One Hundred Influential Sri Lankan Tamils of the 20th Century – Revisited

by Sachi Sri Kantha, August 9, 2021


Twenty five years ago (when internet was in its infancy period), I prepared a list of One Hundred Influential Sri Lankan Tamils of the 20th Century. This list appeared in my self- published short book of 114 pages – ‘MGR Movies Revisited: and Other Essays’ (1995). Originally prepared text material of that book had to be reduced by half, because the Tamil printer in Colombo who undertook the printing job was frightened by the pro-Tamil political contents the text materials carried, that could jeopardize his emigration attempt to a save haven. And, as a rush job, this book had a limited print run. The majority contents included in this book were early drafts of my notes on varied topics, which I intended to explore in depth subsequently.

In one of the 20 chapters of this book, I presented a list of ‘100 Influential Sri Lankan Tamils of the 20th century’, in three pages. Recently I came across a chopped version of my compiled list taken from this book in the internet, without due acknowledgment to its author and source. I was somewhat distressed because, my selection criteria for inclusion in this list, as well as why I prepared this list had been chopped off in this posting. Only the names had been provided in this semi-plagiarized version, circulating in the net. As such, I’m compelled to provide this list in its entirety. from pages 34 to 36 of the book.


The Original text of my 1995 List

The Fall 1990 issue of the Life magazine (vol. 13, no. 12) presented a list of 100 most important Americans of the 20th century. In introducing this list, the compilers noted, “The people we are calling important are not necessarily great – in fact, a couple might be on your list of villains. Rather, their importance is measured by their influence. How would our lives have been different had these people not lived?” This list included some of my idols: Muhammad Ali, Marlon Brando, Albert Einstein, Alfred Kinsey and Margaret Mead.

The first sentence of the introduction to this Life’s compilation stated, “as the end of this century looms, Life takes a look at the people who have made it what it is”. This list provided an inspiration for me to prepare my list of 100 influential Sri Lankan Tamils of the 20th century. The Life magazine enlisted the services of 60 experts from diverse disciplines, who contributed 636 names initially, which were then pruned to 100 for the final list. However, I prepared my list on my own, without consulting anyone. My selection criteria were as follows:

  • The person should have ‘influenced the minds and events’ in a general sense, in Sri Lanka and/or other countries.
  • He (or she) need not have been necessarily born in this century. Those who were born in the 19th century were included if their influence was deeply felt in this century. E.g: Pon Ramanathan, Pon Arunachalam and Ananda Coomaraswamy.
  • He (or she) should have been born in Sri Lanka, though exerting his or her influence predominantly beyond the borders of Sri Lanka. E.g: MGR (in India) and Sinnathamby Rajaratnam (in Singapore).
  • He (or she) could have been born elsewhere, but inducted as a naturalized citizen of Sri Lanka. E.g: S. Thondaman.
  • Either both or one of the parents be Tamils by birth. E.g: Ananda Coomaraswamy and Richard de Zoysa.
  • Muslims (being Tamil speaking) can be included, if they have ‘influenced the minds and events’.
  • To eliminate the bias of chronological proximity, as far as possible the nominees would have already died. But this should not preclude the inclusion of living persons who have exerted tremendous influence on ‘minds and events’. E.g: Prabhakaran.

I am sure that quite a number of the names in my list will raise some eyebrows, initiate discussion and even debate. It cannot be helped. Even the Life magazine observed that only three names were agreed by everybody who contributed to the compilation of its list. These were that of Henry Ford and the Wright Brothers. I have no doubt that everybody who reads my list will agree with at least three names: G.G. Ponnambalam, S.J. V. Chelvanayakam and V. Prabhakaran. If readers will take a paper and start jotting their selections for the remaining 97 slots after reading my list, I would feel satisfied that my purpose in compiling this list would have been served.

For convenience, I have listed the names under different categories, and in approximate chronological order of birth.



Sir Pon Ramanathan, C. Suntheralingam, S..V. Chelvanayakam, G.G. Ponnambalam, S. Thondaman, Sinnathamby Rajaratnam, M.G. Ramachandran, C. Vanniasingham, M. Sivasithamparam and A. Amirthalingam.


Social Activists

Sir Pon Arunachalam, K. Natesa Aiyar, S. Natesan, K.C. NIthiananda, K. Kanthasamy, A. Kodeeswaran, Dr. S. Rajasundaram (Gandhiyam movement), K. Uma Maheswaran, S. Yogachandran (Kuttimani) and V. Prabhakaran.



Justice C. Nagalingam, Sir Kanthiah Vaithianathan, Justice P. Sriskantharajah, Justice S. Sivasubramaniam, K. Alvapillai, Dr. H.W. Tambiah, C. Balasingam, M. Srikantha, Shiva Pasupathi and R. Sunderalingam.


Natural Scientists

Prof. A.W. Mailvaganam, Prof. M.U Sultan Bawa, Prof. Christie J. Eliezer, Dr. M.A.V. Devanathan, Prof. C. Sivagnanasundaram, Prof. K.D. Arudpragasam, Prof. R.S. Ramakrishna, Prof. A. Thurairajah, Prof. M. Sundaralingam and Dr. P. Sivapalan.


