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Flood protection of Colombo Metropolitan Region-An alternative scheme

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By Dr Janaka Ratnasiri

I thank Eng. Anton Nanayakkara (AN)’s write-up in The Island of 28.07.2020, responding to my article on Flood Protection of Colombo Metropolitan Region which appeared in The Island of 21.07.2020. The main purpose of my article was to highlight the fact that the government after getting Japanese Consultants to formulate a Master Plan for flood protection of Colombo Metro Region at great cost, what is being implemented as a priority project is only a clean-up of the Weras Ganga basin, making a mockery of the word Master Plan. This area is totally outside the Greater Colombo area with no impact on its flooding. AN has failed to comment on this issue.

METRO COLOMBO URBAN DEVELOPMENT

PROJECT

With the failure of the Master Plan to address the flood situation within the city and its suburbs, Sri Lanka Land Development Corporation (SLLDC) has taken the initiative to develop a separate project titled Metro Colombo Urban Development Project (MCUDP) to address this issue. This project expected to be executed during 2012 – 2020 is estimated to cost USD 104 Million (SLLDC Website). It will address flood mitigation in areas covered by the Colombo Municipal Council, Sri Jayewardenapura, Battaramulla, Rajagiriya, Madiwela and Dehiwala. Activities described under “Improvements to existing drainage systems” in my previous article of July 21st were in fact carried out by SLLDC under this project.

COMMENTS ON ENG. NANAYAKKARA’S

RESPONSES

In his response, AN has made certain remarks on some statements appearing in my article and questions their validity. What I have said are totally based on material extracted from other sources including the JICA reports and the website of the SLLDC and not my own suggestions. It appears that AN seems to be unaware of the latest situation in this regard, and hence they need clarification. My comments are given against each of AN’s statements which are given below using material extracted from SLLDC website – Special Projects pages.

1. “The Madiwela East Diversion (MED), remaining dry most of the time, as mentioned, may be due to its wrong location, too far upstream of the Kelani Ganga about 10 miles above the historic Nagalagam Street outfall”.

COMMENT: MED was established by constructing a new canal from the Thalangama Tank up to the origin of the existing natural canal flowing through Malabe paddy fields parallel to Chandrika Kumarathunga Mawatha. It has its natural outfall at Ambatale. The topography of the area does not permit shifting of this outfall further downstream.

2. “Even during floods of the Kelani Ganga, this outfall No 1 (See plan) has to be closed, long before Nagalagam Street outfall closing at +5.00 ft MSL, the accepted minor flood level for Colombo, negating the very purpose for which this canal was built”.

COMMENT: The SLLDC is currently building a pumping station at Ambatale across the MED canal to pump water to the river when its water level rises during heavy rainfall, at a cost of USD 5.85 Million and LKR 1,181 Million (SLLRDC website).

3. “The learned doctor has not noticed the extent to which the Thalangama Tank had silted up, reducing the capacity to retain flood water (about 50 ac.ft) entering the Parliament lake”.

COMMENT: In a project carried out by the SLLDC during 2016 – 2018, the tank was dredged to increase its water holding capacity and remove unnecessary growth on the tank bund, at a cost of LKR 107 million. In any case, I wonder how even a professional hydrologist could notice the extent of silting of the tank just by looking at it.

4. “This gate was constructed at ID’s flood control premises to pump water from the Kelani Ganga to the Beira Lake, for the purpose of cleaning the lake. The project ceased soon after the flood. Strangely, no inquiry was made. It was all swept under the carpet”.

COMMENT: According the SLLDC website, it has built three gates across Kolonnawa Canal, Heen Ela and St. Sebastian canal at the crossing of New Kelani Bridge Road to isolate the canal system enabling water to be pumped back into the canal system from the river by operating the pumps installed at St. Sebastian outfall in the reverse direction. This work to be carried out during 2018 – 2020 is estimated to cost of USD 5.85 million and LKR 1181 million. So, it is not a case of sweeping under the carpet.

5. “Dr. R’s reference to the Beira Lake, too, needs some clarifications. The Beira Lake is not a natural lake. It is an artificial lake also kept at an artificial level, of 6.00 ft above mean sea level, by the Beira Spillway”.

