Appreciations | Daily News


Sugunadasa Athukorale : A Principal par excellence

November 2021 marks the 100th birth anniversary of an educationist par excellence, Sugunadasa Athukorale, one of Nalanda’s greatest principals who guided Nalanda’s destiny for 13 long years from 1969 to 1982.

Nalanda was going through a difficult time during the early 1960 due to various internal issues such as disagreements among staff members and no principal could manage the situation which had gone out of control and even the students were getting involved in the disturbances. The Education Ministry appointed young Gunapala Wickramaratne as the principal of Nalanda in 1964. Within a matter of weeks, he took control of the situation and instilled discipline and order in the school. He recruited young teachers and guided them; Nalanda once again became a force to be reckoned with in the education circles.

Wickramaratne was able to turn around Nalanda in a short period and Nalanda became one of the best-disciplined schools. But his stay was short, and he was promoted and transferred in 1969. Neil Fernando, an old Nalandian became the acting principal for a couple of months till the Ministry appointed Sugunadasa Athukorale as principal of Nalanda College in 1969. That was the time I was studying in Grade 4 in junior school. This year, 1969, coincided with the marking of 100 years of education in Sri Lanka, and the occasion was celebrated with an exhibition called ‘Siyawasa’. The appointment of Athukorale was a kind of a ‘headhunting’ by the then education authorities.

Athukorale, an old Anandian, was serving as the principal of Thakshila Vidyalaya, Horana for a short period before his transfer to Nalanda, after his term at Mathugama Ananda Shastralya as its deputy principal. Athukorale who himself was an extremely good Mathematics teacher got married to Hema who was also another good Mathematics teacher. She later taught at Nalanda in middle school. His son Upul who also studied at Nalanda is now domiciled in Canada, while his two daughters Gayathri and Savithri are living in Sri Lanka. Gayathri served in the tutorial staff of Nalanda as a teacher of Information Technology.

Sugunadasa Athukorale was born in Keeranthidiya in Matugama in the Kalutara District on November 12, 1921. Athukorale had his education at Ananda College, Colombo and was a hosteller. His classmates and best friends include Colonel G.W. Rajapakse, the former principal of Ananda College and L.D.H Peiris, the former principal of Royal College. It was a coincident that all three became principals of the three leading boys’ schools in the country and served these schools during the same period in the 1970s. They had an excellent relationship with each other. Athukorale was a principal in the supra grade. Athukorale’s administration skills were fine-tuned when he led the ‘Mathugama, Horawala Dodangoda Gam Sabhawa’ as its head for two consecutive terms. He had relinquished his duties as the head of the Gam Sabhawa when the Government took over the schools, he automatically became a Government Servant since then till his retirement.

Athukorale by his actions, behaviour and mannerisms set an example to the students on how one should have patience and tolerance, and how one should focus on one’s goals and work towards achieving them. Athukorale’s integrity, honesty and simplicity were demonstrated in everything he did. He always worked for the greater good of the school. He wanted his students not only to reach the National level but aim and achieve international levels. He cared about the individual student, and his policy was to make each and every student an all-round personality. His aim was to give an outstanding well-rounded education to students. In order to give the best, he headhunted many a best teacher of the subject to Nalanda.

This indefatigable principal had his own ways of assessing the competence of teachers before handpicking them for Nalanda. He used his network effectively to find good teachers and approach them for recruitment. Athukorale firmly believed that Nalanda should be accessible to any student of any social or economic standing. He remembered that Nalanda’s infrastructure in the early days was supported by the collections received from economically downtrodden segments too. He was keen to see the progress of all students in general. Athukorale always considered that it was the school’s responsibility to bring out the best in students. He encouraged freedom of expression among staff and students, promoted free-thinking. He wanted students to be independent. Athukorale had been a father, teacher and friend to any student who sought his advice.

Students who got caught for wrongdoings were not punished initially but were severely warned and advised not to involve in such acts again. He always believed in giving students a second chance to correct themselves. Many a time students were given a second chance to correct themselves. He pushed students to achieve their full potential. During his 13 years of service, Nalanda reached its peak in academic performances, by improving the average number of students passing G.C.E (O/L) and (A/L) examinations, also producing the island’s best students in the Science stream in certain years. Nalanda can be proud of the individual student performances during this period. Ranking at the top is Dr. Sarath Gunapala, senior research scientist attached to NASA who had his education in this era under Athukorale’s principalship.

