LE Blaze’s Focus On Education Reform in the “Prologues”.

Premier educationist Louis Edmund Blaze, founder of Kandy’s Kingswood, was also a poet and writer. His poetry includes a 56 year career as “School Bard”, stringing together a rich body of recitals for each Prize Day. Blaze is also the composer of several school songs including those of Kingswood’s own and that of Princess of Wales College, Moratuwa. He authored “The Story of Lanka” — the school History text book for the Middle School under the then colonial scheme (until this book was later replaced by a more extensive study of the same subject by GC Mendis of Peradeniya’s Department of History — one of Blaze’s and Kingswood’s own students).

 

Louis Edmund Blaze’s Prologues constitute a central aspect of Kingswood’s literary tradition. It is however very sad to note that these verses written between 1895 and 1951 — and which were annually recited at the school prize giving — has earned little attention from the scholars of literature. Even the school and its boys have done very little to promote these Prologues, which form a rich reading of Blaze’s creative and political consciousness, while writing in the first half of the last century.

The Prologues — to any boy who is read of the school’s tradition — is a main item of the Prize Giving line up. It is, in Blaze’s own words, “an interlude” meant to break the “monotony” which is generated by the solemn atmosphere of the Prize Day. It is a poetic presentation, primarily meant for the audience of the day and close friends of the school, representing the voice of the “Kingswood Bard”. The piece would often reflect on curricular and social issues current to the times, making political commentary and reformist statement where permitted.

Blaze, in 2000, was voted among the Top 100 Sri Lankans of the century in a survey carried out by a weekly.

Blaze borrows this recitation from Harrow School, England where similar recitals were common on Prize Day. Over the years, the Prologue becomes an elite showpiece of the school’s academic calendar. The boy winning the Senior Oratory prize is given the rare preserve of reciting the Prologue on the all important day. I have noticed in recent years how ill-trained reciters, coupled with teachers not capable of recitation guidance and without any deep understanding of the history of the job, demerit the precious piece of poetry and sully the historical value of it. But, that, by all means, is a subject for another piece.

Blaze’s Prologues, throughout 56 years, remain a mouthpiece of open political commentary. Aspects on which Blaze dwells repeatedly in the 1910s include the growing tension among the European nations, the agitation for broadened educational chances in Sri Lanka, the language issues relating to vernacular education and economic and welfare issues in Ceylon as a whole. The verses from 1913-1918 submit a very neat marking of a poet’s changing mind — his anxiety as a scholar and his sense of duty as a citizen — over the developments in World War 1. What begins as detached, objective observation grows into a much emotionally and ideologically committed affair by 1918. In fact, the Prologue of this last year reads more as a celebration of the Allied Forces’ military victory.

Blaze’s thoughts on the vernacular education issue arrests my interest. In a series of verses Blaze promotes Sinhala as the ideal national linguistic substitute for English. These instances come as early as the 1900s and 1910s, way before the split of the national freedom struggle along ethno-religious lines. In 1906, for instance, the following thoughts are voiced:

“Reform! we cry; Reform is in the air;
Reform! Reform! no matter what or where.
If London is too slow with its degree,
Give us a local university.
If cooly labour is still hard to seek
Enforce in cooly schools compulsory Greek;
Or, if our boys take up the Western mode
and shun the Orient garment’s heavy load,
Prefer Scotch drinks and Yankee beef in tins,
Forget how far their history begins,
How shall we wake anew the patriot strain,
And bring the ancient virtue back again?
The way is simple, plain and sure to please,
Teach all out boys to speak in Sinhalese!”

Kingswood at Randle’s Hill in 1923

These words by Blaze call forth for a national university as well as a Sinhalization of education. The antipathy expressed over “Scotch drinks” and “Yankee beef” closely echo the Temperance formula of the Olcott-Dharmapala line. As to how sincere Blaze is to these penned sentiments will remain a debate (and I do not at this point have any further evidence as to what Blaze’s more personal appreciations were on the highlighted issues), but as the voice of the school as an institute the stance Blaze feels right in socializing is very clear.

The council reforms of 1910 and proposed blueprints to vernacular education is welcomed by Blaze in 1909. Speaking of changes being brought to debate on school education he claims that

“A Fraser shall we find, with his twin stars
Of righteousness and the Vernaculars”.

