Prof. Karthigesu Sivathamby, an academic par excellence died on July 6, 2011 at the age of 79 years.
He was duly recognized in Sri Lanka and overseas, particularly in South India where he was well respected. Many accolades were showered on him, but his close connections with Zahira College, Colombo and its Principal, late Dr. A.M.A. Azeez, have not been highlighted as they are not known to many.
Prof. Sivathamby delivered the Dr. A.M.A. Azeez Oration in 2000. In his opening words he said that “This invitation, in my view, affirms my identity as an Old Zahirian, and more importantly recognizes the fact of my association with Mr. Azeez during the time I taught at Zahira (1956 to 1961), but more importantly after that from 1961 to his death, with a break of about two to three years when I was a student at Birmingham University (1967 September to 1970 March)”. These emotional words prompted me to write this article of his life as a student and teacher at Zahira during the Azeez era. Many Zahirians will remember his tall and portly figure in school. He came to Zahira for admission dressed in a verti, banian and shawl and was the only student permitted to attend school in these clothes.
During the Principalship of Dr. Azeez from 1948 to 1961, Zahira attracted students of all communities from all over the Island. The reasons could be attributed to his reputation as the first Muslim Civil Servant and his academic, administrative and disciplinary skills. It may be said that the Tamils in particular joined Zahira, since Azeez was well respected by their community having been born and spent his childhood and entire schooling in Jaffna. His education in Hindu schools made him an erudite scholar in Tamil and English and having a sound knowledge of Hinduism. He was also influenced by his paternal uncle Asena Lebbe Pulavar, who was a Tamil scholar. Over 100 students entered the University of Ceylon from Zahira and shone in their fields as academics, professionals and administrators. This number was a large figure in those days.
Karthigesu Sivathamby was born on 10th May, 1932 at Karaveddy in Jaffna. His father T.P. Karthigesu was a Tamil Pundit, Saiva Pulavar and a great Tamil scholar who was held in high esteem by the people of Vadamarachchy. He was a teacher for quite some time in schools in the Kalutara District, where he taught the subject of Tamil mostly to Muslim students.
Having passed the S.S.C. Examination at Vigneswara Vidyalaya, Karaveddi, Sivathamby was brought to Colombo by his father and admitted to Zahira College. He spent four years at Zahira (1949 to 1952), as he could not get sufficient marks in his first and second attempts due to long illness and entered the University at Peradeniya in his third attempt. Dr. S. Ratnajeevan Hoole in one of his recent articles says that “it is thanks to Zahira College that Sivathamby received a sound school education leading him to University”.
At that time Zahira had a team of able teachers in all subjects. Sivathamby came under the tutelage by a coterie of teachers including Pundit M. Nallathamby, S.M. Kamaldeen, M.M. Uwise, Navaliyoor S. Nadarajan, M.A. Mohamed, S. Shanmugaratnam and Pundit P. Kandiah, who were the teachers in the subject of Tamil.
Sivathamby entered the Arts Faculty of the University of Ceylon in 1953 with S. Selvanayagam, M. Sheriff, A.M. Sameem, A.L. Wijewickrama and S.H.M. Haniffa. E. Pararajasingham (Science), A.R.M. Mansoor (Medicine) and A.D.V. Premaratne (Medicine) too entered in this year. After graduation Sivathamby, Selvanayagam and Sameem joined the teaching staff at Zahira. Later Selvanayagam joined the University and became Professor of Geography and died prematurely in a tragic motor accident. Azeez’s call to Zahirians to join the teaching staff after graduation was well responded. Some continued and became fine teachers while others used this as a stepping stone for their future, of course with Azeez’s blessings.
The students of that era still remember the excellent manner in which Sivathamby taught the subjects of Tamil and Ceylon History. He made History so interesting that many students started reading the entire translation of Wilhelm Geiger’s Mahavamsa, copies of which were available in the College Library.
While being a student at the College, he started participating in Radio Programmes, specially in dramas. He emerged to be an excellent actor. After he became a teacher, he began conducting weekly programmes over the Radio, specially Manavar Manram (Students’ Forum) in which he encouraged many of his students to participate and some of whom still continue to conduct programmes even today for the last half a century.
“With Azeez’s background he encouraged the blossoming and flourishing of Tamil at Zahira. He developed the ‘Tamil Manram’, stimulated the art of Tamil oratory and encouraged inter-school debates. Every month a distinguished Tamil scholar addressed the ‘Tamil Manram’.
A result of this was that the College produced a fine crop of Zahirians who dominated the fields of Tamil literature, journalism, drama, oratory, classical literature, fiction and literary criticism”. These observations were made by M.M.M. Mahroof, an old Zahirian and an excellent teacher at Zahira
Sivathamby was in charge of the ‘Tamil Manram’ when A.C.L. Ameer Ali was President and I was the Secretary. He took it to great heights. During his University days he had acted in many plays. At Zahira he produced a drama ‘Nilalkal’, the Tamil version of Henrik Ibsen’s “Ghosts”, which was staged at the Ghaffoor Hall and its success was hailed by everyone.
Azeez’s ideas were to have excellent teachers, up to date laboratories and a well stocked library which he achieved during his period. The library was under his care and he had Sivathamby, A.M. Sameem and M.M.M. Mahroof to assist with M.L.M. Farook as the librarian. It was said that it was one of the best school libraries at the time.
The culmination of Sivathamby’s calibre in teaching was reflected in the performance of his students. At the University Entrance and H.S.C. examinations in December 1959, A.C.L. Ameer Ali and I received the All-Island highest marks for Tamil and received the C.Y. Thamotherampillai Memorial Prize. At the G.A.Q. Examination in April 1961 out of 75 students three Muslim students gained the first three places with ‘A’ grade for Tamil. The first two were Zahirians S.H.M. Jameel and A.C.L.
Ameer Ali. Jameel received the Francis Kingsbury Prize and the high marks he received have still not been surpassed. The third was M.M. Maqbool who was a student at Vaidyeshwara Vidyalaya, Jaffna, Azeez’s old school. (Maqbool was killed by the LTTE when he was G.A. Mannar).
In the G.A.Q. examination in 1962, it was another student of Sivathamby who was the only student who received ‘A’ grade for Tamil, namely M.A.M. Shukri of Zahira. All these successes were by competing with Tamil students. In a recent article Sivathamby had said that Azeez was thrilled at these achievements and commended him.
About a year ago Susil Sirivardana, Ali Azeez (son of A.M.A. Azeez) and myself visited Prof. Sivathamby at his residence at Dehiwela, Though his eyesight was failing he spoke at length for nearly two hours on his academic and political life. He spoke lovingly of Zahira and affectionately of Dr. A.M.A. Azeez.
Prof. Sivathamby had authored 70 books and 200 research papers in Tamil and English. He had dedicated his book ‘Being a Tamil and Sri Lankan’ to Dr. A.M.A. Azeez with the words “He, more than any one else, ensured the continuity of my academic career”. For his close connections with the Muslims, the Muslim Media Forum had felicitated him.
Prof. Sivathamby’s tribute to Dr. A.M.A. Azeez in the book ‘A.M.A. Azeez – A Profile’ and his Oration in 2000 can be viewed on the website www.azeezfoundation.com
S.H.M. Jameel is the President of the Dr. A.M.A. Azeez Foundation