Appreciations | Daily News


Professor Ashley Halpé

A Pioneer in Fine Arts Education

The epitaph on a tombstone overlooking the Mahaweli in Riverdale, Kandy, reads “Sweetest love, I do not go”. Beneath the solemn-looking stela rests in peace a great teacher of our times (to quote from my friend Tissa Jayatilleke) who was “a very true, near-perfect, gentle human being” who refused to leave those who loved him.

I am not sure who was the ‘sweetest love’ that he did not want to leave; maybe it was his beloved family, or the countless students that he loved as much as he loved his own children. This brief narration is to commemorate Prof. Ashley Halpé, a great mentor of boundless compassion, and the most beloved teacher of many undergraduates to whom he taught the value of being human and the importance of showing love and respect to the self and other humans.

Past students, colleagues, and friends of Professor Halpé made a ‘garland’ of sixty-seven ‘flowers’ of personal narratives to celebrate his 75th birthday and 50 years of university teaching in 2008. Edited by Tissa Jayatilaka and Jayantha Dhanapala, A Garland for Ashley: Glimpses of a life reverberates his contribution as the Professor of English. The narrators reflect each one’s experiences with the great humanist, his unassuming and unpretentious disposition, and the spilling-over kindness to all humans.

It is to be expected that most of the narratives happened to be admirations of him as a teacher of English literature. This, understandably, overshadowed his contribution to another field of study that he introduced to the field of higher education in Sri Lanka, namely the Fine Arts. It was this brave initiative of him that offered over twenty non-English speaking students, including myself, the rarest privilege to become students of the Professor of English.

At the time, when we are commemorating his fifth death anniversary that fell on May 15, it is more than appropriate to making a brief note of his pioneering work of introducing Fine Arts as a degree programme at Peradeniya in 1972 that has been, through nearly a half a century, benefitting thousands of young Sinhala or Tamil students in six universities, although departmental names carry variants of the broad field of Fine Arts.

The University of Ceylon, Peradeniya, wanted to have a degree programme in Fine Arts from its inception, but no real effort had been made to its materialisation until Professor Halpé as then Dean of the Arts Faculty with the help of several senior colleagues designed the syllabi as an academic course of study. He obtained institutional approvals to go ahead with the long-awaited project, and officially established Sri Lanka’s first-ever Fine Arts degree programme in January, 1972, under the Dean’s control with no formal academic department.

Teaching staff was an assemblage of experienced dons from several departments in the Arts Faculty who had expertise in various branches of Fine Arts. They included Professors Jayadeva Tilakasiri, Merlin Peris, Padmasiri de Silva, Leelananda Prematilake, Kihsiri Malalgoda, Ariya Rajakaruna, S. Vithianathan, and K. Indrapalan. Among the younger generation of teachers who contributed to the teaching were Dr. Walter Marasinghe, Sirima Ediriweera, Michel Fernando, N. Kasinathan, and Wimal Weerakkody, while Aubrey Kuruppu from the Sub-Department of English helped Sinhala and Tamil-medium students improve their English language skills as well.

The programme commenced in the same month with a batch oftwenty-odd students in all three media at their second year of study. The scope of the programme that broadly resembled to Humanities study programmes in US college education included history of art and architecture, music and dance, drama and theatre, and film of all major traditions of the world, aesthetics, sociology and anthropology, and archaeology. Professor Halpé taught drama and theatre of Shakespeare, Ibsen, Chekov, Brecht, and Bekette, and 19th and 20th century Western art.

He and his wife, who served as a Visiting Lecturer taught Western Music of which the classes were held in evenings at their lovely lover-Hantane residence. That was an amazing experience for students learning Western music enjoying Chinese roles with iced coffee made by Mrs. Halpé, who wanted to make them feel like their own children. Such treatments of the Halpés also taught students, in addition to Music, many lessons of social equality and mutual respect in a society discretely divided along the lines of ethnicity, class, caste, and creed.

Triggered by Prof. Halpé’s experiment at Peradeniya, in 1973 the Government appointed him to head a committee to study the possibility of upgrading the diploma-level teaching programmes offered by the Government School of Fine Arts (also known as the Heywood College) in Colombo and the Ramanathan Academy of Fine Arts in Jaffna to degree-level programmes.

On the recommendations of ‘Ashley Halpé Committee’, both institutions were elevated as university-affiliated institutions offering degree programmes in those disciplines. The subsequent elevation of the former to be the University of Visual and Performing Arts in 2005 that offers a multitude of study programmes in fine arts to several thousands of students marks the culmination of Professor Halpé’s original desire to promote fine arts education in the country at the highest level.

Professor Halpé’s ‘forced relocation’ at the Vidyalankara Campus (presently the University of Kelaniya) in late-1973 did not deter his desire to promote degree-level fine arts education. As Peradeniya was disallowed to continue admitting new batches of students to any Humanities-related study programmes following the infamous and ill-conceived ‘One-University Bill’ of 1972 that restricted Humanities to the Vidyalankara Campus, Professor Halpé took the advantage of the same provision of the Bill to introduce a Fine Arts study programme under his Department of English in early 1975. Elevated tofull-fledged status in subsequent years, the Department of Fine Arts at the University of Kelaniya is now a centre of excellence in the teaching of several branches of Fine Arts attracting large numbers of students at undergraduate and postgraduate levels.

After the abolition of the ‘One University Bill’, Professor Halpé moved back to Peradeniya and helped the university restore its lost Fine Arts programme. I believe that those programmes that he initiated probably provided inspiration to the introduction of fine arts-related study programmes subsequently at several other universities that have benefited thousands of young students of this country to learn Fine Arts, a discipline that is so close to humanness and that teaches the value of being human. I thought that it is truly relevant for all fine arts lovers of this country to remember this great teacher and humanist at the time of his fifth death anniversary.

Emeritus Prof. B.D. Nandadeva