In Appreciation of Ashley Halpe: A Man for All Seasons

Tissa Jayatilaka, in The Island, 19 May 2021, where the ttitle runs: “Remembering Professor Ashley Halpe”

As we mark the fifth anniversary of Professor Halpe’s passing, we remember him with gratitude and continue to celebrate his life and work. He was a teacher for over 50 years both at home and overseas. He also enriched us by his research, poetry, paintings and translations; as well as by his labours as a chorister, actor, director of plays and administrator. In addition, he was a guide, philosopher and friend to generations of students, many of whom have distinguished themselves in diverse fields of activity.

Whilst giving of himself, unstintingly, to the world around him in his characteristically understated style, Ashley Halpe’ remained the exemplary family man, a devoted husband and caring parent. So much so that it is impossible to speak or write about him without in the same breath mentioning his wife Bridget and children Mantha (Guy), Hassinee and Aparna.

Ashley Halpe’ was the quintessential Peradeniya man. He belonged to the very first batch of undergraduates who went up to the spanking new University of Ceylon on the banks of the Mahaweli Ganga in 1952 and remained there for almost his entire career except for a brief period in the early 1970s when he was unjustly compelled by the political authorities of the time to move to the then Vidyalankara Campus of the University of Sri Lanka.

In a chapter he contributed to a book on the Peradeniya University, Ashley Halpe’ has written enthusiastically and evocatively of the origins of his alma mater: The whole concept was tremendous. This was no Oxford or Cambridge growing at its own sweet pace over the centuries and evolving a visual splendour of dreaming spires or of colleges by the Cam by imperceptible increments. Peradeniya was all planning, its variations of Kandyan architecture daringly blended with elements from Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa, the whole huge flower ” fragrant with shadow” intricately balancing formal landscaping and chaste permitted wilderness …. complete with winding walks and warbling streamDesigned to breed debate and poetry. . . [Peradeniya: Memories of a University. Eds. K.M de Silva and Tissa Jayatilaka]

Jean Arasanayagam, in a poetic tribute to Ashley Halpe’ has captured effectively this magic of Peradeniya:

“That was the month I remember

When the trees were wreathed with coronets of flowers

Bougainvilleas bloomed in the ornamental park

Breathing in the excess of their own flamboyancy

We pushed aside their thorns

Crushed their tissue flowers like broken kites

Against our fingers.

It is this institution that nurtured Ashley Halpe’ and to which he gave back in ample measure. He did not hold back as did that miserly son who figures in that well known Sinhala folk poem. Peradeniya University did not ever have to pose to this distinguished son of hers the sad question that the distraught mother posed to her ungrateful son —manalada puthey kiri dunney ma nubata? Ashley Halpe’s giving was abundant and fulsome.

In addition to his appointment to the enormously prestigious and much-prized Chair of English at Peradeniya in 1965, at the young of 32, (he was one of the youngest to hold a University Chair in Ceylon), he served two terms as Dean of the Faculty of Arts, was the University Proctor, and head of the University Drama Society (DramSoc). Perhaps the only administrative responsibility he did not shoulder in his time is that of a Warden of a Hall of Residence.

Despite the load he carried as an administrator, Professor Halpe’ found the time for his academic and extra- curricular interests. His scholarly publication record which focused on aspects of Shakespearean drama and Shakespeare criticism and South Asian Creative Writing in English speaks for itself. Aside from several poems published in anthologies, three collections of Ashley Halpe’s poems are available. These are Silent Arbiters, Homing and other poems and Sigiri Verses, an adaptation of the 6th-9th Century Sinhala poems with an introduction and notes.

In a later publication Waiting for the Bells (2013), he brought together the poems that originally appeared in the two volumes, Silent Arbitersand Homing and other poems,a selection from his Sigiri Poems and other Sinhala translations, the complete Pasan,parts of which had appeared separately from time to time in various journals, and several other later poems. His labours as translator have yielded notable English versions of the novels and short stories of Martin Wickremasinghe.

That painting was one of Ashley Halpe’s varied talents and that he had held exhibitions of his paintings in Bristol, UK, in Sao Palo, Brazil and in Colombo and Peradeniya is not widely known. The energy and enthusiasm he invested in the Peradeniya University Dramatic Society (DramSoc) resulted in more than a dozen play productions designed and directed by him. Among these, my favourite is Strindberg’s The Father — the 1966 offering of the DramSoc with the late Osmund Jayaratne in a memorable lead role. His contribution to education and literary activities outside the university is equally notable.

