The 1964-1968 batch of agriculture graduates from the University of Peradeniya celebrated their golden jubilee — since passing out from the Faculty of Agriculture — a few weeks ago in Peradeniya. September 1964 was a special month for a group of 23 youngsters. This was the year when 22 boys and one girl entered the [...]

Sunday Times 2

Agricolas: The seeds behind the happy harvest

Agriculture batch of 1964-68 celebrates Golden Jubilee

The 1964-1968 batch of agriculture graduates from the University of Peradeniya celebrated their golden jubilee — since passing out from the Faculty of Agriculture — a few weeks ago in Peradeniya.

September 1964 was a special month for a group of 23 youngsters. This was the year when 22 boys and one girl entered the then University of Ceylon, Peradeniya, to read for a degree in agriculture. Of course, many took up this degree course by choice but there were others like me who had little choice; it was either a question of repeating the University Entrance Examination (we did not have A/L those days) or take up the offer given to me by the University administration (having faced an interview), to do either agriculture or veterinary science. I selected agriculture and I do not regret this decision even for a moment.

Bright and talented: The University of Ceylon's 1968 Agriculure Faculty batch -- the Agricolas

As prevalent at that time, we had to go thorough one year in the Science Faculty, studying chemistry, botany and zoology and qualify to enter the Agriculture Faculty by passing the General Science Qualifying Examination (GSQ). We were with the first year students of the Science Faculty and this too was a great opportunity for us to meet with the science graduates, with whom we made friends.

Thus, having qualified we moved to the Agriculture Faculty in 1965. The batch comprised P.M. Amarasoma, H.P. Ariyaratne, V. Arulandy, Rex Celments, Lambert Dissanayake, M.P Dhanapala, N.E.M. Jayasekera, Noble Jayasuriya, Kalika Jayawardene, M.D. Lecamwasam, Fuard Marikkar, M. Mahaboob, B.S.L. Munasinghe, Conrad Perera, Bedgar Perera, A.M. Piyadasa, S. Puvendran, Gamini Pieris, S. Kandasamy, W. Ratnayake, Sathyapala Pinnaduwage, Nanda Senanayaka, Edward Suraweera, Daya Wijewardene, Geethanjalee Wiyepala, (the only girl in the batch), W.J. Wijesekera, and Suranimala Wirasinghe.

We all were provided with accommodation, two per room, in one of the halls. Many of us boys opted for Wijewardene Hall because it was the closest to the faculty, just two minutes’ walk along the railway line. Others resided at Marrs, Jayatileke or Arunachelam halls. Geetha I believe was given Sangamitta Hall.

Hall life was fun, the way I remember it. We were provided with breakfast, lunch, afternoon tea and dinner for a reasonable price. The meals were excellent and a main meal was always followed with a good dessert too, a pudding, an ice cream or sometimes even avocado cream.

There was ‘ragging’. But I prefer to write it within inverted commas because it was not like what we hear these days. It was real fun and we too enjoyed it. We had to act, sing and dance, basically do crazy things. Looking back I believe that this was how we came to know the seniors who in many instances became close friends by the end of the week.

We attended classes both in the morning and in the afternoon. Mornings were generally occupied with lectures, and practical classes were held in the afternoons. We had highly qualified professors and senior lecturers of the caliber of S.T. Seneviratne, R.R. Appadurai, B.A. Baptist, Stanley Kalpage, A.E. Wickremanayake, Y.D.A. Senanayake, T. Jogaratnam, Ivan Samaraweera, Hector Karunajeewa, and Mervyn Pulle. They taught subjects such as crop and pasture agronomy, horticulture, agriculture zoology, entomology, agriculture botany, agriculture engineering, agriculture economics and farm management, biochemistry and soil science.

Academics such as Shelton Kodituwakku, Peter Seneviratne, and P.L.G. de Silva from the Department of Veterinary Science (now the Faculty of Veterinary Medicine and Animal Science) taught us animal science (anatomy, physiology etc. of domestic animals) and George Thambiapille from Department of Geography the subject of climatology.

Looking back and recollecting my life 50 years ago, I consider that this batch of ‘Agricolas’ would have been the most unique batch of all times, because of the variety of talent exhibited by the members of the batch. The batch can be very proud of its scientific and other achievements.

Academically, we established a distinct record. Rex Clements topped the batch with a First Class, having obtained 13 distinctions (over 70 marks in each subject) out of 14 subjects. He broke the record that existed at that time; that of Prof. R.R. Appadurai. I wonder whether this record has yet been broken. All the others also graduated, several of them obtaining a Second Class (Upper or Lower) Divisions.

After graduation they took up various professions based on opportunities available at the time. Five were offered temporary jobs in the faculty even before the Final Examination results were out, probably based on the performance of the 1st Examination held the year before. Two of them became permanent members of the academic staff at a later date, for having performed extremely well at the final examination, with a First Class and a Second Class Upper Division, respectively.

