Title: ALLEN ABRAHAM (Ambalavanar Subramaniar) and the Halley’s Comet
Author: Allen L. Thurairatnam
Publisher: Neptune Publishers, BATTARAMULLA (Sri Lanka)
2021; 96pp; LKR 2500.00
Reviewed by E.A. Gamini Fonseka, Ph.D., formerly Senior Professor in English, Department of English and Linguistics, University of Ruhuna, Matara (Sri Lanka)
The neat compilation of the memorabilia of the Karaitivu-born astronomer, mathematician, poet, and scholar of the Tamil language and literature, Allen Abraham alias Ambalavanar, Subramaniar, made by the Melbourne-based engineer, Allen, L. Thurairatnam, is a valuable addition to the body of scientific literature on the Sri Lankan intellectual community’s contribution to the advancement of knowledge and the scholarship of modern science.
Thurairatnam has collected here reproductions of the topographic maps of the town where Abraham resided, the diagrams he produced in presenting his astronomic predictions, the charts he used in his studies, the photographs of his astronomical paraphernalia and the places and people he associated with, the correspondence he had with the Royal Astronomical Society in London of which he was a Fellow, the academic certificates he earned for his achievements in formal education, the newspaper articles on his public renditions, and the scientific papers he published in the Jaffna College Miscellany and the Morning Star. Their presence in a methodical alignment of 18 chapters, enhances the authenticity and archival value of the book. The format of the book is appropriate for public use in a library as a reference source.
The title of the book is effective in relating his work to the discipline of astronomy, especially in the context of Halley’s Comet. The comet was named after the English astronomer Edmond Halley (1656-1742), for his identification of all its historically recorded appearances as those of a single “celestial object” returning over and over again. Today it is established that it was the very comet recorded in the Holy Bible to have shone in the sky to prognosticate the birth of the baby Jesus Christ. Therefore, it is understood that the comet has a religious significance to Christendom.
The publication reveals some important facts about Abraham’s life: his parents died under the plague of cholera; he became an orphan as a result; the American Ceylon Missionaries took him into their custody; he joined the Jaffna College as a regular student; the college recruited him as a teacher; he made several initiatives in expanding the college curriculum; his meticulous research in astronomy earned him credit from international organisations, such as the Royal Astronomical Society (UK). His fellowship of the prestigious scientific society, which is generally conferred on an applicant after an elaborate process of screening for acceptability, is evidence of his international recognition as an outstanding astronomer.
It also sheds light on the religious, educational, and humanitarian activities of the American Christian missionaries in Jaffna during the period from the 1820s to the early 20th century, who operated under the American Ceylon Mission (ACM) which arrived in Sri Lanka in 1813, sponsored by the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions (ABCFM). Allen Abraham whose life span is counted as 1865-1922 could be speculated to have enjoyed the full impact of those missionaries who engaged in carrying out original translations from English into Tamil, printing, and publishing, establishing primary, secondary, and tertiary educational institutions and providing health care for the residents of the Jaffna Peninsula. His character and demeanour mirror the many social changes brought about by those missionaries.
A conscientious follower of the Christian Church, a substantive member of the Jaffna College academic community, first as a student and later as a teacher, there is no doubt about Allen Abraham’s devotion to Christianity and his dedication to the education of the community together, being a source of inspiration in his pursuit of the comet’s historical recurrences. His scientific papers published in the Jaffna College Miscellany over the years 1910-1915 are evidence of his constant engagement in his astronomical studies. It is noteworthy to find in them, information such as the four ways in which a comet can affect the planet earth – 1) influencing the earth’s movement by the power of its attraction, 2) colliding with the earth by its enormous head, 3) enveloping the earth with its nearly 100-million-mile-long tail, and 4) falling into the sun and increasing the latter’s heat. To share such information with his Jaffna community in the early decades of the 20th Century, he should have been a visionary teacher with a sophisticated knowledge of astronomy and mathematics as well as a man with a big heart who was generous enough to fathom the intellectual capabilities of the others.
