk) Deepani Weerawardhana and Works Aide S.P.M Madhushani extend invaluable support for the day-to-day activities.
Despite the long and noble history of the DoE as one of the oldest in the university, if not the country, this distinction is not always attributed to the Department. Conversely, the status of the DoE has, in the past, often been distorted, dismissed, disparaged, and defamed as the ‘Kadu Faculty’. The language politics relating to English within the universities can be traced to the socio-political climate in which the university morphed from its pirivena state to its secular status. Previously, the University of Ceylon, modelled on Oxbridge tradition conducting its affairs in the English language, had been considered an elitist establishment; its atmosphere alien and hostile to the traditions of the country.
Thus, as noted earlier, the Official Languages Act (1956) sought to rectify the continuing hegemony of the English language and culture within the affluent classes and the educational/professional fields, by elevating the Sinhala language at the expense of linguistically and culturally marginalising the Tamil and English languages. The Swabasha students in the universities from 1960 onwards, as well as some academics, were thus inclined to view the DoE in relation to its irrefutable colonial heritage. Even in 2005, sixty-two years after Independence, Manique Gunesekera writes, ‘the fact that English is referred to as the sword is indicative of its power in Sri Lankan society. English represents privilege and access to the upper echelons of society. English is perceived by the majority of Sri Lankans as the sword which divides society between the privileged and the downtrodden’. This is despite the many other inequalities and intersects among and relating to sex, gender, ethnicity, religion, class, caste, disability etc., in Sri Lankan society.
The origins of English Studies in Sri Lanka has made it a conflicted subject of study. Apart from the historical and cultural vestiges of English, the English language is still considered a potent postcolonial marker of continuing local privilege amongst affluent and professional classes of people, as well as the private sector. However, the social disparagement of those who do not speak or write what is considered to be ‘Standard English’ by the neocolonial establishment, seems to have eased with the proliferation and recognition of different varieties of English, globally. Yet, the DoE continues to be projected as an easy trope for the neocolonial undercurrents and inequalities associated with the British imperialist project by politicised sections of the university and student populace. Moreover, today, it has become expedient to point to departments of English as symbols of Western cultural hegemony, as well as the manifold threads of contemporary Western globalisation, despite the impact of transnationalism/multinationalism on all disciplines of higher education as a whole. These perceptions are seen to be complicated and often contradicted by the pervasive drive amongst the Sinhala and Tamil speaking populace to learn the English language as an avenue for empowerment and upward social mobility. Thus despite these hesitations and misgivings about, as well as prejudice against, English as a discipline, there is an urgent desire for the acquisition of English language skills.
Historically, there have been charges against English Department students as being isolated and self-centered, perhaps due to the DoE’s initial geographical isolation, or perhaps due to the augmentation of class and language differences by observers. However, another possible reason for this isolation could well have been the fact that a majority of the undergraduates reading English from the late 1970s onwards have been women students. ‘We felt a little odd to get involved with some of the general batch activities organised and dominated by men students’, explains a graduate from the late 70s. Consequently, not only the geographical location, and language and class disparities, but differences in gender may have also come into play in perceptions about the Department even though departmental students have often initiated various activities to surmount the isolation (including the Street Theatre of Gamini Haththotuwegama, the students’ Kadu Panthi movement, participation in various societies and competitions, and the food and other stalls for the Student Union’s Bihidora Abiyasa). While undergraduates in the DoE have avoided student politics in general, there have been many instances, over the decades, when undergraduates of English have joined the various student councils affiliated to political parties and thereafter, the Student Council of the Inter-University Students’ Federation. Yet, despite all these efforts, and despite the fact that the power and status dynamics of English in the country has shifted over the decades, the DoE has often been compelled to engage with some of these complex legacies and preconceptions.
By the late 2000s, the Department had to contend with other sociopolitical issues as well. Over the decades, the DoE had earned a reputation as being against the practice of the university subculture of ragging new entrants. Consequently, it was seldom that English departmental seniors would rag their juniors.
Since the Department supported the anti-ragging movement and was armed with what others call ‘kadda’, the majority of the university community did not move with DoE students. However, there were exceptions. I believe it is something to do with the image of the department than individual students, writes a recent graduate.
The departmental stand on ragging was crystallised as unofficial departmental policy in 2012 under the headship of Wickramasinghe, when the Department began the practice of welcoming students and providing practical and moral support to freshers to withstand ragging. This also opened fresh avenues for conversations and action with the faculty, student union, and later, university administrators (including the UGC), on the issue of ragging.