Social Scientists

Dr. James T. Rutnam, Prof. K. Kularatnam, Prof. G.G. Tambiahpillai, Prof. A. Jeyaratnam Wilson, Prof. S.J. Tambiah, Prof. S. Arasaratnam, Dr. S. Thananjayarajasingham, Prof. K. Kailasapathy, Prof. K. Indrapala and Prof. K. Sivathamby.



Ananda K. Coomaraswamy, Swami Vipulananda, C.V. Velupillai, Prof. K. Kanapathipillai, Prof. S. Vithiananthan, Dr. A.M.A. Azeez, S. Tambimuttu, Mahakavi S. Ruthiramoorthy, S. Ponnudurai and Dominic Jeeva.



Handy Perinbanayagam, S. Shivapathasundaram. Fr. S. Thaninayagam, Orator C. Subramaniam, S.V. O. Somanader, Prof. A.A. Hoover, Pundit K.P. Ratnam, Pundit Thangamma Appakuddy, Dr. Siva Chinnatamby and Dr. Rajani Thiranagama.



Loganathan, K.C. Thangarajah, S. Rajendram, S. Sellamuthu, A.Y.S. Gnanam, K. Gunaratnam, Jabir A Cader, V. Thurairajah, R. Maharajah and R. Rajamahendran.



Kalaiarasu Chornalingam, Inuvil Thatchinamoorthy, Alaveddi N.K. Pathmanathan, N. Shanmugaratnam, Kamala Johnpillai, Yaalpanam T. Ratnam, Balu Mahendra, Master Sivalingam, K. Balendra and Richard de Zoysa.



S.J.K. Crowther, Reggie Michael, S.P. Amarasingham, cartoonist S. Sivagnanasundaram, S. Sivanayagam and Dr. Neelan Thiruchelvam.



Sathasivam, M.J.M. Lafir, N. Ethirveerasingham and V.S. Kumar Anandan.


Post Publication Record and suggested revisions to this List

After the publication of my 1995 book, I sent complimentary copies to three respected Tamil peer reviewers. These three were senior attorney and Tamil activist Nadesan Satyendra, journalist S. Sivanayagam and engineering professor S. Sivasegaram. Among these three, I had included Sivanayagam’s name in my list. Though he commented on other materials of the book, he had specifically refrained from making any comments on my ‘100 Tamils’ list. Mr. Satyendra replied that he definitely cannot agree with some of the names included in my list. But, he refrained from telling me, who these individuals are. Prof. Sivasegaram informed me on two items. First, he is not sure, whether journalist-actor Richard de Zoysa (of mixed parentage, with Tamil mother Dr. Manorani Saaravanamuttu) would consider himself as a Tamil. Secondly, among the sportsmen, cricketer Muttiah Muralitharan’s name need inclusion.

During the past 25 years, I had endeavored to study the careers of two individuals (Prabhakaran and MGR) in my 1995 list, in depth. Among the remaining 98 individuals in my 1995 list, I had written short/medium length biographical profiles of 25, in this website and other now-folded Eelam Tamil print journals (such as Tamil Times, Tamil Nation, Hot Spring). These include, C. Suntheralingam, S.J.V. Chelvanayakam, G.G. Ponnambalam, S. Thondaman, M. Sivasithamparam, A. Amirthalingam, K. Alvapillai, Prof. C.J. Eliezer, Prof. C. Sivagnanasundaram, James T. Rutnam, Prof. A. Jeyaratnam Wilson, Prof. S. J. Tambiah, Dr. S. Thananjayarajasingham, Prof. K. Kailasapthy, Prof. K. Sivathamby, Prof. S. Vithiananthan, Fr. S. Thaninayagam, Pundit K.P. Ratnam, Dr. Siva Chinnatamby, Dr. Rajani Thiranagama, cinemas K. Gunaratnam, S.P. Amarasingham, cartoonist S. Sivagnanasundaram, S. Sivanayagam and Dr. Neelan Tiruchelvam. With time, I wish to complete writing biographical notes of the remaining trend-setting Eelam Tamils in my 1995 list. This was an undertaking, which journalist S. Sivanayagam and I agreed mutually, before his death in 2010. But, after I left the island in 1981, vital informations about birth and death are hardly available to me, even with those (such as Prof. A. A. Hoover and mridanga master Yaalpanam T. Ratnam) whom I was acquainted with

Now, in 2021, I would opt to replace three names from my 1995 list. Legislator V. Navaratnam (One Hundred Tamils -V.Navaratnam ( replacing C. Vanniasingham. In accordance to the criticism by Prof. S. Sivasegaram, Dr. Manorani Saravanamuttu in place of her son Richard de Zoysa.

[Dr. Manorani Saravanamuttu – Ilankai Tamil Sangam] And, actress-dancer K. Thavamani Devi [K. Thavamani Devi (1924-2001) – Ilankai Tamil Sangam], replacing Kamala Johnpillai. Vanniasingham and Richard de Zoysa died too young to have prominent influence in later events. In the artiste catgory, Thavamani Devi’s influence in Tamil cinema for 15 years (1935-1950) is higher than that of dancer Kamala Johnpillai.



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