Polytechnic celebrates 100 years of vocational and tertiary education in Sri Lanka

By Kirthie Abeyesekera, Sunday Island December 30, 2001---

Reflections on the Polytechnic at Wellawatte from distant Toronto in Canada, mirror a myriad images of an era gone by.

When Sharadha de Saram told me that her mother, Mano Muthu Krishna, would like me to make an editorial contribution for the Poly’s centennial, it ignited dormant flames of a forgotten age.

I have to go back three decades to revive memories of the Poly, the Wellawatte landmark that has many a story to tell. My links with this age-old institution go back to the ‘seventies. It was a decade of significant socio economic and political upheaval that changed the course of the country’s history. At the turn of the decade, 1970 saw the fall of the Dudley Senanayake, United National Party government. The United Left Front led by Sirima Bandaranaike had ushered in a new social order widely acclaimed as the ‘Peoples’s Age.’ For the first time, the country’s ultra-Left movement had a voice in government.

The following year, some of the very forces that helped oust the right-wing, rose in open rebellion when the Janatha Vimukuthi Peramuna launched a nation-wide armed attack on the Establishment. To appease the youth yelling for social justice and economic emancipation, ceilings were set on incomes and landownership. Even the country’s name was changed from ‘Ceylon’ to ‘Sri Lanka,’ to satisfy the nationalist revival call.

Two years later, the Associated Newspapers of Ceylon Ltd., better known as Lake House, which had been set on fire by the mob celebrating the 1970 election victory, was taken over by the government, striking a virtual death blow to the freedom of the Fourth Estate.

Amidst the chaos and turmoil that are the inevitable result of radical change, a few old institutions managed to survive. In 1973, Mano Muthu Krishna, a director of the Polytechnic edited the Women’s Page of the ‘Sunday Observer’ I was working for at the time. Her brother, Dinkar, another director, endorsed his sister’s choice of me. I had recently returned from the United Kingdom with a Diploma in Journalism which probably, prompted Mano to pick me to conduct the Poly’s Journalism Course. My predecessors as lecturers had been Andrew de Silva, Ms. Fleming, a foreigner, Sita Parakrama and Reggie Michael.

Thus began my bi-weekly trek to the Poly amidst a hectic work schedule in crime reporting and feature writing. These visits gave me a closer look at a commercial institute that equipped men and women to face the realities of the working world.

‘The Polytechnic Ltd.’ was founded in 1901 by Lawrie Muthu Krishna, an imposing personality. He wore a long coat and waistcoat with winged collar. In keeping with the trend of his generation, he wore his hair long and, like all good Colombo Chetties, he always carried a folded, black umbrella. He was held in high esteem by the business community.

A man of broad vision, he realized the importance of tertiary and vocational education and catered to that need. It was a time when the country’s educational system, based on academic study, was not geared to the realistic labour-market. From humble beginnings as a private business college at San Sebastian Hill on Hulftsdorp, Muthu Krishna set up the Polytechnic, first at Bambalapitiya and then at the present location in Wellawatte.

His sisters, Olive and Violet, having completed their commercial education at the Madras Technical College, joined their brother and were the Poly’s first teachers. At the time, young women who had no interest in pursuing higher studies, found the Poly an ideal institution to hone skills mat would help them to be useful working members of the community, while building up their own careers. The Poly provided courses in communication skills, business correspondence, secretarial management, bookkeeping and accounting - all of which became popular, particularly with young ladies just out of secondary school.

The youngest pupil in my first Journalism Class was a 16-year-old girl from me Holy Family Convent, Bambalapitiya. My oldest student was a 58-year-old man on the eve of his retirement - a barometer of the wide age-group that comprised the Poly’s students.

There were a few other academies and tutories scattered around the city. But the Poly stood out distinctively and was, by far, the most popular. The Poly was unique for two reasons. While other educational institutions were, by and large, denominational, the Poly was non-sectarian. It was also one of the few, if not only, institutions, providing co-education where men and women sat together in the same classroom. The Poly was also considered an alternative to university, and it became trendy for one to say, "I go to the Poly."

Of course, the Poly was also an excuse for teenagers to get out of their homes. Unsuspecting parents believed their offspring were preparing themselves for a career. But some of the romantically-inclined, playing truant, sought the ‘Savoy’ next door where matinee shows set the scene for stolen kisses.

Shadhara herself, has childhood memories of the institution founded by her forefathers. "I enjoyed my childhood, living next to the Poly," she says. "I loved to hear the gossip outside our home window which was always packed with Poly students. Of course, they didn’t know I was listening."