The extent of his commitment to the maintenance of quality in his work as a scientist is vivid in the high level of accuracy and precision noticed in all his predictions about the 1910 appearance of Halley’s Comet. In a very persuasive manner, the compiler of the book Thurairatnam points out that, even with the simplest laboratory instruments, Allen Abraham, from the tiny village of Karaitivu, in the Jaffna peninsula of Sri Lanka, maintained a very influential position on his own, to convince three reputed Indian astronomers to support his election as Fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society in 1912, the first native Ceylonese to be thus elected.
The compilation of the book has been made for the sentimental purpose of paying tribute to Allen Abraham in commemoration of his 100th death anniversary. Although Thurairatnam meant by it a personal gesture to a beloved ancestor, the book remains a valuable reference material to be used by students of astronomy as well as historic documentation of the educational setting of Jaffna under the British colonial rule, during the period concerned. While being personally proud of Allen Abraham as a fellow Sri Lankan of noble qualities from the northernmost point of the island to have reached such a colossal height in academia a century ago, I confidently hope that the book will be in great demand among the academic populace of Sri Lanka and the world around.
The ubiquitous Tuk Tuk elevated to ambassadorial level
The Sri Lankan three wheeler or tuk tuk and the Indian auto rickshaw are equally loved and despised, but used very much in both countries. Over here they have spread to every city, hamlet and even village. Needless to fear there will be no transport to hire when one descends from bus or train. There will always be the little bug waiting for a fare. And once in a while such a vehicle is the only negotiable one on rutty, inclined roads.
Love and hate? Car-less and permanently driverless women love the little three wheeled contraption. They are taken around marketing, shopping, escorting kids home from school. But male car owner-drivers detest them as dangerous clogs in traffic. They see dark pink when a tuk tuk is observed, red being reserved for private bus drivers. Most housewives adopt a three wheeler that makes for convenience, safety and even camaraderie with the guy at the handle bar. It’s good to adopt a known guy. I have two such – the white capped charioteer and the ex-sportsman gone to spread. The former will take me right into a bank or shop if at all possible. Compromises by stopping with no space left between entrance step or door and invariably warns “paressamen, hemin”. The other takes time to enquire after an ex-domestic whom he carefully conducted to visit relatives and my grandson who loved spinning around with his ‘Sampatha.’ These two are definite blessings in life, I count.
The Ambassador’s vehicle
Ambassador from Mexico to India (2015 – 2018), Melba Pria, made a definite statement of her belief in equality and her avowed aim of “promoting inclusion and strengthening public policy in Mexico and abroad” when she commissioned an auto rickshaw as her official vehicle in New Delhi. She had an auto rickshaw custom built for her designed by a visiting Mexican artist, thus earning herself the sobriquet of ‘Auto Rickshaw Diplomat.” A video sent me had her happily riding behind her suitably suited official driver, Jagchal Chana Dugal, flying the Mexican flag and the cab painted carnival bright with flowers, birds, fruit. The driver may have been duly shocked and to an Indian, a lowering of status. He had to learn to drive a lowly vehicle. Pria’s statement was that she considered herself a Delhi-ite and living in the city did what Delhites did – riding auto rickshaws all the time.
Parliament did not allow this type of vehicle in the premises. She promptly sent a letter of protest/request to the Speaker and won her case. In Sri Lanka a three wheeler is considered a lesser vehicle and many places do not allow such to proceed beyond a certain limit. I’ve met this setback when visiting friends in Crescat Apartments. Also, three wheelers are not allowed in the car park of HSBC, Baudhaloka Mawata. They may have their reasons and Nan won’t fight for equality among vehicles, though to her as a woman who uses them constantly, she feels they should be treated on par with other vehicles. Little wonder that such as I retches with disgust when she sees politicos arrive in their massive limousines provided gratis by the government and petrol paid for by people’s taxes.
Ambassador Pria had visited India previously and was an admirer of Tagore. She sat on the lap of Ravi Shankar and played the sitar when her mother was the Mexican Minister of Culture. She even boastfully claims her name is part Indian and means ‘pleasant’. “India is friends, family, home and so many other things, even my doctors are here.” She loves Delhi with its range of cultural activities.”Delhi is many cities within one city but one must be brave to be an outdoors person here.” She cycles too.