For the extensive and invaluable services detailed above, Professor Halpe’ was honoured both nationally and internationally. The Government of Sri Lanka conferred on him the Kalakeerthi and the Vishvaprasadini titles. The Governments of Sri Lanka and the United States awarded him two Fulbright Senior Fellowships while the Government of France made him Chevalier dans l’ordre Palmes Academique. He was an Honorary Fellow of Claire Hall, University of Cambridge, Resident Fellow at the Literary Criterion Centre for Indigenous Arts and Literature, Dhvanyaloka, Mysore, India, and Visiting Fellow at the American Studies Research Centre, Hyderabad, India.

All of these achievements and honours sat lightly on Ashley Halpe’ the man. His was an understated personality, with the humanity, humility and modesty of the truly educated person at its core. As a teacher, he did not mesmerize his students as some of his predecessors, notably Lyn Ludowyk and Doric de Souza, are reputed to have done. Not having had the good fortune of sitting at the feet of the former, the magister magistrorum, I shall accept the word of my predecessors at Peradeniya for this evaluation, but I certainly am able to vouch for the latter’s virtuosity having heard and watched him perform within the four walls of a classroom.

Ashley Halpe’ the teacher was calm and collected at all times and without histrionics of any kind. His knowledge and erudition were never on obvious display in or outside the classroom. He did not seek to talk at us. Rather his pedagogic labours were directed at ferreting out what we knew, thought and felt about literature and life. He never tried to poke us in the eye to make us see how much he knew! His disarming simplicity and unobtrusiveness was a crucial part of Ashley Halpe’s immense civility.

It was this Socratic teaching style combined with his respect for the students’ innate ability to chase leads that were offered that enabled him to reveal to us the inner depths plumbed by great men and women of letters as they (and we) grappled with the eternal verities. My own understanding of Shakespearean drama and the fiction of George Eliot in particular is due mostly to the manner and style with which Professor Halpe’ led me into discovering for myself those ‘spots of commonness’ of a Lydgate or the terrifying ambition of a Macbeth. That the hautboys one comes across in Macbeth are musical instruments and not arrogant young males is something I learnt thanks to Professor Halpe’s insistence on close reading and careful scrutiny of literary texts.

I wish to touch on certain personal recollections in conclusion. My freshman year at Peradeniya was suffused with boisterous antics as I revelled in ‘uncivilized fooling’ as most new entrants are wont to do. With the advantage of hindsight I am now aware that my unruly behaviour must have embarrassed Professor Halpe’ as he happened to be the University Proctor at the time. Besides the frolic and madness, there were other encounters of a serious nature during my early Peradeniya days that brought me unexpectedly close to Professor Halpe’. One such occurred during the insurgency of April 1971 when I was unwittingly in the way of possible grave harm. Without realizing that all student hostels except Hilda Obeyesekere Hall had been declared out of bounds for all male undergraduates by the authorities, I was yet at Arunachalam Hall after the new emergency arrangements had been enforced. It is more than likely that I would have been a victim of the ‘shoot to kill’ orders in force given especially the fact that my physical appearance at the time, replete with long hair and flourishing beard, qualified me to be thought of as a ‘Che Guevarist’ student revolutionary by the uniformed men in charge of crushing the insurgency.

I sought refuge at Professor and Mrs.Halpe’s house and was promptly thereafter placed under house arrest at the Lower Hantane residence of the Halpes. To keep me from landing in any further danger, with a little help from Fr. Augustine, the Catholic Chaplain of the University, the Halpes introduced me to the blessed game of Bridge. It was only after the coast was quite clear that I was eventually allowed to leave. I later came to know that Professor Halpe’ had taken even greater care of those undergraduates taken into custody under the hurriedly promulgated emergency regulations to deal with the insurgency.

It must surely have taken much courage for him to pursue this course as members of the university academic community were under suspicion and at the receiving end of the hostility of the military personnel because there were some dons who themselves were either involved in the uprising or were among those who empathized with the political convictions of the youthful insurgents. Bearing books, sympathy and understanding, Professor Halpe’ regularly visited the detained undergraduates. Later on, he was among the university authorities who assisted those of the detainees desirous of sitting their university examinations from prison.

