Sucharitha Gamlath: the exodus of a colossus
The loss of Sri Lanka's leading literary authority Sucharitha Gamlath was grieved by intellectuals as an insurmountable void in art and culture as well as political philosophy.
Professor Gamlath who passed away at 80 was referred to as teacher, pundit, writer, critic, comrade and traitor, where he wore all these hats with equal ease.
“The land that we were born is a waste land in the absence of people like Sucharitha,” said Dr. Jude Lal Fernando of Trinity College in Dublin.
Disciplined by Marxism from his student days Professor Gamlath pioneered the introduction of Marxist literary criticism to Sri Lanka’s majority community, the Sinhalese.
His writings comprising many books and numerous articles enriched the Sinhala reader with knowledge from the east as well as the west.
His versatility both in classical and modern languages of the orient and the west enabled him to impart this knowledge in incomparable prose.
Gee Mini Aara
In a bid to bring literary appreciation to people of all walks of life, he contributed to BBC Sinhala service for over one and a half decades in a programme that appreciated the literary value of Sinhala lyrics.
The well received 'Gee Mini Aara' (River of Lyrical Gems) was later printed in three volumes.
His highly acclaimed achievement in serving both the Sinhala and English languages was the compiling of the most comprehensive Sinhala-English dictionary to date.
Editor of the Sinhala encyclopaedia KNO Dharmadasa has called it a 'mammoth task'.
"Sucharitha has introduced thousands of new words to the Sinhala lexicon," Professor Dharmadasa wrote in appreciation.
He was awarded the Doctor of Philosophy degree by the University of London in 1966 for his thesis on a comparative research to oriental and western aesthetic theories.
The university was persuaded by leading western philosopher Karl Popper to relax entrance regulations in order to accommodate Sucharitha solely on the strength of his doctoral research.
Quest for harmony
Appointed to the Jaffna University where a majority of undergraduates were Tamil, he later served as its Dean of the Faculty of Humanities, Head of the Departments of Philosophy, English and Sinhala as well as the Chief Student Counsellor.
Tamil poet and Associate Professor at the University of Windsor, Dr Rudhramoorthy Cheran called him a 'colossus' who was a 'lover of languages with a sharp and creative mind'.
"For Sinhala - Tamil linguistic solidarity, Gamlath's contributions were immense," said Dr Cheran.
Professor Gamlath’s quest for harmony between the two nations did not stop at linguistic solidarity.
“You might find many Sinhala pundits in Sri Lanka, but you cannot find a Sinhala pundit like Prof Sucharitha Gamlath who stood for the Sinhala oppressed classes as well as for the right to self-determination of the Tamil nation,” said Dr Jude Lal Fernando.
Introducing Marxist literary theory to an academia steeped in the idealist school of thought led by leading academic on fine arts Professor Ediriweera Sarachchandra had been an uphill task.
Sucharitha said that it was never accepted by those who did not want to break away from the mainstream of literary criticism.
“I was unable to survive for even a year in the university once this movement for a new analytical method was launched,” he said.
The ruling JR Jayewardene government sacked him in the late seventies.
Prof Sarachchandra recalling at a latter day that Prof Gamlath was once his student at the University of Peradeniya said, "Sucharitha was the disciple who surpassed the Guru".
During the ceasefire between the Government of Sri Lanka and Tamil Tigers, Professor Gamlath visited the LTTE controlled Vanni to be honoured by Tamil academics and writers.
While playing a leading role in the Sinhala Tamil cultural festival organised by the Hiru Group in the capital during the same period, Professor Gamlath came under attack by organised Sinhala extremists who called him a 'traitor'.
Tamil critic and linguist MA Nuhuman says that only a few Tamils readers knew about his work.
Going against the grain of popular Sinhala majority support for Sri Lanka government's resurgence of the war against Tamil Tigers in 2006, he led a group of several leading artistes calling to provide unhindered access to food and medicine for Tamil civilians in the north.
The appeal highlighted that the closing of the main highway to the Jaffna peninsula created an enormous humanitarian crisis.
In 2008 Sucharitha Gamlath was felicitated in an event organised by workers, peasants, fisher folk and teachers.
"It is the greatest honour to be appreciated by oppressed Tamils as well as the oppressed underclass," Professor Gamlath told the gathering in Colombo.
Professor Nuhuman said, "Sucharitha came under constant attack by Sinhala supremacists since he incessantly wrote and spoke on behalf of the self determination of Tamils".
However, a leftist leader called Sucharitha Gamlath 'a hero for the Sinhalese'.
“While unwaveringly standing for the rights of the Tamils, Comrade Sucharitha utilised his massive wealth of knowledge to enrich the Sinhala public with the wisdom of lands beyond their reach,” General Secretary of the Nava Sama Samaja Party Dr Vickramabahu Karunaratna told the hundreds who gathered at the main cemetery in the capital on Monday to pay their last respects.
Professor Gamlath was working during his final years on an English-Sinhala-Tamil trilingual dictionary that he initiated with the late Professor Karthigesu Sivathamby.
Although Sucharitha Gamlath finalised the edition months before his demise, he was unable to raise the necessary funds to publish the finished work.