Her affinity to the country was shared by her brother, who, when ill, was brought by her to Delhi to consult a doctor. He died but had said he wanted to bathe in the holy waters of the Ganga in Benares. His ashes were given her with the pot draped in an Indian cloth. She went home with a Mexican cloth over the Indian, symbolically. When she was posted to Japan after her stint in India, she took her auto-rickshaw along. However, what I read did not say it was driving her around the streets of Tokyo – very improbable with the Japanese almost maniacal about cleanliness and atmospheric non-pollution.
The tuk tuk that is now ubiquitous in Sri Lanka having invaded the Hill Country too is, with its relatives overseas, a vehicle descended from the two-wheeled Italian scooter – Vespa. Italian aircraft designer Corradino D’Ascania evolved the three wheeled vehicle in 1948 and called it Trivespa. In 1956 a cab or hood was added and it was knows as the Piaggio Ape; ‘ape’ being Italian for bee, the vehicle making a buzzing sound.
In Sri Lanka
Recently the tuk tuk came into prominence. Asked to leave his post, OK, sacked, State Minister for Education Reform, Susil Premajayantha, left his office for good in a hired three wheeler which took him home. Or out of camera sight. Did he transfer to his own vehicle (luxury or not) when safe from media scrutiny? No doubt it was a PR stunt. Was it to show he is just one of us? He has no vehicle of his own? He was quoted in a tv clip saying he’ll get himself a car. Whether a dismissed Minister or not, he is a politician with all its attendant characteristics. No pity felt for this SLFPer who was the first to sign membership of the SLPP.
The lowly but much appreciated three wheeler gained customers since Covid 19 when people were advised to travel in open vehicles and taxi drivers hardly ever lower their windows in their air conditioned vehicles. We heard rumours the tuk tuks were to be taken off streets and imports banned by this government when it was new in office. A trick up its collective sleeve? We need this poor man’s vehicle in this country driven to poverty by persons in power who lived grand and built white elephants beyond their and the country’s means.
Of course you get the odd bod in the driving seat – the inexperienced, even unlicensed driver; the aspiring Formula One speedster; and the Lothario who looks back more than watches the road. The advantage is you can tell him off, exhibiting the umbrella you have in hand. That’s a plus point –being able to hop off a tuk tuk with no doors to delay or keep you in.
Lady in red: Mysterious painting hidden behind a prominent Lankan’s portrait
ECONOMYNEXT – At 9 a.m. on December 11, 2021, at the National Art Gallery of Sri Lanka, a portrait of Ananda Samarakoon, who famously composed the national anthem, was lifted off its frame to reveal a perfectly preserved painting of an enigmatic woman dressed in a red saree. Who she was, why she was painted and why she was eventually covered up, remains a mystery.
The painting, unearthed during a conservation project of 239 art pieces, is attributed to Mudaliyar Amarasekara, a towering and pioneering figure in Sri Lanka’s art scene.
The project was headed by Tharani Gamage, Director at the Department of Cultural Affairs, Hiranthi Fernando, Curator at the National Art Gallery, and an Art Restoration and Exhibition Committee comprised of eminent artists and scholars in the country.
Jennifer Myers, an easel painting conservation expert from the US, was brought in to assist with the project.
“So I’m just looking at this painting and I notice that the fabric of the canvas that was on the front was different from the canvas at the back… I was kind of pushing between front and back and I could feel there was an air space,” she says.
The conservationist noticed something unusual about the dust collected at the back of the painting.
“Because it’s a painting that’s done in landscape orientation, the dust should be at the bottom of the frame, but here the dust was collected on the side and that was really odd, so we slowly started taking off tacks from the corner and when we looked underneath, it looked like layers of paint on top of a canvas. That’s when we realised there could be another painting at the bottom.”
According to committee member Professor Jagath Weerasinghe, a mural painting conservation expert, Myers used archaeological principles to determine the existence of the second painting underneath.
“It’s very impressive, and precisely why we wanted to get an expert to help us with this project,” he says.
The newly discovered painting was found as a result of an initiative taken by the gallery to preserve some of its most exceptional pieces. From charcoal and watercolour to acrylics and oil paintings, the collection at the gallery spans two centuries and a diverse mix of mediums.