During this period Nalanda reached the top in most of the sports the college participated in. Cricket being the foremost and Nalanda had been consistently feeding players to the National team every year. Every Sri Lanka schools cricket team during the tenure of Athukorale had at least one Nalandian in the side. Hockey is another sport that continuously won championships at interschool National level competitions. Athletics too reached the top level with some record-breaking performances. Cadeting prospered and senior cadets won the coveted ‘Herman Loos’ Cup awarded to the best cadet platoon among the schools in the country twice. This trophy was won by Nalanda after 39 years, having won it previously way back in 1938. The junior cadets brought the De Zoysa Challenge Trophy awarded to the island’s best junior cadet platoon after 12 years. Football too was another sport that reached the top level. Many sports were introduced during the period; Rugby was introduced in 1971 and swimming was also added as a sport at Nalanda during the same period.

He continued the rich traditions that Nalanda inherited from the past. Nalanda celebrated its Golden Jubilee under this great principalship in 1975. Coinciding with this, the young past students of the school with the support, guidance and initiative, of Principal Sugunadasa Athukorale formed the Nalanda Junior Old Boys’ Association (NJOBA) on January 7, 1975. The foresight the principal had in supporting this initiative is evidenced today that this Association during its 47 years of journey has become one of the largest and wealthiest old boys’ associations in the country. No sooner of its formation it became the live wire of the school, supporting the school in many ways. Athukorale supported this Association whole-heartedly, any objection and resistance to this Association were not entertained and those were completely ignored or rejected. The very idea of forming this association was to get the young past students linked to the school at a very young age.

One characteristic of his style of administration was to give authority to teachers, especially the sectional heads and heads of various sports and other extracurricular activities. He had good leadership traits; he empowered teachers and student leaders; he was punctual; he listened to students and teachers. Minor staff who were serving as casual employees were made permanent. Athukorale was a visionary leader. During his tenure, his mission was ‘not to be second to anyone’. He passed on this to teachers and students that “we don’t want to be first, at the same time we don’t want to be second to anyone”. This message was made clear to every teacher and student, resulting in, high demand for gaining admissions to Nalanda. Many schoolboys from almost all the leading schools sought admission to Nalanda to receive a quality education. Most of them were admitted based on their merit.

Athukorale had innovative approaches to solve problems and always encouraged creativity in students. It was always felt that he could see things 10 years ahead. His projects were futuristic. He saw the potential of Nalanda, to impart knowledge by giving quality education to a higher number of students. He was keen to accommodate part of the growing student population in the country. He planned a rigorous programme of infrastructure development for Nalanda. Athukorale should be credited for Nalanda’s rich infrastructure. A new three-storied laboratory building which has a shrine room, an auditorium and a library was constructed during his era in 1979.

Another four and three-storied combined building was constructed by demolishing the old single-story building. A two-story classroom building was constructed at the left corner of the school behind the cricket scoreboard meticulously utilising the limited space available. He acquired the land adjoining the primary section and put up a building with modern architecture to accommodate hostellers. A tall parapet wall was put up in the primary section. A large land adjoining the oldest building of the school was acquired by him before he completed his term at Nalanda. A new scoreboard was built and the pavilion was upgraded. Until the late 70s, Nalanda was sharing the ground at Campbell Place with Ananda; once Ananda had its own grounds at Ananda Mawatha, Nalanda inherited this property. He saw the need for a theatre hall to facilitate the development of performing skills and aesthetics of budding Nalandian artistes. A state-of-the-art theatre hall was constructed and it was named ‘Malalasekera Hall’ in honour of Nalanda’s first Principal Dr. Gunapala Malalasekera (1925–1927). These are some of the infrastructure projects this dynamic principal added to the College.

The challenges, mostly external, he faced with courage and determination. Athukorale was well read and up to date on any subject. Athukorale rendered a selfless service to Nalanda. His loyalty to Nalanda was unwavering till his death. Even after retirement he became a regular visitor to Nalanda and was available for any advice to many of us, past students. He was an honourable person with good human qualities. He spent considerable time and effort to develop Nalanda. Very often he was seen after school hours watching sports practices at a corner of the College grounds under the shade of a tree. His lifestyle was a very simple one. While he had his Volkswagen Beetle parked at school, he used to take the bus plying in route number 166 to go to the Education Department office at Green Path Colombo 2.

He was spending public money cautiously. He was an unassuming and modest person. He always preferred to be among his staff members and students. This was amply demonstrated at the first-ever ‘Guru Upahara’ -teacher felicitation ceremony organised by the Junior OBA in 1997; he enjoyed the company of his former lieutenants throughout the day and congratulated the Junior OBA for introducing such an event to the events calendar. I consulted him on many occasions for advice and at the time I was heading Junior OBA. After his retirement, he participated in every event at Nalanda, that he was invited to.