Many of the batch members pursued further studies and acquired post graduate qualifications in various specialties from reputed universities abroad. Nine obtained PhD degrees and most others obtained Master’s degrees. The chosen specialties were diverse — agronomy, plant breeding, population genetics, soil microbiology, animal nutrition, dairy technology, agricultural extension, agricultural economics, agricultural engineering and agricultural communication.

The batch produced an international-award-winning plant breeder, who was a key person in the production of BG varieties of rice that we all are familiar with, a Vice Chancellor, a UN expert, many university professors who excelled in research, managers of government corporations, CEOs of private sector companies and industrial establishments and many directors and deputy directors of agriculture.

The one and only girl, Geetha, became the Sports Queen of the year 1967-1968, having excelled in many sports activities at the university. Three members of the batch played for the Peradeniya University badminton team during 1966-1968 and obtained university colours. They represented the university at various inter-university championships.

The batch also had musical talent. The ‘Agricolas’, a three-man band was regularly invited to sing at hall socials. The organisers provided a sumptuous meal and the band played Sri Lankan oldies keeping the crowds happy.

I believe that this was the only Agriculture Faculty batch that made full use of the ‘vacation courses’. Vacation courses were organised both during short and long vacations to visit various agricultural research institutions and field stations and undergo training to gain practical experience in agricultural practices. We spent many weeks at the Mahailluppalama Agriculture Research station learning about crop production and farm animal management. We were taken to Ambewela, Bopathalawa, Dayagama, and New Zealand farms and many other such livestock farms to get the practical knowledge in animal production and husbandry.

We learnt to drive a tractor and plough, puddle and level a paddy field or harvest a paddy crop; to milk a cow and manage a cow shed and how to feed and take care of calves. We learned to pluck tea — two leaves and a bud –, tap rubber and harvest sugarcane. We learnt about coconut cultivation and farm management. We carried out surveying and levelling had even had the opportunity of dismantling a four wheel tractor and putting it back on the road again. We conducted field surveys in the dry zone area mingling with farmers (and wild animals). That was how we became fully fledged ‘agriculturists’.

Lecturers accompanied the students and we all worked hard during the day. The lecturers were thorough in their subject matter and we respectfully leant from them. However, the evenings were full of fun with entertainment from the ‘Agricolas’ and with staff of the institutions joining in the fun. While we were provided with free lodging at the institution’s circuit bungalows we had to manage our own food, for which the faculty provided us with two labourers who were excellent cooks.

In 1993 the batch celebrated 25 years of graduation at the Upper Hantane Guest House of the University of Peradeniya. This was a grand occasion for many of us because we were meeting after 25 years. Some of the teachers were also invited to join in the fun. It was an opportunity for the batch to meet up, with their spouses and children, to talk of the good old days and update information about themselves. Since then a batch get-together has been held almost every year. The 49th anniversary of passing out of the University was celebrated last year in Negombo with the participation of over 30 members and their first and even second generation products.

Today, we all are retired senior citizens of the country, having contributed to national development in whatever possible way available to us at that time. A few are domiciled abroad but most are in Sri Lanka keeping themselves busy by getting involved in various preoccupations; a few still serve as consultants or advisors to ministers and ministries while others are involved in jobs totally unrelated to the professional training they gained during their university days. We have amongst us, horticulturists, industrialists, planters managing their own properties (successfully, I believe), photographers, wildlife and nature enthusiasts and even cartoonists and musicians.

Of the batch, four members (H.P. Ariyaratne, former Director, Fields Crops Research and Development Institute in Mahailluppalama, Kalika Jayawadene, former Chairman, National Livestock Development Board, A.M. Piyadasa, former staff member of the Faculty’s MI Unit and Asst. Gen. Manager-Technical of the Coconut Cultivation Board and J. Wijesekera, an industrialist and pioneering former Manager of the Dodangolla Farm of the Faculty of Agriculture,) have since passed away and we sincerely remember them with gratitude and fond memories.

Finally, I would like to fondly remember with much gratitude all our living as well as deceased lecturers and professors from the Faculties of Science, Agriculture and Veterinary Science, University of Peradeniya. We remember with gratitude all the professors, lecturers, demonstrators, lab technicians and labourers from the Faculty of Agriculture and Veterinary Science. They have been instrumental in inculcating knowledge and experience in us to be what we are today. Similarly, I must remember professors such as Hilary Cruz, B.A. Abeywickrema, N. de Fonseka, Sultan Bawa, Ariyaratne, Dias, Selvaratnam and Nalini (now Mrs. Ratnasiri) from the Faculty of Science, who were responsible for giving us the basic know-how of science and its fundamentals. There is no doubt that they helped us to understand more fully the science of agriculture.

That was the life of an undergraduate 50 years ago. I hope that the present generation of undergraduates, too, could make the full use of the generous facilities made available to them by the universities and one day be proud of their achievements.

(The writer is former Associate Professor of Animal Science, University of Peradeniya and former staff member of the IAEA and FAO of the United Nations)

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