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Thus have we seen in visions of the wise !."

- Tamil Poem in Purananuru, circa 500 B.C 

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Home > Tamils - a Trans State Nation > One Hundred Tamils of the 20th Century > S.J.Gunasegaram

One Hundred Tamils of the 20th Century

Samuel Jeyanayagam Gunasegaram

from a Biographical Introduction by James T. Rutnam, 1985
[see also S..J.Gunasegaram - Selected Writings ]


Samuel Jeyanayagam Gunasegaram was born on the 21st March 1901 at Chundikuli in the Jaffna Peninsula. He was the eldest son of Joseph Muttiah Gunasegaram, whose family originally hailed from Maviddapuram, and Susan Arulpragasam of Moolai. He had the advantage of receiving a sound primary education under his father – a school-master, Christian catechist and Tamil scholar.

Gunasegaram was a devoted and loyal alumnus of St. John’s College, a leading educational institution in Jaffna, where he served for a time (1922 to 1934) as Senior Master in English and History. He was the Editor of the Jubilee Number of the College Magazine in 1932 and the author of the College Anthem.

He was one of the earliest students of the University College, Colombo, and he also attended the Colombo Training College for Teachers, where he distinguished himself by winning the prize for short-story writing and the Gold Medal at the annual oratorical contest. At the Training College he came under the influence of the late Professor Leigh Smith who taught him Shakespeare and English Poetry, subjects which never failed to absorb Gunasegaram’s interest. He took Tamil at the London Matriculation examination, and later secured the Tamil Teacher’s Certificate of the Education Department, qualifying in Tamil Language and Literature. He graduated as an external student of the University of London with Second Class Honours in Philosophy, and finally obtained the Master’s degree specialising in History of Philosophy and Sociology. Professor J.L.C. Rodrigo has stated that he was “one of the first of our pupils to specialise in Sociology”. Gunasegaram was a most versatile student, and some of the subjects, besides Tamil, where he obtained proficiency at the various London University examinations were Latin, History, English, Logic and Ethics.

Gunasegaram was the Principal of St. Thomas College, Matara, for two years until 1936, when he was invited to join the Government Inspectorate of Schools. He was soon made a Divisional Inspector of Schools, later Education Officer. He served in the Western, Northern, Eastern and Central Provinces of Ceylon. For a time he was at the Head Office of the Education Department at Colombo and in charge of all Government Schools in the Island. He was also a District Commissioner in the Ceylon Scout Movement. In 1956 he retired from the Government Educational Service. His last appointment at Colombo before he left for Jaffna in 1958 was at St. Thomas College, Mount Lavinia, where he was a popular teacher under Warden de Saram.

He just missed an appointment as Reader in Philosophy at the University of Ceylon, but latterly he was appointed by this University as a tutor in English to new entrants who had been educated at school in the Sinhala and Tamil media. He was a founder-member and a modest benefactor of the Tamil University Movement and a member of its Executive Committee. He lectured in English and Philosophy to undergraduates at Navalar Hall, the Colombo institution of the Movement. He was associated with R.R. Crosette Tambiah in the production of the monthly journal “Tamil” during 1955.

He was a popular public lecturer and had visited Malaya where he lectured on such subjects as Tamil Language and Literature, Tamil Culture, Tamils in South-East Asia and Ceylon History. He was a member of the Ceylon Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society, the Tamil Cultural Society and the Classical Association where he read interesting papers on Tiruvalluvar’s Kural and on Socrates.

He was a sportsman of no mean ability, a member of the Football teams at St. John’s and the Colombo Training Colleges, and a Tennis Champion of the Eastern Province in Ceylon. He liked swimming, being a confident and daring swimmer, and he would often be seen solitarily enjoying himself afloat in the Indian Ocean by the shores of Mount Lavinia or Batticaloa. In his prime he was a perfect example of mens sana in corpore sano.

The last few years of Gunasegaram’s life were the most noteworthy. They formed a glorious sunset. He devoted these years almost entirely to the study of Tamil Culture. It was truly a crowded life he lived – “crowded with culture” as Professor Rodrigo has approvingly written. One could say that this last and most notable and valuable phase of his life commenced in 1955 with his association with the journal “Tamil”.

He then began his eventful career as an unceasing writer to the Press and a vigilant defender of what he held to be true, an exciting career, taken all in all, that was terminated by the cruel blow of death.

He died in his sleep at his home in Kopay, Jaffna, before the day dawned on the 4th January 1964. An indefatigable worker, he died in harness. He was at his desk among his books until late that night working on his latest piece of research on Vallipuram, an ancient seat of the Tamil Kingdom of Jaffna.

Well deserved tributes were paid to Gunasegaram in the Ceylon newspapers. The Times of Ceylon published his epitaph the day following his death, fittingly recording, “whoever wanted to get away with half truths found this scholar a thorn in the flesh”. The Hindu Organ mourned the death of a “zealous protector of Tamil culture”.