The Halpe’ residence at Lower Hantane was also our not infrequent venue for DramSoc rehearsals, Music Society socials and several other memorable undergraduate activities. It was at these extra-curricular encounters that students and lecturers mingled informally. Looking down at us from his vantage point, Sir Ivor Jennings would doubtless have blessed the Halpes for keeping alive one of the finest aspects of a residential university like Peradeniya, viz,- that of fostering close intellectual and social interaction between the teachers and the taught. Professor and Mrs. Halpe’ were exemplary in upholding this wonderful Peradeniya tradition.

Of those with an education in the humanities that I have known and know personally, there indeed are only a handful who actually live by or reflect the virtues of and values of such an education. Indeed of only a few humanities specialists can it truly be said that all that’s best of literature and the arts meets in his aspect and his eyes. Professor Halpe’ was indisputably one of the very distinguished members of this wee tribe. I have never heard or seen in print harsh and disparaging words from him about anyone. His concern for family, friends and colleagues was sincere and heartfelt.

Two examples are offered in illustration of his inherent goodness as a person. The first of these is his taking care of his former teacher and later senior colleague Professor Hector Passe’ during the latter’s difficult and lonely last several months of post-retirement existence, subsequent to the early deaths of his wife and only child. He not only provided Professor Passe’ a home but also kept him gainfully occupied by inviting him to teach part-time. During this period, Professor Passe’ once more became a participant in all of the English Department social activities as well. In fact it was while enjoying himself in the company of his students and colleagues at a Going Down dinner that Professor Passe’ fell ill and passed away soon thereafter. Thus it was Professor Halpe’ who made it possible for Professor Passe’ to die with his boots on so to speak- – a consummation any teacher would devoutly wish for.

The other example is a very personal experience. At an extremely vulnerable early stage in my career as a young Assistant Lecturer at Peradeniya, I had occasion to turn to Professor Halpe’ for succour. Having laid bare my inner turmoil, I asked Professor Halpe’ for advice and direction. I qualified my request for assistance by saying ‘Sir, to a non-believer like myself, you are my God on earth.’ He did offer me ‘sentence and solace.’ Before he left me to ponder over his response, however, he said, ‘thank you for your deep faith in me, but, please, for my sake, let me remain human.’

Ashley Halpe’ may have on occasion revealed the clay in his feet. In so doing, he has offered proof of his human fallibity and vulnerability. If any amongst us has found him wanting in this respect, it is perhaps his or her fault for expecting Professor Halpe’ to be infinitely more than human as I did in my callow youth. For all of his human frailties or despite them, Ashley Halpe’ was a very true, near perfect, gentle human being. It is indeed a privilege to pay this public tribute to him on the fifth anniversary of his passing.

Ashley aand his wife Bridgette nee Abeykoon

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One response to “In Appreciation of Ashley Halpe: A Man for All Seasons

  1. Joe Vaz

    Prof Ashley Halpe

    When I was growing up in Colombo, in the 1950s, Professor Ashley Halpe was to me this larger-than-life intellectual icon , promoted for emulation by my teachers at St. Joseph’s and later the Rector at St. Peter’s, where I was briefly employed. In typical Eastern fashion he was endorsed as a “guru” (or a Pullaver in Tamil) and therefore by well-defined custom unapproachable and certainly not to be disturbed—except by equals.

    It was therefore a great honor to meet and host Ashley Halpe during his two visits to family in Phoenix. In both instances he and Bridget were my guests for the day as we toured the city’s high points, particularly Native American museums and galleries. The professor Ashley I met was a man of obvious humility who listened as I described my challenge, minted in high school, of being unable to decipher imagery even in simple poems. I asked for his help.

    Prof Halpe gladly went on to offer me numerous pointers with examples on understanding and dissecting a poem . I learned from him that for all of us, understanding and enjoying literature especially poetry comes with practice. There was no condescension in the professor’s informal remarks, just a simple lesson, a practice I have tried to put to good use since our meeting. On the eve of his departure, he gifted my family with an autographed copy of his most recent poetic works .

    Over the years I have concluded that my teachers and others in Colombo who viewed Professor Halpe as unapproachable had gotten it all wrong. Too bad—they, too, could have been the beneficiaries of this humble intellectual giant and I am sure he would have loved it!

    “Malli” Vaz
    Phoenix, Az.

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