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Remembering Chandra Jayawardena

18 November, 2009

Chandra Jayawardena

Portrait of Chandra Jayawardena, founding professor of anthropology at Macquarie. Van Sommers 1979. Photographed by Sumant Badami.

We were very excited when the library here at Macquarie agreed to hand over a portrait of our department’s founding professor, Chandra Jayawardena.  Up until recently it had been gracing a wall near the library’s anthropology collection.  It is now hanging just outside our meeting room (and directly outside my office) and adds a welcome touch of seriousness and history to the otherwise featureless walls here.  This portrait by van Sommers was one of several made of academic staff in the department back in the 1970s. This particularly striking image of Chandra references his work in the Carribean, or perhaps Mauritius.

Although Chandra died long before I came to Macquarie I have over the years developed a keen sense of his legacy.  In conversations with staff members who knew him, all of whom have retired over the last few years, I have noticed a level of esteem for Chandra bordering on reverence.  The values with which he founded the department — social engagement, a concern with power and inequality, and a willingness to innovate — are, I think, still alive and well.  Personally, seeing this portrait as I leave to go to class, and looking into Chandra’s eyes, reminds me that anthropology is a serious and important business with a lot to offer the world.

I’ve copied below text from our department website which gives some more details about Chandra, his life, and his influence in anthropology.

Chandra Jayawardena was the Foundation Professor of Anthropology at Macquarie. He was appointed in 1968, and sadly died as a result of an operation in 1981 at the age of only 52. He had previously taught at Sydney University, where he was an intellectual catalyst of extraordinary impact. He taught many of the current staff at Macquarie’s department. Professor Hamilton particularly remembers him for his dynamic and exciting lectures on the topic of the bureaucracy in Zazzau, a kingdom in northern Nigeria, in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries – something which only the most talented of lecturers could make into a gripping topic.

A scholar of international repute, Chandra exerted a great influence on the development of anthropology in Australia. Born in Sri Lanka, he graduated from Colombo he enrolled at the London School of Economics and studied across a number of fields: cinema, law, social theory, anthropology, literature and politics. We can see in this framing of his intellectual life many of the important strands which still inform teaching and research in the anthropology department at Macquarie. His research interests included, in the 1950’s, work in the Caribbean, especially on work, solidarity, conflict and egalitarianism among Guyanese plantation workers; in the 1960’s, studies of Indian society in Fiji, especially with regard to religion and social change; and from the mid 1960’s, an investigation of politics, religion and law in Aceh, North Sumatra.

After his appointment to the Macquarie Anthropology department he gathered together a number of scholars with interests similar to his own, with a commitment to an international and cosmopolitan type of anthropology, and a deep interest in social theory. All were Australians, which was most unusual since the majority of appointments in Australian universities up to the 1970’s were from England or the United States. Chandra himself taught tirelessly and published as frequently as he could. He had just received his first ever Australian Research Grants Committee grant when he passed on. He was planning an ambitious study of the Indian diaspora, looking at plantation communities in Fiji, Natal, Mauritius, Guyana, Jamaica and Trinidad. His failing health in later years made work and travel more difficult, and there are many papers and drafts for publications which were never completed. His unpublished notes and papers are archived at Macquarie University library.

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