Today, Poly students are scattered around the world, in many professions. I’ve met them in England and Australia. Many are here in Canada. They speak with warmth and affection of the friendships made in their Poly days which have endured over the years.

Some of my own journalism students are doing well in life. Firoze Sameer is a successful businessman and a prolific writer who has authored books, including a documentary on the infamous Ossie Corea - ‘Dossiercorea.’ One of my brightest young sparks, Lalani, the daughter of a former Permanent Secretary, C. J. Serasinghe, is now a legal secretary at the Ministry of Justice. She tells me, "The journalistic skills acquired under your training at the Poly come in very useful in my research presentations, editing legal publications, etc..

In many parts of the world, Sri Lankan expatriates, loyal to their ‘Alma Mater,’ have formed associations of Old Boys and Old Girls - Anandians, Nalandians, Royalists, Thomians, Bridgetians, Visakhians, Josephians, Peterities - the list is endless.

At home and abroad, men and women who have passed the portals of the Poly have entered me outside world, armed with confidence. As a tribute to their second ‘Alma Mater’ - if you will - these alumni should band themselves together and proudly proclaim themselves as ‘Poly’s Past Pupils.’

When the sexes meet, the inevitable happens. Romance fills the air. Love blossoms. Hearts meet. Partings leave broken hearts.

From ten thousand miles away, I send greetings to the Polys centennial celebrations, and would wish to conclude this editorial contribution on a personal note that had a happy ending.

My daughter, Chitra, on completing her secondary schooling at the Devi Balika Vidyalaya at Borella, took a secretarial course at the Poly, which landed her, her first job at Heath & Co. While at the Poly, she met Dev, a fellow-student. Their friendship grew. Later, Dev left for Canada to start a new life. Chitra followed him to take him for her life’s partner.

Now, happily married for over a quarter century, and enjoying a stable family life, they have two University-educated daughters, Tamara and Dilani. Chitra herself has risen high in her profession as a banker.

In a real sense, the Poly is responsible for me and the rest of our family making our home in Canada. We followed Chitra instead of going to Australia which we had originally planned to make our home.

The 'Poly' doors opened and in came the girls
By Noel Crusz , Sunday Times, Jan 6, 2002

It is a hundred years since Lawrie Muthu Krishna brought business skills to the masses. The 'baby boomers' told their husbands, "We will not be dictated to, and then thanks to The Polytechnic went on to become stenographers!"

It was in 1901 that a young man had a vision that would spell a silent saga for thousands of men and women. He founded the first private Business College. Lawrie Muthu Krishna was a selfmade man. He realised that in the narrow confines of academic education, the masses would be left out because they could not afford it, and neither had the inclination for university education.

As a teenager at St. Peter's College in 1939, I saw Lawrie enter the College gates with his sons Prabhakar and Dinkar. Lawrie was in his long white coat, trousers, waistcoat, winged collar and tie: almost a Dickensian character from a 19th century novel. He wore tortoise shell spectacles. His long hair ended in curls minus the sideburns. His black tightly furled umbrella, was the significant 'vade mecum' of the soft spoken Colombo Chetty community.

The Rector of St. Peter's College, Fr. D.J. Nicholas Perera, and the Vice-Rector Fr. Basil Wiratunga informed Lawrie that his son Prabhakar had won the College "Open Essay Prize". All of us were on the eve of World War II, and the commandeering of school buildings by the Allied Forces in Ceylon, faced new challenges. Lawrie Muthu Krishna was a pioneer in encouraging youth to learn business and media skills.

He started in modest cramped buildings in San Sebastian Hill in Colombo 12. Maybe he saw the legal luminaries flocking to erect their offices near the Law Courts. Lawrie's vision worked overtime. It was founded on hign spiritual and moral values. He saw the cut- throat commercial world invading accepted values.

Soon he persuaded his sisters Olive and Violet to return to Ceylon from Madras. These young women had excelled in the Madras Technical College in commercial and media skills. They were to be the driving force in his tutorial staff, and a great asset to this family venture.

This has been the backbone of the Polytechnic saga. It has been a century of achievement spanning two World Wars plus a Depression and witnessing the first Boer War prisoners entraining for Diyatalawa. E.G. Money brought the first automobile to Ceylon, while Lawrie had a say when the first Sinhalese typewriter was produced in 1912. Before long, thousands would be tapping away on heavy manual tupewriters.

Colombo was bursting in the seams. There was an exodus from the over-populated city to the residential areas of the 'golden mile' from Colpetty to Wellawatte. The need for an established Business College, with a wide choice of vocational and tertiary education was part and parcel of Lawrie Muthu Krishna's vision.