COMMENT: A pumping station is being built across St. Sebastian Canal at Maradana for pumping water from the canal to Beira Lake during periods of high rainfall in Colombo. This work to be carried out during 2019 -2020 is estimated to cost of USD 5.93 million and LKR 165 million. (See also the last paragraph).

6. “Ignoring many other references, contained in Dr R’s article, let me now say a few words about narrowing of bridges, mentioned in it. This is not a matter of life and death, as made out to be. Any hydrologist will agree that within the narrowed section, the velocity will increase to make up for the constriction”.

COMMENT: Widening of the canals and removing bottleneck were not proposals that I made, but what are actually executed by SLLDC as described in its website. Kolonnawa Canal Diversion Stage III says “the canal has become very narrow at certain sections due to encroachment. Some resettlement and land acquisitions are undertaken to remove bottlenecks”. This work to be carried out during 2018-2020 will cost of LKR 1,000 million. Diversion Stage IV also refers to removing two bottlenecks near the outfall.

7. “If, as proposed, the southern diversion takes place, such a canal would become a “trans-basin diversion” let alone the new outfall getting pushed about 20 miles, down south, to Panadura; not to mention reversing the natural flow direction, within the Madiwela catchment, and aggravating the already existing problems, within Bolgoda”.

COMMENT: The proposed diversion is not the first trans-basin diversion in Sri Lanka. Under the Mahaweli Scheme, there are trans-basin diversions. There are even such diversions among ancient works including diversion of Kala Oya to Malwathu Oya basin and Amban Ganga to Yan Oys basin. More recently, Kalu Ganga (Matale) was diverted to Amban Ganga basin under Moragahakanda Project, Uma Oya is being diverted to Kirindi Oya basin. It is also proposed to divert Gin Ganga to Nilwala basin. If Madiwela South diversion is the only practical option available to protect Sri Jayewardenapura area from flooding, it should be pursued after addressing whatever environmental issues that it may cause.

8. “The proposals (which) I have been making for more than 30 years, do not go against nature, no damage to environment by digging new canals, no underground tunnels of large diameter, no widening of bridges, and no pumping”.

COMMENT: If AN’s proposal with no digging of new canals, no tunneling or no widening of canals had merit, why wasn’t it accepted by authorities for implementation all these 30 years?

OPTION WITH NO DIGGING, TUNNELING AND PUMPING

As mentioned in my previous article, the Diyawannawa Lake has two draining outlets, one via Kolonnawa Canal and the other via Wellawatta Canal. The Kolonnawa Canal branches into three canals with outfalls to the Kelani River at Grandpass, Kotuwila and Ambatale which need pumping during heavy rainfall days. Hence, only the Wellawatta Canal is available for draining direct into the sea without resorting to digging new canals, or building tunnels or installing pumping stations. Under the MCUDP project, the stretch of Wellawatta Canal beyond the Galle Road was dredged, widened and the outfall improved at a cost of LKR 111.6 Million. It is to be seen whether this outlet together with the improved outfalls to Kelani River could handle the draining of Diyawannawa Lake during an extreme rainfall event.

ALTERNATIVE PROPOSAL TO DRAIN FLOOD WATER

AN has expressed his reservations about using the Beira Lake as an outfall for flood water as the level of the spillway cannot be adjusted. Though a sum of LKR 1,350 million is spent on building a pumping station at Maradana to divert flood water coming along the Dematagoda Canal into the Beira Lake and then to the sea, there is a doubt as to whether this diversion will work. If it works, it will take flood water from Kotte diverted to St. Sebastian Canal first to the Floating Market and then to the Beira Lake before the water enters the spillway near Galle Face. This will invariably raise the water level of Beira Lake which is presently maintained at 1.8 m above mean sea level to prevent buildings constructed on wooden piles along the lake from collapsing. However, according to an environment screening study on a project for rehabilitation of the Beira Lake carried out by Moratuwa University in 2011, any changes to the water level of the Beira lake can have an adverse effect on the stability of these foundations.

