Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Professor S. Mahalingam: A gentle colossus (By Newton Wickramasuriya)

This article was published in "The Island" dated 13 November 2015

It was with deep sorrow that I was looking at the serene man now lying peacefully in a coffin. He was a colossus among the academics and he walked along the corridors of the sprawling Faculty of Engineering, University of Peradeniya with a characteristic and purposeful stride that inspired confidence in everybody who came across him.

Emeritus Professor S. Mahalingam passed away in Alakollai, Alaveddy in Jaffna on 3rd November 2015, at the age of 89, far away from his beloved Peradeniya and Kandy. He would have been 90 on 16 January 2016. Unfortunately it was not to be so.

A wave of spontaneous sorrow and grief struck hundreds of engineers here and abroad for whom he was their mentor, teacher and guide. Born on 16th January 1926 in Jaffna, he was the eldest in a family of eight. He later moved to Malaya along with his family and had his primary and secondary education at Maxwell School and Victoria College in Kuala Lumpur. Selvadurai Mahalingam left Malaya in 1946 to follow a degree course in engineering at the then Ceylon Technical College in Colombo. Ironically, according to him, Ceylonese parents in Malaya at that time wanted their children to be educated in Ceylon as there were better educational facilities and colleges teaching professional courses. Now the reverse is taking place!

He qualified as a Civil Engineer in 1950, having obtained a B.Sc. Eng. First class honours degree from the University of London as an external candidate. He was placed first among the candidates from Ceylon. He joined the newly established Faculty of Engineering, University of Ceylon, in 1952, as an Assistant Lecturer. It was the late Professor E. O. E. Pereira who was then the Dean, that persuaded him to switch over to Mechanical Engineering. Consequently, he proceeded to University of Sheffield for his PhD and completed it in 1956, specializing in torsional vibration. He returned to the University of Ceylon in the same year and was promoted to a Lecturer’s position. He published extensively, in reputed refereed journals, on topics related to his field of expertise. In recognition of his contribution, he was awarded the Doctor of Science in Engineering (DSc Eng) by the University of London. He was the first Sri Lankan Engineer to get this prestigious award. Dr. Mahalingam became the Professor of Mechanical Engineering in 1970 and retired in 1991. Grateful students organized a felicitation ceremony, the first of its kind in the history of the Engineering Faculty, to a packed house at the E.O.E. Pereira theatre. One incident that still lingers in the minds of the Engineers, who were present that day, was how the late Dr. B M A Balasuriya, after making his speech, said that he wanted to show his respect to his teacher and went on his knees before Professor Mahalingam, touched his feet and worshipped him. It was an unforgettable moment and practically everybody present was in tears. Needless to say, that the others also followed suit.

Simply dressed but elegant, his attire never changed its design, cottons being his favorite, the short sleeve shirt always over the trouser. His relatives had made sure to keep to this tradition even in his death, and not the usually seen lounge suit under similar situations.

Professor Mahalingam married Devaki who predeceased him in 2014. She was a tower of strength to him and we could see how he was devastated after her death. An embodiment of simplicity and purpose, he was a man with a mission. Students’ welfare and teaching were more important to him than personal benefits and comforts. Material benefits were not a priority for him. A highly recognized academic with an international reputation, but greener pastures were not in his agenda although there were several overtures. During the disastrous 1983 riots, his wife and he were compelled to move next door, to the Hilda Obeysekera Hall, for security. This was an unforgettable but a very sad situation for them. When I rushed there, with my wife, to look into their welfare at that time, he narrated the sorry state of affairs at the Hilda Obeysekera Hall and how he had to join a queue with others to use the wash room and toilets which brought tears to our eyes. But still, the greener pastures were not for him. Many are unaware how grateful we should be to have had him amidst us through all these upheavals.

When the country was experiencing the pangs of a closed economy, in the sixties and early seventies, where everything was in short supply, Professor Mahalingam embarked on a unique journey. That was to develop the Applied Mechanics Laboratory from scratch, which is a standing monument to his commitment. Now, named after him, it stands as a showpiece that attracts large crowds on every public occasion. The very unpretentious person he was, when the senior Engineers requested the Dean to name the laboratory after him, on the day of the felicitation ceremony, he flatly refused and said such things should not be done when the person was still serving in an institution. Such were his principles and discipline that he practiced by word and deed.

Although he looked very stern and hard, those who were close to him knew how compassionate and witty he was. I think the exterior was due to the self-discipline he maintained. Many a time he confessed that he could not understand why students did not come to him and asked for advise regarding the subject matter. As he was a strict disciplinarian, and especially on course work, deadlines were kept without extensions, and students feared and respected his instructions.

Inspite of this, Professor Mahalingam was a jovial person full of humor amongst friends. He was full of anecdotes and jokes, and had the ability to relate even the simplest, much heard of, stories with a unique style of delivery and well timed punch line to raise laughter. He also had the ability to narrate even the jokes bordering on adult content with a dead pan face.