I still remember the clutter of the heavy old Remington Standard typewriters in the Polytechnic. It was known as the Charlemont Road symphony. The Galle Road had been widened, the Wellawatte bridge over the canal had been drained and re-built. A generation of teenagers and school-leavers made a bee-line to the Polytechnic to hone their skills under Lawrie's supervision.

It was the age of Pitman and Gregg where shorthand and typing were necessary skills for the employment market. There was a craze for commercial subjects, and business skills and accountancy. The Government education system lagged miserably in spite of Lawrie Muthu Krishna's call for a re-orientation of media and communication skills.

With Wellawatte and Bambalapitiya and Colpetty South adding to the exodus into the 'Golden Mile', we saw crowds of young women, flocking to the Poly. The traditions of Holy Family Convent, St. Paul's Milagiriya, Lindsay Girls School were brought to the Poly classes. Parents felt safe in sending their daughters to learn shorthand, typing and accountancy under Lawrie and his professional staff, where the family was the backbone. The branches at Fort and Wellawatte were a boon especially in a post-war world.

Of course the 'Savoy Theatre' and the ice cream parlours of Alerics, Lion House, Paiva's and Dew Drop Inn added an element of romantic spice. When World War II broke out, hundreds of girls and young men, who learnt shorthand and typing were to be in clover on jobs with the Allied Command. The Polytechnic Certificate was widely accepted, even in Australia and Canada. A Polytechnic product signified achievement and employers attested to this.

The century of the Polytechnic Foundation is indeed an accolade to its founder. Lawrie Muthu Krishna had a heart of gold. He had a great love for his students. He was a pioneer in every sense. His firm of 'Public Accountants and Auditors' saw a wide clientele. The Chatham Street offices at Negris Building (Fort) survived till the end of World War II. Lawrie did not stint in giving advice for a song and a cup of tea. Today accountants earn by the minute!

I can still recall the day I saw Lawrie Muthu Krishna coming out of 'Collette Studio' in Bambalapitiya. We teenagers took our films for developing and printing and Mr. Collette (cartoonist Aubrey Collette's father) helped us. Lawrie too sought his help, to enlarge handwriting, when Lawrie was the only Private Examiner of Questioned Documents. No wonder handwritten legal documents and forgeries were grist for Lawrie's mill. The Poly was appointed to represent many UK examining bodies for recognised qualifications.

A hundred years for the Polytechnic are also a tribute to Olive and Violet, the Muthu Krishna sisters who were the real pioneers. Three generations have seen this Business University as alive and significant and up-to-date as ever. It has weathered political and economic storms. It brought in a new world of media and today with modern computer skills, there are giant strides.

Prabhakar Muthu Krishna was in school at St. Peter's College with me. He was an athlete and a prolific reader. After his father's death he took over responsibilities with his equally talented brother Dinkar. Dinkar too inherited his father's skills, and also became an Examiner of Questioned Documents, besides being President of the Netball and Badminton Federation.

Both brothers have passed away, Dinkar at 49 and Prabhakar at 50 and it was left to the sister Mano to bring the Institute to the stature of what it is today. The contribution of the siblings to the saga was significant. The Poly reaped the business acumen of the Roches, Machados, Carvallios, Paivas, F.X. Pereiras, Davoodbhoys, Sankar Ayers and De Liveras: firms that employed Poly girls.

Mano, a product of Holy Family Convent, with contemporaries like Myrle Swan, was already making a significant contribution to the emerging new woman's world. A fair skinned, softspoken woman, Mano scooped many interviews of leading personalities, organised fashion and beauty contests, and ran the Poly with clocklike precision, notwithstanding her active fox terriers! Her own communication and broadcasting skills were lavishly shared with her pupils at the Institute.

Mano as a journalist worked with me at the 'Davasa' under that charismatic Editor D.B. Dhanapala. It was she who broke the ice on the 'Boonwaat murder scoops.'

The Polytechnic centenary is a simple acknowledgement that the future of a country lies in the vision of its teachers, of its pioneers, of men and women of vision who saw the full spectrum.

Lawrie Muthu Krishna saw the intense need of tapping the talent of the young, of helping them to perfect those skills, that would help them in life. Little wonder that it was in the heart of his own family that he found his inspiration and achievement. There is no doubt that the Polytechnic has in a way moulded the social fabric of Colombo South.

The feminist movement and the Victorian ideals that woman's place was merely in the home was given a jolt. No wonder women rushed to learn typing skills at the Poly.

The Centenary is no doubt a deserving accolade to the man, who played no small part in the Polytechnic saga.