The name of Sugunadasa Athukorale will be written in gold in the history of Nalanda as one of the most farsighted principals Nalanda ever had.

Athula Jayasekera
Past President (1995–1998)
Nalanda Junior OBA


Prasanna Wickramarachi : My Seeya - An extraordinary human being

If kindness, empathy and mutual respect combined, had a face, it would be him, no doubt. Seeya had a big impact on my life. Others who would have met him would say no different.

Born in Gampaha in 1935 to parents Charles and Irene Wickramarachi was Prasanna Kumar Wickramarachi, the second eldest amongst eight siblings. His siblings fondly remember him as the fun older brother who would bring them treats and take them out for movies.

He schooled at Ananda College and then later joined the Posts and Telecommunications Department as a Telecommunications Engineer. The driving force in his life was his passion for telecommunications – how advancements in Information Technology had a significant impact on enhancing the way people communicated. He had this childlike curiosity and amazement in the way modern developments in technology transformed and uplifted the quality of life for people. He never lost this passion for all things related to engineering and technology till the very end and always made sure that he was up to date with every single development in his field. With training in Germany and England, he made his way up to become the first Managing Director of Sri Lanka Telecom in 1991. He was proud to have contributed his skills and knowledge in converting the island that had limited telecommunication facilities to one that has the most advanced infrastructure in this industry.

Seeya also worked with the Asia Pacific Telecommunity (APT), the Asia Pacific regional telecommunication organization based in Thailand, initially as its Project Engineer and subsequently as its Chairman of the Management Committee. This had provided him with wide exposure to telecommunication development issues including funding and reforms in the Asia Pacific region. Subsequently, as Telecom Consultant with PERC, he played a key coordinating role in the conversion of SLT to a strategic alliance and a privatised company. He later compiled all his career experiences into a book called ‘My Recollections’ which was launched in 2015 with the help of my father, Rohan.

One quality that I admired the most about Seeya was his ability to show compassion to others. It came naturally to him and he would treat people from all walks of life equally without judgement or prejudice. He had this quality of making people around him feel comfortable and never made another feel inferior to him. I think it also emerged from his ability to place himself in another person’s shoes and look at matters from their perspective. That enabled him to bond with people irrespective of their race, culture or background. In other words, he was always able to find common ground with others. This led to him and my grandmother Chandrani – who was always the gracious hostess supporting my grandfather in all his ventures till the last day - having a large circle of friends and relations who absolutely adored them and are close to our family to this day. So the fact that my grandparents’ house was welcome to visitors – both from Sri Lanka and overseas – at any time of day or night came as no surprise. It was always an open house. My grandparents were lucky to have celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary in 2017 amidst a gathering of family and friends close to their hearts.

Seeya was a walking encyclopedia. The ample knowledge he carried about various topics was always so fascinating. Mealtimes at my grandparents’ were occasions that we always looked forward to. My brother Kivindu and I being his only grandchildren learnt a lot about life just through the conversations we had at the dinner table. It could be about world history, a sport, music, or even about the progress of technology over the years; Seeya was able to deliver so much information in such a manner that at the end of the conversation you felt as you were transported to another world. He would also incorporate personal experiences he had had, giving us an insight into how life was back then. So, you can imagine how long our meals together were.

It will only take one conversation with him to know that Seeya had many interests. He was an avid reader and he would almost throw a tantrum if he was not able to get his hands on the daily newspaper each morning. Without a doubt it was a life staple for Seeya and even his failing eyesight towards the end did not stop him from reading. Therefore, the fact that he possessed so much knowledge on a variety of subjects did not come as a surprise.

Photography was another one of Seeya’s many hobbies. He was into it at a very young age and that same interest definitely passed down to us as my uncle Sanjeewa, my brother and I picked up photography as a hobby. One needs to spend just a few hours in our house to realise that my mother Damayanthi has acquired his love for music – not just one, but a variety of genres!

In his 84 years of life, he achieved so much, travelled the world, shared his wisdom, helped so many individuals in various ways and made all of us better people. It has been two years without him and we miss him dearly. He is fondly remembered with unending love by immediate family – Chandrani, Damayanthi, Sanjeewa, Rohan, Heather, Kivindu, Kavya and a large number of friends and relations.

Kavya Seneviratne


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