The DoE has not only integrated concepts of diversity in identity (including sex/gender, body, sexual orientation, ethnicity, language, class, religion, nationhood, disability, neuro-diversity, age, etc.) into curricula, it has also provided a safe space for those who have been unable or unwilling to express their identities openly in Sri Lankan society. Inclusive education lies at the heart of the DoE, as it corresponds with the core values of the department in fostering a culture of tolerance, respect and empathy both within and outside the confines of the classroom. Manuratne has been a livewire in this process and served as the Director of Inclusive Education under the Accelerating Higher Education Expansion and Development (AHEAD) project of the Sri Lankan Government and the World Bank to reform the higher education sector. Currently, the position is occupied by Sabreena Niles, a Senior Lecturer in the Department. The DoE has also displayed that its values are not limited to paper by engaging a departmental graduate who is visually impaired in the capacity of a temporary assistant lecturer.
This complicated trope of the DoE as nonconforming towards the often brutal student subculture along with its unjust and oppressive social mores, has perhaps contributed towards the independence and individuality of the Department. In spite of all these political dynamics, or perhaps because of them, one graduate from as far back as the 70s comments:
Going to a local University was the best thing that happened to me. It was learning about life and that was my achievement. A degree is nothing now, but the value of those three years is priceless.
In the 1960s and 70s, the few undergraduates in the Department of English came from elitist Colombo schools; however, this has changed over the decades, especially with the impetus for tertiary education abroad. A majority of the students at the Department today are from various provincial schools across the country.
The Department also conducted an external degree program from 1991 onwards. However this has been discontinued in recent times as the large numbers who registered for the courses over the decades could not achieve the desired standards of the degree through independent study. A number of postgraduate students have obtained Master’s Degrees by dissertation from the DoE over the decades. A noteworthy student who was awarded a PhD was Dr. Bullus from Nigeria.
As noted in this narrative, several graduates from the Department have become eminent scholars. Apart from those referred to earlier, there is the internationally renowned Professor Suresh Canagarajah, originally of the University of Jaffna, now an Endowed Professor of Applied Linguistics at Pennsylvania State University, and acclaimed by the American Association of Applied Linguistics as one of the 50 best applied linguists in the world; the late Professor Chelva Kanaganayakam who ended up as the Director of the Centre of South Asian Studies, University of Toronto; Professor George Braine (retired) from the Chinese University of Hong Kong; Chair Professor Arjuna Parakrama, Professor Walter Perera and Dr. Nihal Fernando (retired) of the University of Peradeniya who work in the domain of English Studies; Professor Dilkushi Senaratne, Dr. Romola Rassool, Mahishi Ranaweera and Rusiru Chitrasena of the Department of English Language Teaching, Western Classics Scholar Professor Kamani Jayasekere, Dr. Shyamani Hettiarachchi in Disability Studies of the Medical Faculty, French Scholar Professor Niroshini Gunesekere and German Scholar Professor Nilakshi Premawardena in the University of Kelaniya; Kanchana Bandara of the University of Moratuwa; Professor Mahim Mendis, Dr. Vivimarie VanderPoorten, Andi Schubert, Thilini Meegaswatte, Natashya Chamba, Nazreena Markar (Mubarak) of the Open University of Sri Lanka; Nandula Perera and Dilinie Gunarathna of the University of Colombo; Nethranjalie Dissanayake and Onandi Wijayaratne of the University of Ruhuna and Lakshani Willarachchi of the General Sir John Kotelawala Defence University. Antoinette Hettiaratchy (nee Vanlangenberg) is a Senior Lecturer in English at the Sri Lanka Institute of Technology. Dr. Rondy de Silva is listed as Senior Lecturer in International Business at Sheffield Hallam University.
The school teaching service seems to have been the natural destination for a number of graduates from the Department. They include Shanthi Dias (nee Thambar) who retired as the Principal of Methodist College, Vaidhehi Perera (nee Santhanam), and Sajeevanie Bandara. Darshana Samaraweera has served as the Deputy Director General of the National Institute of Education (Languages, Humanities, and Social Sciences), the premier government institution on teacher-training and educational policy.
In the Sri Lankan foreign service, Kelaniya graduates include career diplomats, the late Romesh Jayasinghe (Ambassador to Belgium and the EU; High Commissioner to India; and Secretary, Ministry of Foreign Affairs), Asala Weerakoon (Ambassador to the United Sates; High Commissioner to India; Secretary, Ministry of Foreign Affairs; Senior Secretary to the President; and Secretary General of SAARC), as well as Niluka Kadurugamuwa, High Commissioner to India, Buddhika Wimalasena and Chathura Weerasekera.
There have been several award-winning creative writers from the DoE. Kamani Jayasekere has won several literary awards for her poetry and short stories including the State Literary Award (2004) and the Godage National Literary Awards in 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015, 2017 and 2020. Vivimarie VanderPoorten is an acclaimed poet who won the Gratiaen Prize for her collection of poems, Nothing Prepares You, in 2007. The most recent poet to win a national award is Lakshani Willarachchi, who won the Godage National Literary Award for her anthology of poems Bherunda. Her work was launched and felicitated by the Department in 2019. Other poets and short story writers include Lyn Ocersz, Yasmin Azad, Samantha Sirimanne-Hyde, Aditha Dissanayake, Jayani Senanayake, and Shirani Rajapakse. Those that have become journalists include Waruni Karunaratne, Manique Mendis (formerly Karunaratne), Nilmini Karunaratne, and Yomal Senerath Yapa.
