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I. M. R. A. Iriyagolle - Visionary and Statesman

Sri Lanka has waded through a tumultuous 34 years since losing an honest, forthright visionary and statesman, I. M. R. A. Iriyagolle, Minister of Education and Cultural Affairs of the Dudley Senanayake led UNP government of 1965/70. Those early days of dedicated, honest politicians who sacrificed their personal wealth, time and energy to selflessly serve the people and the nation, are long gone. Instead, the country today is saddled with the selfish and the mediocre, the thug and the dishonest who unfortunately have taken over the reins of this beleaguered nation.

Iriyagolle was not only a political statesman, but also a highly acclaimed author of several outstanding books and writer par excellence. He was a visionary, a talented song-writer and one of the best Sinhala speakers in Sri Lanka. Apart from these extensive talents, his ability to grasp a situation and act with speed and authority made him one of the best Education Ministers we have ever had in this country.

Early days

Born to a distinguished family in the village of Iriyagolle in Katugampola, Hathpattuwa on the third of January, 1907, he received his primary education in the village school which, today has been named after him as I. M. R . A. Iriyagolle Maha Vidyalaya. He completed his education in Colombo in Ananda and Nalanda Colleges. As a brilliant student, he entered the Ceylon Medical College but left shortly, having got into an argument with one the foreign medical lecturers. Thereafter he worked in different fields, including the Police Department for a short while, searching for the vocation that his restless spirit was born with. During these interim days, he worked as a journalist and edited a Sinhala newspaper. In 1947, he contested the Dandagamuwa electorate, which then included his hometown of Kuliyapitiya, as an independent candidate, winning decisively and entering Parliament. At last he had found his vocation. He never looked back thereafter and continued to win as an independent candidate until 1956. He was one of the four signatories when S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike formed the Mahajana Eksath Peramuna (MEP).

Joining the UNP

Although he scrupulously avoided the UNP during this time, Mr. Dudley Senanayake's sincerity, charisma and honesty attracted him and when invited by the latter in 1960, he joined the UNP. Having joined the UNP, he successfully led the campaign to woo the village youth of the country who, thus far, had been attracted to Marxism. His ability to get onto the same wave-length as the villagers stood him in good stead in forming the UNP youth "army". It speaks volumes for his speaking and organisational skills.

His honesty and forthrightness was such that Dudley Senanayake made Iriyagolle, his trusted confidante and when the UNP won in 1965, he was entrusted with the important Education and Cultural Affairs portfolio. According to many contemporary analysts, I. M. R. A. Iriyagolle was the best Minister of Education produced next to Mr. C. W. W. Kannangara.

Under Iriyagolle, the Education Department, for the first time in its history, was decentralised into 15 regions. The colonial system was fully modified into a national system of education with secondary education being drastically altered to encompass the development programme of the country. Problems due to a shortage of teachers was addressed and teacher training colleges were expanded. Curricula and teaching methodologies were improved and the salary anomalies of teachers were solved quickly. Through Parliamentary legislation brought up by him, the teaching service was upgraded and equated to other government services. Schools in remote areas were developed under a systematic programme of upgrading schools and facilities. New schools were opened up according to the needs of each area. There was a dramatic upsurge in the whole education set up in the country.Colombo's schools were congested and Mr. Iriyagolle, noticing the annual scramble for the well established schools, decided to set up D. S. Senanayake College. It was established under his personal supervision and he selected the best possible candidate as principal. Today, "D. S." is one of the most reputed and sought after schools in Colombo.

Aesthetic education

Aesthetic studies and school bands were unheard of in those days and Iriyagolle, realising the importance of aesthetic education, included these subjects in the school curriculum. These became established subjects for the O/L and A/L examinations. Higher institutions for aesthetic studies were established and universities too took up the challenge of incorporating these subjects in their degree programmes.

School bands are found today even in remote schools thanks to Iriyagolle's vision. Two songs written by him, Loken uthum rata and Sema danamana dinu sujathadarani are considered masterpieces in Sinhala music even today. Realising the fact that Sri Lanka is an agricultural nation, Iriyagolle introduced agriculture as a subject into the school curriculum and encouraged the concept of having home gardens in all schools and work experience programmes through field work. Although this was looked down upon by some of the elite in Colombo. Its influence on children in relation to appreciation of agricultural activity and the environment in addition to the hands on experience gained by the schoolchildren in these subjects, improved the general outlook and vision amongst the youth of the nation.

Iriyagolle considered reading as an essential prerequisite for developing the mentality of a growing child. As an erudite author and a person involved in the arts and culture of the country, he knew that the reading habit was absolutely necessary to mould a complete human being. Accordingly, he created the National Libraries Board and inaugurated the 100 schools library programme.

Reading a must

This concept was gradually extended to cover most schools in the country. Thereafter, he set up the Educational Publications Department under a specially appointed Commissioner. This institution was responsible for producing all the school textbooks and ancillary materials as well as teaching handbooks and materials for teacher training. It published other material such as cultural and historical texts, for example, the Mahawamsa, the Tripitaka, dictionaries and other standard publications.

He did not confine his activities to his Ministry office in Colombo but travelled extensively throughout the island, from Jaffna to Matara and from Batticaloa to the upcountry tea estate schools, personally checking on the problems and deficiencies in each area. He met with and discussed every issue with the regional officials, principals, teachers and parents, in a bid to equally develop every region. Iriyagolle revelled in the field of Cultural Affairs., which subject also came under the purview of his Ministry. This was an area close to his heart, the ancient history and culture and religion of his motherland. Along with his trusted deputy, the late Gamini Jayasuriya, he lovingly attended to the restoration of historical and archaeological sites on an extensive scale. The vandalism of some of the world famous Sigiriya frescoes was taken as a great personal loss and it affected him profoundly. He immediately got down from Italy, one of the most famous experts on restoration, Dr. Luciano Maranzi and personally travelled with him to Sigiriya. This was a monumental restoration exercise, closely monitored by Mr. Iriyagolle himself, during which Dr. Maranzi discovered several new frescoes which had been covered over during centuries of exposure to the elements.

His contribution to the development of the arts was monumental. Artistes and playwriters were most welcome at his home at anytime. There was no security (just one policeman at the gate) in those days and any visitor could casually walk in and be served with a cup of tea. His special enjoyment was to sit with these well-known artists and talk with them at length. It was an era of cultural revival, especially in the production of stage plays. Prof. Sarachchandra, Dayananda Gunawardena, Mahagama Sekera, Bandula Jayawardena, Henry Jayasena and others were in their heyday during Iriyagolle's tenure.

Equally proficient in both Sinhala and English, he was keen on standardising the usage of Sinhala and to achieve this end, he appointed panel of experts to prepare a handbook standard Sinhala. He also proceeded to introduce English on an extensive scale in all schools, appreciating the need for a good knowledge of English amongst the younger generation. The books he authored such as Manuthapaya and Devathapaya which were superb translations of French and English Classics, achieved much fame in the local literary field.

His hero and role model was Dr. E. W. Adikaram, a close friend, advisor, confidante and associate, with whom he would discuss Buddhism, culture and life's complicities.

These were moments he specially enjoyed and such long discussions and arguments were treasured to live a life of simplicity, generosity and honesty. These are qualities that I. M. R. A. Iriyagolle achieved to a great extent, qualities that are sadly lacking in the so-called leaders of our nation today.

 

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