Iranganie Serasinghe: Actress and Environmental Activist

Prasanna Cooray, in Island, 18 June 2017,  with the title “Irangani: Mother figure of Sinhala Cinema and Environmental Activism””

Irangani Serasinghe needs no introduction in this country. She is convinced that as for the destruction of our environment politicians have to take the blame. She says, “The worst ar e the politicians. We have to protect our trees and environment mostly from them”, said Irangani Serasinghe. At 90, yet agile and full of vigour, she has fought man a battle, tooth and nail, on the environment front for decades.

On June 3, she chaired the seminar under the theme, “Destruction of central hills – Death of future of the country” held at Mahaweli Center in Colombo where I was one of the speakers. The seminar brought to light the environmental destruction and misery brought to the lives of the people in Welimada plain by the ongoing Uma Oya multipurpose development project. There she told me she would be 90 in a few days. On June 9 Irangani celebrated her 90th birthday.

Born into an aristocratic family, “MeedeniyaWalauwa” in Moodugomuwa in Kegalle district was Irangani’s ancestral home where she grew up. But early in her childhood she came to Colombo and did most of her schooling at Bishop’s College. She entered the University of Ceylon in 1947 from Girls’ High School, Kandy. At the beginning her father Meedeniya Rate Mahattaya, an Oxford alumnus, opposed her joining the university. After graduation she left for London, where she followed a couple of courses in theatre and drama.

On her return, she taught at Museaus College for a while and then worked as a journalist till she embarked on a career in performing arts.

Irangani the artiste

With her first performance in Sinhala cinema – in Lester James Peiris’s “Rekhawa” in 1956 – she hit the limelight. She was awarded “Deepashika” award that year, incidentally, thus becoming one of the first batch of recipients of a film award in Sri Lanka, She portrayed a mother’s role in that and in many films thereafter, making her the signature mother figure of Sinhala cinema. By now, Irangani has lived for 61 out of the 70-year-oldSinhala cinema, perhaps longer than anyone else.

When asked how many movies she had acted in “Lot of people ask me that question. But I really don’t know in how many films, for I have never bothered to count the films I acted in”. On the role ‘she likes most’ too she gave a similar answer. “I can’t give an answer to that either. I liked all the roles I played alike“. This speaks for the modesty of the lady.

Among the other films Irangani acted “Sandeshaya”, “Delovakathara”, “Ransalu”, “Oba dutu da”, “Bakmahadeege”, “Sagarayakmeda”,”Devanigamana”, “Dadayama”, “Awaragira”, “Pawanaraluwiya”, “Wekandawalauwa” and “Abhinikmana”, were all significant for their artistic value and the roles played by her therein. For her roles in “Oba duta da” (1967) and “Pawanaraluwiya” (1995) Irangani won the “Best Actress” awards.

She also acted in a couple of foreign movies done in Sri Lanka that include The God king (directed by Lester James Peiris), Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (by Steven Spielberg) and Water (by Deepa Mehta).

Irangani recollects working with Spielberg with relish. “He was impressed with the role I played, and after completing the film he told me ‘I believed you’”. Irangani also acted in some popular Sinhala teledramas of yesteryear that include “Yashorawaya”, “Doo daruwo”, “Gamperaliya”, “Muthukirilli” and “Amanda”.

But for Irangni stage is her first love. In her schooldays she took to drama like a duck takes to water. “I prefer stage acting to cinema much more. O yes, no comparison what’s so ever” quipped Irangani.

She regards the role played by her as Lady Macbeth in “Macbeth”, soon after her university days, as her best performance on stage. She also cherishes her role in the play “Antigony”. In the Sinhala theatre, Henry Jayasena’s “Apata puthe magaknethe” and DammaJagoda’s “Vesmuhunu” were two dramas she acted in.

“Ruk Rekaganno” and Environmental activism

The “wagasangramaya” (literally “cultivation war”) launched by the then government in the early seventies saw large scale cutting and burning of forests across the country in order to grow food crops as import substitutes, in keeping with the economic policies of then government. This turned into a frenzy mood that brought Irangani together with some like-minded people in the likes of Lyn de Alwis (former director of wildlife department and Dehiwala zoo), Nihal Fernando (renowned photographer), Vere de Mel (of Quckshaws fame) and her sister Kamini Vitharana, to name a few, in forming “Ruk Rekaganno” (Protectors of Trees). (Kamini Vitharanais the present president of the “Ruk Rekaganno”).

Explaining the early objectives of “Ruk Rekaganno”, “We tried to make people understand the importance of trees and forests and why they shouldn’t be hacking trees”, said Irangani.

By then she was also an active member of the Wildlife and Nature Protection Society, but wanted to have something that was trees specific in order to save the trees and forests. Becoming time specific Irangani recalled “That was the time they had opened up a plywood factory in the country and they were cutting the Sinharaja forest to make plywood. We launched a massive campaign against this”.

Apathy and ignorance of the public were common then as now. “People couldn’t understand the reasons for our protests. Even the newspapers couldn’t fathom what we were saying. They thought we were sentimental” said Irangani.

But the “Ruk Rekaganno” didn’t give up their battle. With the change of government in 1977, they took their case to the new Prime Minister JR Jayawardena. “JR gave us an attentive hearing. He understood the gravity of the problem when we explained it to him. He wanted us to give all the reasons for stopping Sinharaja forest destruction in writing, which we did. And he stopped it”, Iranganire reminisced.

Halting potato plantation in Horton plains was another battle won by the “Ruk Rekaganno” in those early years. Needless to say, the present generation owe a debt of gratitude to the “Ruk Rekaganno” for all what they had done in their heydays, especially when environmental activism was not as vibrant as now in the country.

“Ruk Rekaganno” also launched a campaign against the planting of exotic plants in Sri Lankan soil in the 70s and 80s. “We carried out a big campaign against the planting of pines and eucalyptus in the hill country here. We campaigned for reforestation with our indigenous varieties”. However, this campaign failed to gain much ground as seen by these plantations across the hilly areas in the country. But importantly, this helped making people aware about the negative impacts of the exotic plants in Sri Lanka.

“As there were very few environmental organizations then we had to fight our battles very much in isolation”, Irangani saw wider dissemination of environmental activism across the country as a good thing.

Irangani sees spreading the message to children as an investment for the future. “By this, not only children come to know about the environment and why it should be protected. They carry it to their parents and other adults in their community”. Irangani sees mushrooming of mini hydro power stations across the country as one of the biggest threats to our environment at present. “These have really contributed to the flood and earth slips lately, as we saw recently” she said.

With all the years of experience behind her, mother figure of Sri Lankan cinema sees the environmental issues that plague us today holistically. Her philosophy is simple and easily comprehensible. “We need not focus only on trees. But also on air we breathe, water we drink and irrigation, and sunlight that nourish all vegetation and the animals live near and far. Allthese are interconnected. Unless we do that, we are committing suicide. We are digging our own graves”, mother figure’s words of wisdom should echo in the ears of the present generation day in day out.

Her one last comment was, “Now the people are good, but the politicians are bad. They tend to harm the environment most. The present day parliamentarians tend not to understand anything”.







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