Professor Weerasinghe talks to EconomyNext about the difficulty of finding qualified individuals for the project.
“There is a lack of experts on easel painting conservationists in Sri Lanka. We do have academically trained experts on mural conservation, and they are the ones who made up the committee. We have trained in places like India, Pakistan and Japan, and we knew we had the practical capacity to pull it off.
“But working on a national collection is a difficult task, and we wanted someone from an internationally accepted programme, who had had academic training in the subject to work on it, which is how Jennifer was brought in.”
Myers, National Endowment for the Humanities Painting Conservation Fellow at the Chrysler Museum of Art, laughs as she tells us her title. “It’s a bit of a mouthful,” she says.
Myers has a degree in Museology, and a background in Archeology, Painting, Human anatomy and Bone Structure, all of which are useful for conservation work, which she studied at the University of Delaware.
“My professors at the university spoke about this project, and I was intrigued. This was an opportunity for me to learn about artists and a country that I didn’t know much about before, which is a personal interest of mine. I also thought I had the skills that the gallery was specifically looking for, so I could bring that to the project as well.”
The diversity of the collection was something that she did not expect.
“It was an amazing experience. I learnt about so many artists that we don’t get exposed to in America that often. The diversity of the collection was greater than I was expecting which was interesting and fantastic. There were paintings from a range of years, styles and there were more contemporary pieces; European and European inspired pieces, which I was surprised to see. It was a collection of surprises.”
The project, taken up by the Central Cultural fund at a cost 1.8 million rupees allocated by the Department of Cultural Affairs, was started in October 2021 and is set to be wrapped up by February 2022. Of the collection numbering 240 (with the new painting), 76 will go up for permanent display in the main gallery, and 88 will be exhibited temporarily in the eastern hall.
Professor Weerasinghe, who is also a contemporary artist and archaeologist, stresses the importance of official backup on cases such as these. “The ministry listened to the word of the professionals. So many artworks have been destroyed because of badly done conservation efforts. That’s precisely why we called in an expert. The decision to value professionalism is the most important thing that happened here. If they didn’t do that, none of this would have happened.”
Mithrananda Dharmasiri, Chief Mural Conservation Officer at Central Cultural Fund of Sri Lanka, touches on the misconceptions around conservation. “A lot of people think, can’t an artist just paint over the damage, isn’t that what conservation is? But conservation is a much more scientific, and a completely different thing.”
Professor Weerasinghe agrees, saying, “That is an important point. A conservator is not a scientist. A conservator is not an artist. A conservator is a conservator.”
Gamage gives us some official perspective on the matter.
“This was a joint effort by the ministry and the Committee and it was pulled off beautifully. This is the first time in Sri Lanka that such a large conservation project is being done, with international collaboration as well, and Jennifer was an invaluable part of the team,” he says.
Though Sri Lanka is home to some of the top mural conservation experts in the world, there is a great need for artists who work in other fields as well. With a humid climate that is especially treacherous to paints and fabrics, a greater effort must be put to protect the national artworks of the country, and give systematic education for those who are interested in the field.
The staff at the gallery are hopeful that the opening, as well as the discovery of the new painting, will revive the underappreciated art scene in the country. Finally set to open to the public in March 2022 after its closure in 2013, the new exhibition and the renovated buildings are a tribute to the great artists and artworks that were once hidden away.
HOW NOT TO RUN AN ELECTION (1950s)
by Chandra Arulpragasam
I must admit that my experience of elections is limited only to one district (the Batticaloa district), long ago (in the 1950s), and not at the national level. Moreover, as the second Returning Officer, I played second fiddle to the Government Agent, who was actually in charge of the Parliamentary Elections at the district level. However I was given definite responsibilities: first, for staffing the polling booths with government staff officers of executive rank; second, for supervising the actual process of elections in the polling booths; and third, for the counting of ballots once the voting was done.
My first job was difficult because many Sinhalese officers in those days were reluctant to come so far to a Tamil-speaking district. (This was long before the Tigers became the major political or military force in those districts). I was able to overcome this difficulty because some of my Sinhalese friends shared my interest in jungles and lagoons, and they were eager to come as polling officers to the Eastern Province. I had to officially get them to staff the polling booths; but unofficially, I had also to look after them and provide social activities for them.
