Irangani Serasinghe: A Beacon for Her Times …. Versatility Unconfined

Madapatha Uditha, in The Island, 17/18 June 2020, with this title “Searching for Irangani” …. while highlighting is an imposition from The Editor, Thuppahi

Irangani Serasinghe turned 93 on Tuesday, June 9

If the reputations of actors can be compared to shares in a company, there’s no doubt that Irangani Serasinghe’s has always been oversubscribed: public interest in her career in not just the cinema and television, but also the theatre, has never been matched by an adequate level of quality in coverage by the media. There’s never been a shortage of articles, of course, and Kumar de Silva’s sketchy yet comprehensive portrait of her does establish the links between several aspects of her life and family and the career she eventually chose.

Yet these are individual efforts which have, however laudable they may be, not been sustained. The truth is that Irangani, who turned 93 this week, has been more than just a definitive versatile actress in this country. Her contribution to not only the cinema, but also the theatre, has so far not got the attention it deserves. I don’t pretend to know everything, but I will try to place that contribution in its proper historical context here.

Irangani’s evolution as an actress was conditioned by two trends: free education, and the franchise. In 1922, five years before she was born, a Dramatic Society was formed at University College, under the then Professor of English, Leigh Smith. Initially confined to play readings which nevertheless, for their time, became very popular among university students, the Society eventually produced a short play, A. A. Milne’s The Princess and the Woodcutter, to a non-university public at College House.

In 1932 Smith retired from University College and from the Society. His successor, who had left College four years earlier for Cambridge, was E. F. C. Ludowyk, who proceeded to present a stream and then a cascade of longer productions, beyond Shakespeare. “I tried to take over at the point,” he would in later years reflect, “where years previously we had failed: performing a play in public for the benefit of a public not confined to the university.” It should be noted here that this attempt at taking English theatre to a non-university milieu went hand-in-hand with political reforms from that time, including the granting of universal franchise and the election of the first State Council in 1931.

EFC LUDO 222 Lyn Ludowyk

In the 1930s there was a steady increase in the student population at University College. These were years of rapid expansion, and there were many young men and women entering university from elite public secondary schools despite the administration’s avowed policy of running the institution as “a training ground for persons who would become members of the leading strata of Ceylonese society” and despite restrictive admission criteria. In 1938, officials had envisaged a student population of no more than 500, a figure that would rise to 1,000 two years later.

This undoubtedly had an impact on the Society, or “DramSoc” as it came to be known by that time: productions of Sophocles, Sheridan, and Shaw, as well as original works (including “a little sketch in Spanish”), went down quite well with audiences, and in 1935 the Society moved to a new venue at King George’s Hall in Colombo. It was at this Hall, built by the Public Works Department on the instructions of Robert Marrs, that the ebb and flow of the English theatre would play out. The conflict or contradiction between the world outside, where political democratisation and reform continued in a watered down form, and the world within in the universities and the Civil Service, where elitism remained entrenched, would become a matter of indifference at first, and a handicap later, for DramSoc.

Irangani’s public onstage debut was in Cuthbert Amarasinghe’s production of Arthur W. Pinero’s The Second Mrs Tanqueray, in which she played a role originally performed at Broadway in 1893 by Mrs Patrick Campbell, who would later take part in the West End production of Pygmalion (where she courted fame as Eliza Doolittle, Irangani’s onstage debut at school). Tanqueray had been a DramSoc presentation, and she was taken aboard another play, Jean Anouilh’s Antigone. Distinguished by the fact that Ludowyk rejected the standard English translation of the Anouilh text by Lewis Galantière in favour of his own – which the critic Regi Siriwardena preferred to the Galantière version – Antigone went on to become one of Irangani’s favourite theatrical performances.

