ICES Colombo is commemorating and
celebrating the 100th birth anniversary of Dr.
James T. Rutnam, scholar, politician,
trade-unionist, humanist on 'Dec. 2nd at ICES
auditorium. This article appeared in the "Lanka
Guardian" of July 1, 1985 on his 80th birthday.
Dr. James T. Rutnam - A true scholar
By Prof. K. Indrapala
James Thevathasan Rutnam turns eighty today. The four score years of his life so
far spans an important period in the history of modem Sri Lanka - an epoch beset
by changes more radical, more rapid and, towards the end, more painful, than in
any preceding age in recent centuries.
He was born at a time when Pax Britannica was reigning supreme and British rule
in this tropical island seemed unshakable. The background against which he grew
up could hardly have been more stable. Then came the changes. And today, as he
begins his ninth decade, the land he loved is in turmoil and slipping inexorably
towards the abyss of civil strife.
Having raised his voice against the British as a mere lad and later associated
himself with political organizations and leaders with a desire to lead the country out
of bondage, he must indeed be a sad man today.
James failed to make a name in politics. From the beginning he was torn between
politics and scholarship and gradually opted for a career in politics. When he finally
gave it up, the loss to politics was scholarship's gain. Looking back, one wishes he
devoted more time and energy for scholarship. He perhaps has no regrets.
Whatever one's chosen area of interest is, one eventually gravitates to history is a
favourable maxim that James always publicises. His own enduring interests in
history were not a late development but were first formed while he was at the
Ceylon University College and the Law College.
It was at the latter institution that his inclination for historical research first won
recognition, when he was awarded the Walter Pereira Memorial Prize for Legal
Research for his monograph on the introduction or trial by jury in Sri Lanka.
It was his first important piece of historical research and, I believe, it was from that
time that he became interested in the life and work of Alexander Johnston, the
papers relating to whom are among the most valuable collections that James had
acquired over many years from different parts of the world.
In the early years James had a passion for genealogical studies and soon became
a specialist in the field and was sought after by many to trace their family trees.
Genealogy naturally led him to biography. He regularly wrote biographical sketches
of leading political personalities and colonial administrators to the local press and
became an authority on the lives of national leaders.
Among his best contributions in this field is undoubtedly the well-written biography
of his political mentor, Sir Ponnambalam Arunachalam, on the occasion of the
latter's birth centenary celebrations in 1953. It was published in English, Sinhalese
and Tamil by the Government. His researches into the life of Arunachalam led him
to unravel the work of William Digby, Arunachalam's mentor, and to the acquisition
of the valuable Digby Papers.
Modern history has been his forte. But he is not one .who favours narrow
specialization and has shown as much zeal for the medieval and ancient history of
Sri Lanka as for the modern. His writings on Fraser of Trinity College, the
Polonnaruwa Colossus and the Tomb of Elara clearly reveal that he is equally at
home in all the periods of the island's history.
He worked in isolation and never knew his real worth. Recognition eluded him for a
long time. When he reached the age of seventy, he had written himself as a
'successful failure'. Little did he realize that he was entering a new stage in his life -
that of a guru figure. Recognition followed.
He was elected President of the Jaffna Archaelogical Society, a Member of the
Governing Council of the Royal Asiatic Society (S.L.B.) a Faculty Member of the
University campus in Jaffna, and later a Member of the Council of the University of
Jaffna. And that new university honoured him with a D. Litt. degree at its first
convocation. But when all this came, James was not going to rest on his laurels. He
busied himself with the establishment of the Evelyn Rutnam Institute for
Intercultural Studies in Jaffna, a dream that was his ever since the sudden death of
his beloved wife, and began his long awaited work on the Alexander Johnston
He felt that time was running out and ploughed through the paper with the
eagerness of a student working for a Ph.D. in a place plagued by frequent power
cuts. It was an amazing sight to see him flashing a torch with his trembling right
hand on to a document held in the other and reading late into the night when men
of his age were enjoying a good night's sleep after playing with their great-grand
children. But alas for nearly a year now, his cherished work has been cruelly
interrupted by the developments in Jaffna.
Thorough in his investigation, critical in his approach and dedicated to his
research, James is a master of words which he puts together very elegantly. A
scholar of true universality, his intellectual personality is perfectly imaged in his
fluent style. On this day of remarkable achievement, James Rutnam deserves to be
saluted in Shakespearean phrase: Thou art a scholar.