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James Rutnam

The Tomb of Elara at Anuradhapura - Dr.James T. Rutnam, 1981
The Bandaranaikes from the House of Nilaperumal by James T.Rutnam with Additional Notes by Sachi Sri Kantha - 18 July 2002
Birth Centennial Tribute to James Rutnam, Sachi Sri Kantha 4 June 2005

Samuel Jeyanayagam Gunasegaram - a Biographical Introduction by James T. Rutnam, September 1985

Some aspects of the history of archaeology in Sri Lanka: Presidential address, 9 November 1974 by James T Rutnam
The earliest American impact on Sri Lanka: The American Mission Seminary in Jaffna by James T Rutnam 1976
Sir Ponnambalam Arunachalam, scholar and statesman: A brief account of his life and career by James T Rutnam 1988)
The early life of Sir Alexander Johnston, 1775-1849, third chief justice of Ceylon by James T Rutnam 1988

One Hundred Tamils
of the 20th Century

Dr. James T. Rutnam

A True Scholar - Prof. K. Indrapala
"Lanka Guardian", 1 July 1985

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 Papers.

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.

Tribute by Basil Perera
Ceylon Daily News, 13 June 1975

James T. Rutnam is a distinguished scholar of social and political affairs, a man of liberal and progressive views, once an adored schoolmaster and a successful businessman. He is above all a man of integrity with a keen sense of public duty.

Born in Jaffna, he was educated at the Manipay Hindu College and later at St. Joseph's College, Colombo and St. Thomas' College, Mount Lavinia. As a boy he loved reading the Bible and also the works of Ruskin and McCaulay. From this reading, no doubt, did he acquire the lucidity of style and felicity of expression which we have come to associate with all his writings.

James entered the old Ceylon University in Colombo and the Law College. At the latter he became the editor of the Law Students Magazine and also won the Walter Pereira Prize for legal research.

His political career began as early as 1922, when he was only seventeen, making his first public speech from the Tower Hall platform. On that occasion E.T. De Silva, then a rising star in our political firmament, hailed James as 'a young man of high ideals, very popular among contemporaries of his own generation.'

James T. Rutnam was a teacher at Uva College, Badulla and Wesley College, Colombo and served for three years as the Principal of St. Xavier's College, Nuwara Eliya. It was here that he came into a head-on collision with the colonial bureaucracy.

He had formed a trade union at Nuwara Eliya and went to see one Mr. Smith regarding grievances of some transport workers. Smith gave him a patient hearing, but at the end shouted, 'I will give you five minutes to clear out of this place!'

The young Rutnam was flabbergasted by this shocking behaviour. Yet he recovered sufficiently to snap back: 'I will give you three minutes to give me a satisfactory answer.' Getting none, he went out to lead a two month strike of the workers.

By this time Rutnam had become a member of the Young Lanka League led by Victor Corea and A.E. Goonasinghe. That was a radical organization of 'Young Turks' discontented with moderate policies pursued by the nationalist leaders.

The founder members had signed in blood a pledge to work for the liberation of the nation from foreign rule. Rutnam wrote later: "many of us heard for the first time the compelling call for freedom when Goonasinghe's stentorian voice came crackling into our ears."

When S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike made his first public speech here - at the YMCA Forum - soon after his return from Oxford, it was James T. Rutnam who proposed a vote of thanks and hailed him as the hope of Young Lanka.

He became a founder member of the Progressive Nationalist Party that Mr. Bandaranaike formed with the aim of fostering a spirit of true nationalism and widening the base of political agitation, till then, only the monopoly of a few. But when the attempts of the young radicals failed, Mr. Bandaranaike and Mr. Rutnam joined the Ceylon National Congress.

Mr. Rutnam was also associated with the 'Cosmopolitan Crew' formed in 1926. It was this association that organized protest demonstrations against the sale of poppies on November 11th every year. Their movement led to the 'Suriya Mal' campaign and then to the left movement in Sri Lanka.

James T. Rutnam, made a number of unsuccessful bids to enter the supreme legislature. Twice in the state council days, he attempted to beard E.W. Abeygunasekara in his own den at Nuwara Eliya.

Then he contested M.D. Banda when the latter contested the by-election after Mr. Abeygunasekara's resignation, following the findings of a Bribery Commission. He polled 11,093 votes against Mr. Banda's 12,652. The Latter just won. But the former succeeded in unseating him through an election petition.

Mr. Rutnam can claim to be one of the oldest living journalists, having being writing since 1922. He once reminisced about how 'my hand turned to the pen to pour my heart's rage, and this pen has ever since kept moving'. He is probably the only Ceylonese who had a letter published in Mahatma Ghandi's prestigious Young India.

His journalistic writings have been of a varied nature. No one can read his writings without recognising behind them all the hand of a maestro, the art of a master craftsman.

H.D. Jansz classed him among the three best writers of English prose in the island. But even more than his journalistic work, it is in the field of real scholarship that James Rutnam has made his mark and will be remembered by posterity.

An acknowledged authority on the British period of our history. Professor Labrooy once congratulated him for his 'uncanny instinct' as of a sleuth in detecting and for his 'patience and perseverance in your pursuit.'

It is not surprising that three books published recently - H.A.I. Goonetilleke's 'Bibliography of Ceylon', Professor Nadarajah's 'Legal Systems of Ceylon' and Kumari Jayawardena's 'The rise of the Labour Movement of Ceylon', all refer to this man of scholarship and culture.

He has founded the Evelyn Rutnam Institute for Cultural Relations, in memory of his wife, from whose death in 1964 he never fully recovered. They were such a devoted pair.

About her, he wrote 'She came to me to learn, and remained to be my teacher.... she was my constant friend and companion. She guided me and inspired me. She was an exceptional woman.'