Professor Emeritus J. L. C. Rodrigo formerly Professor of Classics of the University of Ceylon lost no time to write in his inimitable style in the Ceylon Daily News as follows, “like many of the strongest advocates of the Tamil cause I knew, he counted many Sinhalese among his friends. Despite their political differences, their personal relations were as cordial as ever. No petty prejudices marred his friendship”. Professor Emeritus F. H. V. Gulasekharam, formerly Professor of Mathematics and Registrar of the University of Ceylon, wrote in the Times of Ceylon “In addition to a sound knowledge of Tamil, his acquaintance with Sanskrit, Pali, Sinhala, Elu and Prakrit, was remarkable…His copious quotations from German, English and Indian scholars indicate in some measure the extent and depth of his scholarship”. F. B. Wijayanayake, a cultured Sinhalese gentleman, wrote to the Times of Ceylon, “Though I have not known him personally except through the medium of the press, his demise has indeed created a void, and I am sure the reading public will miss his scholarly contributions to the Press”.

R. R. Crosette Tambiah, former Solicitor-General of Ceylon and Commissioner of Assize and the Editor of the journal “Tamil” wrote to the Morning Star offering the following bouquet, “As he entered our home, there would be the loud call of greeting, and then that cascade of conversation, our home team drinking in every word. If the theme was part of Tamil History or Tamil Culture, the flow of words was copious and spontaneous, the result of a lifetime of reading and meditation…… This sincere man, this true man, this courageous man, this shining one has been taken away in the most crucial year of our struggle for existence. I sit and stare at the falling rain and I ask why? I sit and stare at the falling rain….”.

D. J. Thambapillai, a friend from his boyhood days, wrote to the Morning Star, “During the last few years of his life, his one thought which became almost an obsession with him, was the future of the Tamils in Ceylon… He worked hard in his own way to safeguard the dignity, and self-respect of the Tamil race in Ceylon. He wielded his pen, which he could do with such ease and ability, in safeguarding and fighting for the rights of the Tamils. The Tamils have lost in him a sincere and ardent worker.” M. Chelvatamby, one of his many admirers, wrote to the Hindu Organ, “Mr. Gunasegaram’s (forthcoming) book on Kathirkamam and the Kathirkamam God, I thought, was going to be a revealing and epoch-making one”.

The above tributes and panegyrics expressed with such obvious sincerity, understanding and sense of loss were well-deserved and it is meet that we should record them here.

The Times of Ceylon had acknowledged that he was “one of the most prolific contributors to the Letters to the Editor column of the Times of Ceylon” and added, “Inaccuracies and misinterpretations of historical facts, especially where they concerned his community always found a correction from Mr. Gunasegaram”.

Gunasegaram, who in the past used to declaim in the periods of Burke, address himself to be the Ocean in the manner of the majestic numbers of Byron in “Childe Harold” and soliloquise impeccably like Hamlet, later turned to the classics of Tamil Literature for his main mental sustenance. No Tamil who has heard him recite the mellifluous lines of Kamban’s Ramayanam would ever fail to remember the spell-binding effect of that unique poetry when uttered so effectively by Gunasegaram.

No one who knew him can ever forget Gunasegaram chant the psalms of Tayumanavar and other Saivite Saints, or forget that glow of pardonable pride on his face when he softly rolled the agglutinated syllables of Tamil from his lips. Have you heard him sing with the supreme joy of the satisfied man? Have you heard his uproarious laughter?

Wijayanayake in the Times of Ceylon had written, “It would be a tribute to the departing scholar if all his writings were collected and published as a memoir. Even posthumously the fruits of his research should be edited and printed without additions or subtractions giving the naked truth as seen by him.” We are happy that such a publication of some of his writings is now forthcoming.

One of Gunasegaram’s articles to the first issue of the journal “Tamil” in January 1955, was on the Prophet Mohamed. In the same issue reviewing Rajagopalachari’s English translation of the Mahabharata, he reveals himself in autobiographical foot-note worthy of record. “The Writer” he says, speaking of himself, “recalls the thrilling experience he had in his quiet little home in the Northern Ceylon, many years ago, when he with his two brother (one alas! the keenest of them, no longer alive), listened in the evening to his father, as he sang in Tamil verse and interpreted it into graphic Tamil prose the stirring incidents of this grace Epic. It laid the foundations of that literary taste which later led him and his brother to search for the pearl of great prize in the classics of other lands, with the aid of that wonderful ‘open sesame’ the English Language – and thus experience priceless delights”.

The pages of the Tamil, which continued its publication for one year, contain a number of other interesting articles by Gunasegaram. He had written on the Mahavamsa, Indo-Aryans and several reviews of books, notably one on Nilakanta Sastri’s History of South India. He had also translated into English verse the references to Tiruketiswaram and Tirukonamalai found in the hymns of Sambanthar and Sundarar. A specially interesting contribution is his Sonnet to Jaffna which appeared in the February issue of the Tamil. Its two stanzas reveal a depth of feeling and love for Jaffna so characteristic of the man.

“But thou, dear Jaffna, loving nurse of mine…..
to me art lovelier far than all….”

The Rev. Father Xavier Thani Nayagam, editor of the prestigious journal Tamil Culture had published five articles by Gunasegaram during the years 1957 to 1963, all of which, excepting the one on the poet Bharathi, are being included in the present volume. Apart from these, Gunasegaram had published a large number of notes and comments as “Letters to the Editor” to the daily newspapers, some of which are perhaps lost forever, hidden as they are in the files of the media.

Gunasegaram had on some occasions challenged popular or hitherto more accepted versions of history, and had been proved correct according to critics. But he has also been opposed. There is of course no finality to history. Gunasegaram’s writings are deserving of close study and the highest consideration.

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