Fraser, above, should be a reference to the eminent educationist and Blaze’s own mentor at Trinity. His belief is that the age will come of a Fraser in the vernacular tradition.

To the stiff upper-lipped receivers of an English education with a strong cultural prejudice of the local tongues (tongues of the servants) Blaze writes:

“Soon shall we learn strange accents old and new
And lisp in Sinhalese — a phrase or two” (Blaze’s italics).

The Prologue, that submits the above argument, winds up with the following lines which express a very evident Sinhala bias on Blaze’s part (where he perceives the Sinhalization under scrutiny to):

“…see the many-titled Chetty scowl, —
Or only wait to hear the public howl!”.

The balance of economic and social power is thus leveled between the Chettiyars (of which group Kingswood drew quite a noted few of its earliest attendants) and the “public” (implied as Sinhala), who would “howl” for authority over the colonially favoured minorities.

In 1910, Blaze upholds the formation of the parliament where

“…runs the West to meet the Orient
With the beginnings of a Parliament”

and where he observes Greek — the backbone of Western classical antiquity — “getting to its last gasp”.

In 1913, Blaze looks up to the coming of a local university where graduates “full conscious of their worth” will be fashioned. The following lines — in spite of his under-estimate of women’s lib — represent a resurgent energy and outlook:

“Fresh subjects then shall every freshman seek —
Not musty Latin nor expiring Greek.
Young men shall tap the truth in rubber groves,
Young ladies flutter around bright kitchen stoves;
From Jaffna, politics — yes ev’n in school,
Or we shall never learn ourselves to rule”.

Blaze’s nationalist expression is, then, for a time suspended by the coming of World War 1. As noted earlier, Prologues of the war years illustrate the writer’s different moods as each year gloomily merged into the next.

Ikram Ghazali’s 1995 recital of the Prologue is well remembered by the writer for its richly articulated quality. In more recent years the writer has found far too many flops by untrained / incapable reciters who kill the show with cyanide effect.

An extension of our reading assure us Blaze’s concern with education and the expansion of knowledge through local languages in numerous other instances,too. In 1923, for instance, Blaze briefly notes that salaries for teachers need a hike and that pension schemes need to be regularized. However, what is increasingly visible is the older Blaze’s unequivocal push for self rule. The Prologues of the 1930s and 1940s are rich with witty, sharp political teasing and politically-committed observation. The following, from 1937, is a selected extract which reflects this occupation:

“Europe at armed attention stands — to mutter
Something about preferring guns to butter.
Meanwhile new states arise, to prove again
Communal instincts will assert their reign.
India another forward step has won
Towards the goal of Self-Dominion”.

In 1938, a more concerned voice relates to growing inter-ethnic tension between the majoritarian Sinhala and other minority groups:

“It’s time, some think, to heed the warning cry
Of Elder Statesmen, who would kindly say,
‘Forward! But gently, Brother, gently, pray’,
The race of hot Icarian chariots stemming
With prudent, timely cries of Hemin, Hemin!
It always happens in communities
Minorities would be majorities,
Or if that aim be somewhat bold and shifty,
All should be well content with fifty-fifty”.

Here, Blaze shows a more meditated, revised stepping down from his 1910s cry for an “all Sinhala” state.

At Blaze’s death in 1951, the Prologue writing is taken up by a “ghost writer” whose scroll arrives at Kingswood in time for the annual prize giving. The 1952 writer notes how the gathering is seen to

…miss today the once loved face
In LE Blaze’s sadly vacant place”

and acknowledges that it is

“…hard
To keep the Blaze meter’s even pace
Or match his verses and in life’s great race
To fit our footsteps to his pilgrimage”.

The only source of the Prologues in collected form (to my knowledge) is the Centenary Publication by the Kingswood Union in 1991 titled Prologues of Kingswood, 1891-1991. This is a rare treasury and a warm hi5 to the Union body of that year for a rare act of preservation. I suggest it is high time an extended edition of the same be published, for it has now been 21 years further on and two decades of “Kingswood poetry” can be of a rich addition to the already august deposit and tradition.

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