Friday, July 4, 2014

Prof. Valentine Basnayake - an appreciation.

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

There is so much to say of this humble ‘national treasure’
Writing an appreciation of Valentine Basnayake, popularly known as Bas, is no easy matter; not because there is little that can be said about him, but because there is so much that calls to be said of this multifaceted, true human being, that makes it difficult for me, alone, to do him justice.
After qualifying MBBS, Bas, following his academic bent, joined the Dept. of Physiology of the Faculty of Medicine in Colombo and after a while, went to Oxford for his postgraduate studies.
It was his life-long and deep love of music – he was self-taught- that brought the two of us together. Ever willing to help those who were interested in music – wherever that interest lay- he helped and accompanied me in my early days as a budding singer. It was this close association plus our interaction over many years in the Faculty of Medicine of the second medical school, that made us firm friends.
Many were the singers and instrumentalists he helped, often at very short notice. He was the regular accompanist for that Meistersinger, the late Lylie Godridge, among other singers of repute. He was much sought after and for a long time had the reputation of being Sri Lanka’s foremost accompanist. This latter reputation did not blunt the humility of this truly great musician. He was also the chosen accompanist, for the internationally acclaimed tenor Luigi Infantino and that Sri Lankan of international repute, the cellist Rohan de Saram, when they performed in Sri Lanka.
After some years in Colombo, he moved to Peradeniya and adorned the Chair in Physiology at the Faculty of Medicine of the Peradeniya Medical School. I shall leave it to others who were closely associated with him in the Physiology Dept. to write about his contribution to his chosen discipline. Two aspects of this contribution were known to me; his introduction of students to Project Work and his encouragement of a good research methodology, guided all the time by a strict adherence to ethical principles.
In Peradeniya, he spent a great deal of time and energy in the development and encouragement of those who were interested in music and actually aroused that interest among those who up to that time had paid little attention to it. He, ably backed by his close friend the late Prof. Seneka Bibile, was responsible for the initiation and growth of the Peradeniya P4 music group. This gathering of people interested in music, people of all ages, performers and audience alike, met regularly to produce music and provide entertainment which was greatly appreciated by so many. Some children who were in those audiences, now grown up men and women, still fondly recall those musical evenings. The hard work of organisation was in Bas’s hands with, in the early days, Seneka and Leela Bibile providing the venue and eats and drinks. It was Bas’s highly methodical hard work, his enthusiasm and dedication that kept this group alive for many years. So popular were these get-togethers that a group of singers, among whom were Lylie Godridge, Nimal Senanayake, Lorraine Abeysekera, Irangani Goonesinghe and Mary Anne David, came up regularly from Colombo for the evening, just to participate in these most enjoyable evenings, getting back to Colombo late that same night.
Valentine Basnayake played a vital role in the Schools Biology Project headed by Seneka Bibile. Bas ensured that students were introduced to Biology not as a mere text-book discipline but as a hands-on learning experience, largely through project work. I believe that he was the first scholar to introduce MCQ’s to Sri Lanka; an experience that he made use of in the Faculty of Medicine; being responsible for training other staff in the formulation of sound, meaningful MCQ’s. Furthermore, he introduced the Student Projects experience popularised in the School Biology Project to the Faculty and ensured its continuance for many years.
Bas was a soft spoken, gentle man who never spoke harshly to anyone. When displeased or angry that some people disagreed with him he merely fell silent. When he spoke, he weighed every word he used with infinite care and precision, so that there was no ambiguity in what he said. He held strong views particularly on educational matters and expressed them firmly, precisely but always calmly. He made a huge contribution to Medical Education, particularly in the field of evaluation, long before the Medical Education Unit was set up.
As Dean of Faculty and Professor of Physiology, Bas made an invaluable contribution to the Peradeniya Medical School. There were those who, while acknowledging and admiring his commitment and scholarship, claimed that at times he could be inflexible. I know personally that this criticism was at times justifiable. During his period of deanship, I had the pleasure and privilege of meeting him regularly and discussing matters with him over many a cup of Nescafe brewed by him. There were times I disagreed with him over matters that were to come up at the next Faculty meeting. No amount of argument or persuasion could shift him from the stand he was going to take. After expressing his view, in that quiet, precise and firm manner of his, he would listen to me patiently without interruption and comment. On these occasions, I told him that I was on the grounds of our friendship, warning him of my disagreement, but would challenge him in open ‘Court’ if he held his ground. He just smiled and said, “Mark, have another cup of coffee!”
Bas was a true academic, displaying those qualities that went way beyond the holding of degrees. He was greatly admired by many a leading scientist in the country. He was an active member of the Sri Lanka Association for the Advancement of Science for many years. The late Professor Breckenridge in conversation with me once said, ‘I say men, Bas is a national treasure!
I leave to the last a unique aspect of this man. Namely, his love and concern for all living things. Once, while walking along the corridor with him, he suddenly stopped, bent down, gently picked up a worm that lay across his path and as gently placed it in the adjacent garden.
His dog, resident in the Dept of Physiology, followed him faithfully to his lectures, and sat patiently, perhaps, listening to the lecture with as much interest as the students.
I believe- I may be wrong here- that during his time, animal experimentation was gradually replaced by a different type of physiology that did not involve the muscle twitch trace of a pithed frog. I know for certain that he considered such experimentation unacceptable and a cruelty to a helpless animal.
“Dear Bas, your long-time close friend and associate, says ‘Goodbye’ with a heart burdened with pain, sorrow and a sense of deep loss, while giving thanks to you and the Higher Powers that be, for granting me the invaluable gift of knowing you so well and for the pleasure I experienced in this knowing and for the knowledge I was privileged to glean from you.”
Yes. Sri Lanka has indeed lost a ‘national treasure!’

-Mark Amerasinghe