I particularly remember an incident, in my final year, at the drawing office. I felt somebody standing behind me. When I looked up it was Professor Mahalingam and I was so nervous I just stopped whatever I was doing. He, with his characteristic delivery, said "It’s good to read outside the subject. Professor Tuplin is a friend of mine. His views are well known but not shared by many". He then walked away abruptly and I was stunned. He, of course, was referring to a coursework I had submitted on Holzer analysis of torsional vibration. Professor Tuplin, also, was an expert on vibration but did not favour Holzer’s analysis, and I also criticized and mentioned this in my discussion in the coursework. It so happened that I had read about this in a book in the library. Naturally, I expected the worst and a request for a resubmission but, he had written ‘good’ to my utter surprise.

Of course, at that time I did not know that Professor Mahalingam was closely associated with Holzer analysis and in fact had modified the prevailing theory. Professor S. Mahalingam’s name is quoted in the well known text book, ‘Mechanics of Vibration’ by Professors R. E. D. Bishop and R. C. Johnson, in recognition of his modification to the Holzer analysis. Incidentally, both of these were friends of the Professor and he co-authored several papers on vibrations with Professor R. E. D. Bishop.

Professor Mahalingam shunned publicity, did not accept positions, accolades or titles for which he maintained he was not qualified. When the University of Peradeniya offered to confer D.Sc. (Honoris Causa), he politely refused and said he had one earned doctorate and that was enough.

He was very good at motivating people. Long before I read Schumacher’s "In Search of Excellence", it was Professor Mahalingam who taught me the importance of appreciating the work of subordinates whatever the rank may be. When we were fabricating equipment for demonstration as well as for qualitative analysis, once the product was completed, he used to make a bee line to the work shop and bring the technicians who assisted in fabricating, and demonstrated the device to them first. The staff highly appreciated this indeed and went out of their way to finish work assigned to them and their unstinted cooperation was always readily available.

Many myths are generally woven around great men, these may be an indication of their greatness. Isaac Newton and Einstein had theories attributed to them which had very little to do with them. Professor Mahalingam was not an exception. There were many stories about how he had solved vibration problems in Rolls Royce gas turbines. One such story being circulated even now, after his death, is how he had detected a defect in an Avro jet engine, and in lieu of compensation that he refused, Rolls Royce gifted a sectioned jet engine! I asked him about this, several years ago, and he laughed it off in his typical unassuming manner. He said, he just wrote to Rolls Royce explaining what he was doing at the Applied Mechanics laboratory and asked whether they had any discarded engines or equipment which could be used for teaching purposes. They responded by saying there was a sectioned jet engine, used for a training programme, which has no use for them now and they would be pleased to donate it to the Faculty provided the freight was arranged. University had agreed to bear the cost of freight, and this engine now proudly adorns the lobby of the Faculty of Engineering, Peradeniya. A fitting display for an Engineering Faculty!

Professor Mahalingam firmly believed in a knowledge-based education with emphasis on practical application. This was the reason why he created this unique space, now known as Professor Mahalingam Laboratory, at the Faculty of Engineering, Peradeniya. This laboratory, then known as the Applied Mechanics Laboratory, is the main attraction to visitors to the Faculty, be it local or foreign. Perhaps, this home-made laboratory is the only kind in the world. Created with minimal cost, it is a veritable resource centre for all mechanical engineering students. It guides you through displays of sectioned engines to industrial applications of mechanical engineering with meticulously designed and fabricated products with superior finishes that conceal the scrap material used in them. It also demonstrates what can be achieved, with available resources, rather than waiting for foreign funds and advice.

Applied Mechanics laboratory, at first, was housed within the Applied Thermodynamics laboratory. Very soon it became evident that the space was running out as new equipment and display units were being turned out almost every other week. If I remember right, it was in 1970 the need for a new building was conceptualized and Professor Mahalingam agreed to try out Dr Milton Amaratunge’s suggestion to use ‘no fine concrete’ for the non-load bearing walls to keep the cost down. However, he ran out of the meager funds provided by the university. Under similar situations the others normally give up but his determination was such that he used ‘petty cash’ in the department, to complete the building.

He was a witty person too. Once in our final year, just outside the lecture room, somebody raised the engine of his two-stroke motor cycle, sans the silencer. With his characteristic staccato voice, he asked "who made that spectacular display of his horsepower?" He was not without critics. There were many who found fault with him for not initiating post graduate studies in his field of specialization. His answer to that was, he did not believe in half baked products. He bemoaned the fact that the University did not have sufficient funds to get down text books and journals of repute. "How can I produce post graduates under such circumstances", he asked, quite rightly, too.

He was the last of the pioneering academics that launched the first Faculty of Engineering in Sri Lanka.

Professor Mahalingam was a teacher and gentleman par excellence worthy of emulation.

-Newton Wickramasuriya, Past President, Institution of Engineers Sri Lanka

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