James T. Rutnam - a Versatile Servant
Prof. Bertram Bastiampillai, 2005

ICES Colombo is commemorating and celebrating the 100th birth anniversary of Dr. James T. Rutnam, scholar, politician, humanist on 2 December 2005 at the ICES Auditorium.

Dr. S. U. Deraniyagala, Dr. Kumari Jayawardena, Prof. S. Pathmanathan and Mr. Silan Kadirgamar are to deliver lectures at this event.

The late James Thevathasan Rutnam hailed from Manipay in the northern peninsula but spent a good part of his life in Colombo 7 as its popular and illustrious personality.

His father was a man of means and owned property in Pandateruppu in Jaffna district. James led a comfortable life in his early years. His mother was a Miss Dwight.

James Rutnam lived in spacious two storyed house at Baron's Court in Guildford Crescent, Colombo 7, with a widespread garden around to.

He entered Ceylon Law College as a youth and in the first year examination won a coveted prize awarded for his highly commendable performance. Thereafter James Rutnam left Law College and did not pursue studies.

For a short while, James Rutnam adjourned to Nuwara Eliya and headed St. Xaviers College. An interesting incident of this time was Rutnam's encounter with a "white planter boss" of a tea estate.

Rutnam was radical in his thinking and inclined to be a leftist in his ideas, ideals and attitude. He espoused the fair cause of the labourers in an estate who were on strike. James Rutnam "bearded" the arrogant authoritarian white planter in his office and strongly advocated the demands of the labourers.

At a time when the white colonizers believed that the sun never set on their empire, the heady planter peremptorily gave five minutes to clear out of his office.

James Rutnam recognized that the odds were against him and gave the planter the five minutes to be reasonable, and then quit the planter's office promising to fight another day. Rutnam was tenacious.

James Rutnam's left leanings made him to welcome Maude, later Mrs. Pieter Keuneman, of the Communist Party at the Colombo harbour and offer generous hospitality on her arrival.

With such a predilection, Rutnam later on extended hospitality at his abode to Robert Gunawardena, a left political figure, when he returned from China after a stint of national service as a diplomat.

James Rutnam was an avid reader and an energetic collector of books, manuscripts, learned journals, and writings. It was also well known to the intelligentsia of Rutnam's propensity and eminence as a writer on politics, government, history, both ancient and modern archaeology and ancient lore.

It is in this capacity that Rutnam visited all the remarkable libraries, museums, and archives in the United Kingdom, the Soviet Union, and the United States to record only a few countries where Rutnam spent time and money reading and collecting valuable books and originals of literary records.

No wonder scholars and researchers constantly visited James Rutnam from the universities in Colombo, Peradeniya and Jaffna. He never forsook his reading and collection of literary material and would go to great lengths in search of learned publications and rare manuscripts.

It was enlightening to read Rutnam's continuous contributions to 'The Tribune', a popular journal then among readers of contemporary national events.

Many will recall Rutnam's revelations in two noteworthy and popular recounts of the genealogies of two leading national and political personalities. In similar manner, Rutnam delved into esoteric data to refute wrong hypotheses propounded by some writers, more chauvinistic than scholarly.

Rutnam had a number of contacts with university dons. researchers, leading legal figures and businessmen. His stupendous library astounded one, and many learned personnel often consulted Rutnam and gained much from him.

He would spare time to inform and educate. It was no surprise that James Rutnam bequeathed his invaluable library to Jaffna College, Vaddukoddai, and even put up a building in Jaffna to house his rich bequest of books.

It was named the Evelyn Rutnam Institute and remains under the American Missionaries as a testimony to James Rutnam's love of research and learning, and encouragement to young students.

Rutnam took a lively interest in The International Association of Tamil Research (IATR), the architect and builder of which was the late Reverend Father Xavier S. Thaninayagam.

James Rutnam gained a prominent role when the Association held its International Conference of Tamil Research in Jaffna and Madurai. He was a close associate of Father Thaninayagam, archaeologists, Directors of Museum and university teachers like Professor T. Nadaraja, W. J. F. Labrooy and many others.

James Rutnam was an active and regular member of the then exclusive club, Capri, and his companions and friends with whom he met were several. Reading, writing and research and travel kept Rutnam happily engaged in life.

The pursuit of stores of learning and learning itself in spite of a demanding social life and domestic engagements demonstrated that James Rutnam led a full rich life.

Although he would often refer to himself as "a successful failure"; really James Rutnam lived life to the best, and successfully, over the seven score and ten years of the Biblical span.

On the 1st of every month, James Rutnam generously assisted many who called on him, regularly and repeatedly. He was generous to his former aides in full measure. June 13th was another special day for James Rutnam as it was his birthday and he would recall that it is St. Anthony's day. He celebrated the event happily.

James Rutnam, when young, fell in love with Evelyn and thereby forfeited the favour of his father who did not like the union. But James loved Evelyn dearly and tears welled up in his eyes whenever he spoke of her with undying fondness. James had three daughters and five sons.

Today, I believe, only one son, Chandran, is in Sri Lanka. when young, James Rutnam did a lucrative business in rice imports from Rangoon, then capital in Burma, now Myanmar. Being magnanimous, liberal and sociable, and charitable, he spent as he earned.

Parkison's Disease affected James Rutnam, and in his last days he was unfortunately and sadly paralysed too, I felt. I called on him then at a house in Anderson Road off Dickman's Road, Havelock Town. James Rutnam was a true, faithful, and lovable learned companion. Many are those who benefitted from Rutnam's erudition especially. Rutnam did try to enter politics but failed. What national politics lost, yet learning and culture gained, better fields indeed.

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