“I can’t quite put a finger on it, but my fondness for that performance must have something to do with the fact that alongside Lady Macbeth, Antigone is one of the most formidable women in Western theatre.” For me though, the production indicated something more than just the characters: DramSoc itself was undergoing a transformation, with a series of plays which went beyond Shakespeare and Euripides and embraced the best of contemporary drama, including Kapek (The Insect Play being a highlight from this period) and Brecht (The Good Woman of Setzuan being the first work of his to be staged here, in 1952). With that, for some time at least the contradictions between the world outside and the world within had been resolved. And Irangani had emerged at this crucial juncture.

However, productions of Kapek, Brecht, and other contemporary continental playwrights could not, in the long run, conceal the deeper rift between the franchise, free education, and swabasha on the one hand (together with the emergence of bilingual, though English educated, playwrights), and the continued emphasis on Western, overwhelmingly English, drama by the Society on the other. After Ludowyk’s departure from the Society in the 1950s, it slid into further oblivion and did nothing much to incorporate vernacular playwrights, of whom the leading light was Ediriweera Sarachchandra. This could not have been due to class differences between the two theatre groups, since Sarachchandra was, despite his Sinhala trappings, quite Westernised – his high regard for Buddhism, epitomised in his swansong Vessantara, came long after he had issued what almost amounted to fatwas against its debilitating effect on the arts in the country – but rather the differences between the two linguistic groups: English versus Sinhala and Tamil. Regi Siriwardena not unkindly put it all in perspective when he predicted the Society’s death: it had outlived its relevance, and in a culture inhabited by Pabavati and Maname, it was adamantly pursuing Sophocles and Plautus.

From all this it seems tempting to conclude that, paraphrasing Kipling’s often misinterpreted quote, the Sinhala and Tamil theatre and the English theatre were bound never to meet again. But the truth is far more complex than that. While antagonisms and even fault-lines did appear between the two strands, they were never irreconcilable. Indeed, contrary to the picture of pessimism drawn by critics and even sociologists who argue that “1956” led to a debasement in cultural standards at odds with the superior tastes that had supposedly prevailed till then, political democratisation allowed English theatre practitioners, including not only Irangani but also Ranjini Ellapola and Sita Jayawardena, to “escape” to the Sinhala cultural scene, and not just in plays but in films too. The truth is that, as Regi Siriwardena aptly put it in a review of H. L. Seneviratne’s The Work of Kings, colonial social structures simply could not survive free education, or for that matter the franchise.

By the time Irangani played for Lester James Peries in Be Safe or Be Sorry and Rekava an entirely new generation of actors, well versed in English and Sinhala, had emerged, and after them another set of players and producers (including Jayalath Manorathna and Nissanka Diddeniya) would, while being beneficiaries of free swabasha education, discover Western culture at university or in training under veteran thespians: Sarachchandra, Dayananda Gunawardena, Gunasena Galappatti, and Dhamma Jagoda, the latter of whose Lionel Wendt Arts Centre became an important centre for students from different linguistic and social backgrounds.

In the mid to late 1960s there was, as Shelagh Gunawardena once noted in an interview, “a process of active and fruitful collaboration between the Sinhala and English theatres” that realised a creative pitch “never attained – and never attempted – before.” Among the big names from this period were Karen Breckenridge, Haig Karunaratne, Joe Mustapha, and most importantly, Ernest MacIntyre.

It is well beyond the objectives of this essay to chart the different impulses and trends that governed the Sinhala and English theatres at this juncture, and besides, it’s too exhausting a task. Suffice it to say that contrary to what the cynics have said or written, post-1956 was a period of sustained exchange between two linguistic and two class groups: something that, without a shadow of a doubt, wouldn’t have been possible without 1956, the franchise, or free education. Shakespeare remained on a high pedestal among theatre practitioners, even the Sinhala ones, though other playwrights and dramatic forms entered the country too. Of particular significance was the rise of West Germany in the field of children’s and youth theatre, and how, in the 1970s (a decade constantly demeaned by critics of the Sirimavo Bandaranaike regime as having constricted artistic development), officials from there came to Sri Lanka and inaugurated workshops and classes: Kamal Addaraarachchi, Sriyantha Mendis, and Jayantha Chandrasiri were tutored at these classes. Meanwhile a spate of exchange programs with Eastern Europe, specifically in countries like Czechoslovakia, and with the capitalist West (including New York and England), ensured a steady flow of new, contemporary dramatic and acting forms. The pioneer of Method Acting in this country, Salamon Fonseka, for instance, became the first Sri Lankan to obtain a PhD in theatre, at Prague; until then, the highest achievement for an actor here had been Irangani Serasinghe’s studentship at the Bristol Old Vic Theatre School.

