6th January 2002

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The 'Poly' doors opened and in came the girls

By Noel Crusz

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.

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