Ian Goonetileke: doyen of bibliographical studies in Lanka
by Prof. W. A Wiswa Warnapala
It was in the sixties that I met Ian Goonetileke at the Peradeniya University library which was then housed in the Arts Block; it was subsequently shifted to the new Library Building which became a hive of intellectual activity. Two of my good teachers—Dr. A. J. Wilson and Tawney Rajaratnam—introduced me to Ian who never hesitated to talk to an undergraduate. I joined the Staff of the Department of Economics in 1964, and it was during my academic career at Peradeniya that I was able to develop a friendship with this remarkable individual whose varied intellectual interests and relentless search for knowledge fascinated me. All enterprising young academics bent on serious post-graduate research, primarily with a view to obtaining a degree, looked up to Ian for guidance and advice in the collection of material from the relevant sources; this, to a great extent, depended on the subject of research as Ian was already engaged in the preparation of his monumental work—A Bibliography of Ceylon—which made him the most outstanding bibliographer in South Asia. It was this monumental work which helped many a young academic to trace the material required for post-graduate research.
I have yet to see a person as meticulous as Ian in the collection of the relevant material on any subject; he had an enormous interest in the politics of the country and every off-spring relating to this subject. Even small pamphlets were personally obtained by him so that a new generation of scholars could consult them in the course of their research in contemporary political issues. It was he who took the initiative in collecting all varieties of pamphlets connected with the Left movement in the county, and the establishment of the Ceylon Room, with rare and contemporary material on Sri Lanka, was yet another achievement to which Ian contributed a great deal. It is my candid opinion that Ian Goonetileke, with his pioneering contribution to bibliographical studies in Sri Lanka, made an equally noteworthy contribution to convert the library into a centre of both learning and research. He built the Peradeniya University Library into a major store-house of knowledge, and it was his dedication and commitment to research and intellectual activity that made him an intellectual cum librarian. Ian, with his commitment to research and writing, gave the Librarianship a new role, according to which a University Librarian should not confine himself to that of a glorified custodian of books. He, in fact, gave it a status of an intellectual whose task, he reiterated, was to contribute to the process of learning in the universities by producing research in their own professional fields. Ian, by producing that monumental bibliography on Ceylon and with a number of research-oriented publications showed the way for the emergence of a unique type of librarian-cum-intellectual who could make an equally useful contribution to the learning at a university. Through his pioneering work, he showed that mere professionalism is not enough; one must get himself embedded in the intellectual life of a university. Ian played this unique role to its fulfilment at the University of Peradeniya which, due to some strange reason, failed to understand this unique role of librarian-cum-intellectual, and a coterie of academic with fascist intellectual tendencies wanted to get rid of Ian from the University of Peradeniya which he served with dedication to make it a centre of learning and scholarship. The same coterie of intellectuals, primarily a historian and his acolytes who claimed that they stood for academic freedom, harassed Ian thinking that it would break his will for free expression and committed research in a professional way. Though this naturally interfered with Ian’s professional work, it never succeeded in changing his views on mend an matters; he revelled in making devastating comments on those individuals who planned and executed to destroy his illustrious professional career prematurely. Ian, through both his bibliographical scholarship and intellectual radicalism, demonstrated to the academic community that the university, in addition to its role in learning and research, should play the role of critic of contemporary society.
In addition to his monumental work on Ceylon, he did a number of specialised bibliographical studies, and some of them primarily focused on issues of contemporary importance. As a student of contemporary politics, I would like to refer to two of Ian’s such studies—the bibliographies on the 1971 Insurrection and the 1983 riots and the national question in Sri Lanka; there were four other specialised bibliographical studies which focused on Veddhas, Senarath Paranavitana, folk lore and coins and currency. The study on the 1971 insurrection and the large number of interpretations made by different writers, both academics and politicians, became a useful piece of research as it opened the door for further research on the subject. It was in the introduction to the bibliography that Ian, unlike many a contemporary of his generation, showed some sympathy for the young men who revolted against the State in 1971; he, in fact, saw some progressive content in the movement which, if propelled into action with correct ideological foundations, could develop into a progressive catalyst of social and economic change in the country. Ian remained committed to progressive political ideas and never compromised his ideas of both equality and justice; his approach to life came to be guided by such considerations and ‘Saranam’ at Oruwela and its rural setting was a monument to his simple living and intellectual pursuits. While remaining committed to his intellectual pursuits which covered various fields from bibliography to art and culture, music and drama and politics, he never attempted to build NGO-oriented Centres of Studies to earn dollars and Ian, unlike many a don in the universities today, did not become a tool in the hands of a NGO whose agents have become the agent of certain academics. The Ceylon Journal of Historical and Social Studies, which became the premier research journal in social sciences in the late fifties, sixties and seventies, came to be started with Ian as its managing editor, and this journal became the forum for many young academics to establish themselves as researchers in their specialised fields. It was Ian who gave the required support to this journal in its very formative years and it later passed into the hands of the same coterie of intellectuals who paved the way for Ian to leave Peradeniya. Displaying his versatility, Ian wrote a lengthy introduction to Sir Ivor Jennings's essay on The Kandy Road, which the University of Peradeniya published on the occasion of its Golden Jubilee. This was one manuscript of Jennings which Ian edited, and he, thereafter, ventured to write a biography of Jennings which, I understand, has been completed and is certain to throw more light on the formative years of university education in Sri Lanka as well as information on the outstanding intellectual who wrote several seminal works on the British Constitution, including that definitive work Cabinet Government. Ian’s desire to venture into this massive intellectual enterprise shows again that Ian Goonetileke was much more than a bibliographer.
May he attain nibbana.
|NEWS | FEATURES | OPINION | BUSINESS | EDITORIAL | CARTOON | SPORTS|