Thus in one sense Irangani was a product of her time, her home, indeed her class, yet in another she was also a product of various transformations and shifts that were threatening to bring those down. Happily for her those changes didn’t uproot her; they simply liberated her, as she confessed in some interviews. While her dalliance with Marxism didn’t outlast her sister’s or her university career, it did mould her in that, as Haig Karunaratne put it in an interview with Wilfrid Jayasuriya, “she was able to live in both worlds” while “searching for emancipation.”

In Kumar de Silva’s account she comes out bluntly with why, despite her initiation into Marxism through Professor Ludowyk himself, she didn’t remain attached to it. Her response is both idiosyncratic and revealing: apparently she felt that the Marxist movement, though quite well-intentioned, left no room for her to discover herself. Almost at a metaphysical, existential level, the Left movement had appealed to her as a means of correcting all those injustices she would have witnessed as a girl. Yet later, when it threatened to subsume her other lives, she let go without letting go: to a lesser extent than Sumitra Peries’s life, hers has been a career neither fully detached from, nor fully bonded to, the politics of activism.

Her fiercely protective aura may have persuaded Lester Peries to have her as the mother in Rekava, and it was that aura which she kept on embodying even in those rare outings where she got to play the depraved rich (Sagarayak Meda, Dadayama, Kinihiriya Mal) or a more kindly nobility (Bakmaha Deege). Apart from that spate of motherly roles that Lester (and other directors) gave her in the 60s, however, there was nothing particularly affluent about the characters, even the mothers and wives, that she played. As Haig Karunaratne has pointed out only too correctly, even the TV mothers of the 80s were not upper class, or for that matter upper middle class: in Yashorawaya and in Doo Daruwo, and on film in Loku Duwa, those mothers belong to Sinhala lower middle class households. And that I think is where her instinctive sympathy for the beleaguered, the torn down, and the dispossessed comes out. The milieu most of her characters hailed from was not a hard done by peasantry, and yet neither was it an affluent bourgeoisie (barring the occasional notable exception or two: Gamperaliya and Awaragira). Instead these characters were rooted in a class that would gain and lose from a new era of neoliberal reform, post-1977. From romanticised depictions of Sinhala Buddhist peasants, film and television directors were focusing their attention on the lower middle class, Sinhala though not exclusively Buddhist, and for this an archetypal figure was needed to symbolise both suffering and, as Karunaratne told Jayasuriya, stability. Irangani embodied both ably.

It would be fatally easy to argue that Irangani fitted the bill in this era as much as she had in all those depictions of middle class mothers and wives fitted it in the previous era. Locating Irangani that way, placing her against a forever shifting social and cultural configuration, can run into its own share of pitfalls. Yet I believe that is exactly what we should be doing. The truth of the matter is that Irangani Serasinghe meant something to many people, and audiences. She was the scion of a colonial upper class elite that’d wither away in the face of democratisation and political reform no matter how slow those may have been in coming, and she took to the new era like a duck taking to water. In rejecting her background without fully rejecting it, as well as political activism without fully rejecting it either, she managed to take part in those cultural and political changes in which – and DESPITE which – she thrived. That has been her real achievement. Her son Ranjith tells me she’s still at it, still involved in films: a testament to how well she has endured, and how well she has let herself be a product of her circumstances without letting them circumscribe her.

The writer can be reached at

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