On Election Day, I went to monitor the polling places. On one of these monitoring missions, I visited Kattankudi, a Muslim town just south of Batticaloa, where I was actually able to see an act of impersonation for the first time. This case was so outrageous that I will remember it till I die. A pregnant Muslim woman with a sari pulled over her face with only the eyes showing, was challenged. To my utter surprise, ‘she’ was unveiled to reveal a man with a beard and a pillow around his waist, pretending to be pregnant!
Many years later, I used this practical experience (of Kattankudi) to convince SWAPO, the independence movement in Namibia to withhold their agreement to the Turnhalle Agreement. The leader of SWAPO, who became the Prime Minister of Namibia was eager to get my views. I stood by my opinion that they would surely lose that decisive election – for independence – unless they were able to control or at least monitor the whole implementation process of that election. This delayed their independence by about 10 years – until they were able to train the requisite number of workers to monitor the implementation of the whole election process. The experience of Kattankudi went a long way!
To return to my story about the Batticaloa election, I still had to cast my own vote for the Batticaloa town seat. Fortunately or unfortunately, I knew all the candidates for that seat. When I came to the polling station, each of the candidates bowed and smiled, wanting to shake my hand, each of them expecting me to vote for them. I was an LSSP supporter at that time and since there was no LSSP horse in that race, I did not know whom to vote for. I went into the polling booth and impulsively drew a caricature/cartoon of each of the three candidates against their names. I remember drawing a fez cap on the Muslim candidate’s head, and drawing hair on the ears for another candidate (which was his outstanding characteristic) and a moustache on the other candidate. Smiling uneasily and guiltily, I emerged from the ballot booth to engage in small talk with the three candidates.
On Election night, there was a grand counting of votes in the Kachcheri. This was presided over by the Government Agent, but with me in actual charge of the counting. If there was a challenge to any ballot, I would give a ruling on the spot. If it was still contested, it would go to the Government Agent for his ruling. I was dreading that my ballot (with the cartoon of the candidates) would come up for my ruling. It did. And I was the first to shout “Spoilt Ballot”. I heard one of the candidates muttering loudly “bloody fool” – aimed at the person who had cast that ballot! I hastened to agree! The case was reported to the Government Agent, who did not know that his own AGA was responsible for that ballot! I had acted irresponsibly as a presiding officer. On the other hand, it was my own ballot – and if I chose to spoil it, that was my own right!
The night after the election, I invited my friends from the various government departments in Colombo to gather for a social get-together at the Vakaneri Circuit Bungalow. This was about 22 miles north of Batticaloa and situated on a massive rock overlooking the Vakaneri reservoir, which gave water to the Paper Factory. This had been one of my favourite haunts – to enjoy the silence and views of jungle and water.
I had got my friend Carl de Vos, from the private sector, to go up to the bungalow on Election Day and decorate the place, inflate the balloons, etc. – so that it had a festive look even before we arrived. I played a piano accordion at that time – and thus provided the music for singing, dancing and baila sessions. There was much singing of old songs and much drinking of beer. So much so, that the bungalow-keeper when measuring the rain-gauge the next morning (his daily duties in this Irrigation Circuit Bungalow) found to his consternation that there had been so much rain on the previous night (beer converted to urine) that there was danger of flooding – though there had been no rain at all! He grumbled loudly for me to hear: “It is impossible with this AGA dorai”.
Then the “impossible” happened. One of our guests, who had had too much to drink, had slipped and fallen into the reservoir! Knowing that it was deep at this point, that he could not swim and that there were crocodiles in the reservoir, I jumped in and hauled him out quickly – before the crocs could get me!
I heaved a sigh of relief when my election duties had been successfully completed and my social obligations – of playing herdsman to the officers from Colombo – had finally ended.
“Foreign bond holders more important to govt. than hard-pressed people”
The ubiquitous Tuk Tuk elevated to ambassadorial level
Lady in red: Mysterious painting hidden behind a prominent Lankan’s portrait
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