Ranmali Mirchandani (nee Pathirana), Saumya Liyanage and Sabreena Niles have excelled in theatre. Kumar de Silva is a renowned figure who has traversed many domains of culture. Prasad Pereira has worked as an Assistant Director on several international film productions, including Deepa Mehta’s Midnight’s Children.
In the sphere of corporate business, Shakthi Ranatunga currently holds the position of Group Director – Chief Turnaround Officer at MAS Holdings and Sandya Salgado has retired as CEO of Ogilvy Outreach. Anusha David wears many hats as the Headlines PR Chairperson, Interbrand Sri Lanka Director, Founder and Chairperson of Rescue Animals Sri Lanka and as a couture designer. Emphasis, a leading PR and Event Management company is headed by its Founder and Managing Director, Glenda Parthipan (Ludowyk). Kumari Perera has become a pioneering woman photographer managing Court Studio. Angeline Singam is a finance / regulatory compliance manager in Sydney, Australia.
Alumni have also worked in international development organisations and multilateral agencies such as the United Nations, the World Bank, Asian Development Bank, Asia Foundation and AUSAID. These include Nelun Gunasekera, Shamali de Silva, Nadira Mailewa, Manoja LiyanaArachchi, and Sheshadri Kottearachchi.
Dr. Sepali Kottegoda and Shirani Mills are at the forefront of women’s rights as directors of women’s organisations and as activists. Isurinie Mallawaarachchi is involved in the field of queer rights.
Andi Schubert serves as the editor of the prestigious Polity Journal, published by the Social Scientists’ Association of Sri Lanka.
It must be noted that alumni listed above are limited to those who captured the notice of the writers when researching for this article.
The Department is currently chaired by Professor Maithree Wickramasinghe and headed by Dr. Prabha Manuratne. The six members of the permanent cadre include academics with postgraduate qualifications from both local and international universities: The University of Colombo; the Institute of Education and King’s College of the University of London, UK; Manchester University, UK; the University of Reading, UK; University of Nottingham, UK; Kansas State University and University at Buffalo, USA; and the Jawaharlal Nehru University, India.
The interdisciplinary nature of English Studies in the 21st century is symbolised in the specialisations of the academics and the expertise of faculty members that encompass Cultural Studies, Applied and Socio-Linguistics, European Literature, Feminist Research Methodology, Women’s Studies, Literary and Critical Theory, Postcolonial Literature, Film Studies, Theatre and Performance Studies, Gender and Development, and Digital Humanities.
Historically, the University has been seen to traverse from an educational establishment signifying modernity, positivism, secularism, and distinctive academic values and traditions within a welfare state to that of one embodying neo-liberal impulses within a market economy, often grappling with the contradictions of post-modern conditions and an increasing subscription to a form of hegemonic Buddhism. Those who were considered to be the ‘Renaissance men’ of English academia with multiple disciplinary interests and personal talents are today being replaced by women scholars who, though they instill the same galaxy of interdisciplinary interests, are also strongly sensitive to the post-modernity of their times.
While the faculty at the Department has been affectionately labeled ‘interesting’, ‘colourful’ and even ‘mad’ and ‘eccentric’ over the years, they have always been considered highly skilled and professional. They have often moved adroitly and comfortably from their roles as lecturers, to creative writers to translators, to interdisciplinary researchers to critics, to theatre directors, to filmmakers, to teacher trainers to international speakers, to policymakers to policy administrators to evaluators, and to activists in a gamut of fields.
The Department is currently reviewing and revising its academic purview in line with recent developments and challenges within academia locally and globally, which includes the increasing interdisciplinarity of English Studies internationally as well as the expertise of staff members. The recent institution of the Department of English Language Teaching (DELT) at Kelaniya, as well as its mandate, also interfaces with some of the Department’s work. The drive towards incorporating digital technologies and blended learning, in particular, has called into question conventional pedagogies within the Humanities. Moreover, globalisation in the domains of international development, digital technology, finance and the economy has led to neoliberal cultures (of competition, commercialisation, methodisation, standardisation and the evaluation of higher education) that are impacting the hitherto nature of higher education. These forces, as well as the local dynamics relating to the changing needs and face of employment, together with the politics and micropolitics relating to language, ideology and the university, and today, the unprecedented and multi-dimensional effects of COVID19 have compelled the Department to reconsider its conventional mandate in favour of a more diverse and interdisciplinary vision.