Rasiah, a forgotten artist | Daily News

Rasiah, a forgotten artist

He waits to add colour to his life:
Rasiah receiving his Lifetime Achievement Award from Cultural Affairs Minister of  S. B. Navinne.
Rasiah receiving his Lifetime Achievement Award from Cultural Affairs Minister of S. B. Navinne.

In 1975, A. Rasiah whilst working as an Art teacher at Royal College, Colombo, designed his first stamp; it was the portrait of Sir Ponnambalam Ramanathan on a 75 cent stamp. He was paid Rs. 500 for it at that time. This colourful and lifelike portrait of the late freedom fighter on a small postage stamp, now hidden away in a collector’s book, is all but forgotten, similar to the artist whose service has remained unrecognised and forgotten by the government for the last 27 years. In 2017, he was presented a Lifetime Achievement Award by the Cultural Affairs Department at the State Festival for Art and Sculpture, but his biggest need has been his struggle to receive his government pension for over two decades now. A pension denied to him over reasons beyond his control.

Rasiah, though gifted in the arts began his career as a teacher. Coming from Jaffna, on July 16, 1971, he was first posted to Velanai M.M.V in Jaffna and in January 1975, he was transferred to Colombo to teach at Royal College where he did until July 25, 1983.

The riots

“I was living in a Sinhala friend’s house in Kirulapone at that time. I had sent my wife to Jaffna for her confinement. On the day the riots broke out, I was not aware of what was happening, so I took a bus as usual to Royal College and then I saw a car burning at the Thimbirigasyaya Junction. Later, I heard that two Tamils had been burnt inside it,” said Rasiah as he recalled that fateful day.

“By the time I came to the school, I was so scared that I went right up to the Principal and started crying before him.”

The Principal took him to the back section of the College’s Navarangahala Hall where two other Tamil masters had also been hidden.

“We were asked to stay there. We did not have any clothes with us, so the people in the hostel brought us some bed sheets, and we managed with those. On the fourth day, the Principal said that there were some Sinhalese threatening him to release us. He told us not to be alarmed, he had called the Police and that they would safely take us to a camp that had been set up next to Thurstan College.”

A police sergeant thereafter escorted all three Tamil teachers at the school to the main refugee camp set up next to Thurstan College. To his good fortune, a fellow Art teacher at Thurstan, Piyathilaka had heard of Rasiah’s arrival and rushed to greet his friend and offer assistance. Piyathilaka allowed Rasiah to stay with him in his staff quarters, clothed him. Rasiah was able to use his friend’s toilet, rather than be forced to use a barrel, like the other 200-300 people at the camp.

“I stayed there for 19 days. Then ships came.” They were sent in groups on the ships, all the way to Kankesanthurai(KKS) in Jaffna.

“During the four days I spent in the Navarangahala Hall, I saw the whole of Colombo go up in flames, there was smoke everywhere. It really affected me, fear took hold of me. And as I left on that ship, I thought to myself, I should never set foot on this soil again. When the ship brought us to KKS, I stepped on to the soil of KKS and cried. I was happy to be alive.”

When he got to Jaffna he found out that his mother who had been sick with anxiety had passed away just the day before he returned home. And the trauma of it all made him give up art for a while. The artist took to farming and later had a stint at photography but none of them worked out.

“I did not go back to work at Royal College thereafter. I asked them for a transfer to Jaffna; but they did not take notice. I kept trying and it did not work out so I left my job and sent in my retirement notice,” said Rasiah.

Filing for retirement

The government bureaucracy is an intricate web of documentation that it is no easy task even at the best of times to get things done. For Rasiah, it was more like scaling Mount Everest. Having left his teaching job in Colombo for Jaffna, Rasiah, on July 26, 1983, was sent a ‘vacation of post’ notice by the Education Ministry.

In 1991, there was a ray of hope, with the 14/88 (1) public administration circular which allowed those who had worked for 10 years or more in the public service at the time of the 1983 July riots, to claim for their full pension and other government benefits.

When Rasiah applied for his pension under this circular, his application was rejected by the Education Service Committee on January 11, 1996, stating that the ‘complainant had not reported to work without obtaining approved leave.’

“How could I have applied for leave and asked permission to flee at that time?” asked Rasiah. Despite the rejection, however, he persevered and appealed to the Parliamentary Commissioner for Administration (Ombudsman), who made a recommendation on October 23, 2001, affirming his right to a pension under the 14/88 circular.

This, however, was only a short respite and did not spell victory as the government machinery was adamant not to yield. The Education Department and the school which is responsible to ensure that a teacher’s documents are compiled properly and send to the Pensions Department to take action took no action. The case lay dormant.

On March 3, 2010, a letter signed by the Assistant Secretary (Teacher Establishments) and countersigned by the then Secretary to the Education Ministry approved the pension but soon after, two letters dated December 13, 2010, and September 22, 2011, once again signed by the two above parties withdrew what was given, stating that they did not have the power to overrule the Education Service Committee operating under the Public Service Commission.

Unfortunately for Rasiah, when he turned 60 in 2006, the administrative circular 14/88 (1) was replaced by a new circular 04/2006 which once again granted provisions for all government officers who had not reported to work due to insecurity or fear to apply for reinstatement or retirement. The new circular specified a deadline by which applicants needed to apply; it was June 30, 2006. Rasiah was unaware of the change and he did not apply. Relief once again evaded him.

Having gone from pillar to post within the administration quagmire, Rasiah appealed his case to the Human Rights Commission (HRCSL) of Sri Lanka on March 9. 2012. The case dragged on, as cases that go into the HRCSL often do.

And Rasiah had to carry on as best as he could with the only way he knew how to earn an income.

“But Jaffna is not the best place to be an artist. I do not have many sales here. I have to come to Colombo for that,” he said.

Suffering from cervical spondylosis, hypertension, enlarged prostate, severe rheumatism and numbness in both feet, there was little he could do to survive. If one of his paintings sold in Colombo, he was good for some time but that did not happen every day.

In 2017, the HRCSL finally granted a ruling which stated that Rasiah was entitled to his full pension and that, “A mere technical impossibility should not be considered a barrier to mete out the long-awaited justice that the complainant wishes to obtain after numerous struggles.”

Further on August 14, 2015, he once again appealed his rejection at the Public Service Commission and the Commission finally in February of last year yielded, and ruled that Rasiah would be given his pension, taking into consideration that he was granted retirement as of July 26, 1986, and he would be paid his pension from the time he reached 55 years of age up to now.

Will he get it?

Whilst the Public Service Commission ruling came in February of 2018, Rasiah has had to wait a bit more to get his money.

According to officials of the Colombo Zonal Education Department, his file only reached them in October last year and it was only last week that they were able to get all his documents together. Though the system is undergoing a digitisation process, older files still come under the old system which requires a lot of ‘nudging’ to get passed. Once the Education Department is done with it, it would have to be sent to the Pensions Department in Colombo and once again checked if all documents are intact.

“We cannot predict how long it would take, we send it to them, and then they send it back to us if anything is missing. And it goes on like this until it is finalised,” explained an official.

However, as Rasiah celebrates his 72nd birthday this year, signs of him finally getting his pension are positive.

When asked why he kept pushing for his pension all these years despite the struggles, he said, “It is for my wife. She too is frail, I worry about what would happen to her after my death.”

Rasiah is not certain how much he would be getting in way arrears, but whatever the amount, it is hoped that it was worth the wait.

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