There is however, another alternative option available to improve the draining of Kotte flood water flowing along Dematagoda Canal into the river without posing any of these problems. That is by diverting water flowing in Dematagoda Canal direct into Kiththamphuwa Ela (KE) before it joins with St. Sebastian Canal, by constructing a new canal branching off from the Dematagoda Canal just before it crosses the railway line. This canal could run parallel to the railway line and join with the KE where it makes a U-turn near Welewatta Road. This link canal is only about 0.5 km long and this area comes mostly under railway reservation. The stretch of KE which runs parallel to the railway line up to the river outfall is being widened and dredged under the Kolonnawa Canal Diversion Stage IV at a cost of LKR 1,432 Million. Hence, construction of this new link canal could be undertaken as a part of this project.

The distance to the existing river outfall along St. Sebastian Canal from this branching point is 3.0 km while the distance to the Beira Lake outfall via St. Sebastian Canal in the opposite direction 5.2 km, whereas the distance to the river outfall along the proposed link canal and KE is only 1.7 km. Further, the present St. Sebastian Canal route has six road crossings and several bends while the route via Beira Lake has eight road crossings. Also, the stretch of St. Sebastian Canal behind the Technical College passes through a narrow passage cut through a hill with no room for widening. On the other hand, the proposed route via the link canal and KE is short and straight with only one road crossing at Orugodawatta and is a better option to drain the Kotte flood water into Kelani River, than the proposed scheme via Beira Lake.

CONCLUSION

The SLLDC has already executed several projects worth LKR 1,165 Million with World Bank funding to improve the drainage in several canals in the city and its suburbs. Several more projects estimated to cost over LKR 4,500 Million and USD 44 Million are on-going. This includes a project to take flood water from Kotte all the way to Beira Lake and then to spillway at Galle Face for discharging into the sea by reversing the flow in St. Sebastian Canal. However, this does not appear sensible even to a layman like myself. It is more sensible to drop this proposal and instead develop the link canal to take flood water flowing in Dematagoda Canal direct to KE stretch running parallel to the railway line and thereafter to the Kelani river. The pumping equipment intended for diverting flood water via Beira Lake could be installed at the outfall of KE near Kalu Palama, enabling it to remove the flood water during heavy rainfall.

 



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Ukraine War: Mother May I?

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By Gwynne Dyer

“This obviously does not happen because of a thrown butt,” said British Defense Minister Ben Wallace. But the Russian Ministry of Defence insisted that the explosions that destroyed at least eight warplanes at Saki Air Base in Russian-occupied Crimea on 9 August were due to “a violation of fire safety requirements.”

The implication is that some careless Russian smoker tossed away his cigarette butt and caused a fire that set off explosions. That’s hardly a testimonial to the discipline of the Russian air force’s ground crews, but it’s better than admitting that Ukrainian missiles have reached 225 km behind Russian lines to destroy a whole squadron of Russian fighters.Moscow also claimed that no Russian aircraft had been damaged by the explosions in Crimea, although the wreckage of the destroyed fighters was clearly visible on the ‘overheads’ from satellite observations.

The Russian Defence Ministry played the same silly game in April when Ukrainian cruise missiles sank the ‘Moskva.’, the flagship of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet. It claimed that a fire had caused munitions to explode, and that the ship then sank while under tow due to “stormy seas” (although the sea was actually flat calm at the time).And what caused that fire? Careless smokers again, presumably, because even the most damning statements about the indiscipline and incompetence of Russian sailors and airmen are preferable to an admission that the Ukrainians are really hurting Russia.

Ukraine’s Defence Ministry is having fun with this, reporting that it “cannot establish the cause of the fire [at the Russian airfield], but once again reminds of fire safety rules and a ban on smoking in unauthorized places.”

Taking responsibility for these strikes deep in Russian-controlled territory is not in Ukraine’s interest, so it’s happy for Russia to take the blame. Various anonymous defence officials in Kyiv further muddied the waters by suggesting that Ukrainian partisans were responsible, or Ukrainian special forces already operating far behind Russian front lines.

But why is it not in Ukraine’s interest to take ownership of these small but symbolically important victories?

It’s because the really decisive front in this war is how fast American and other NATO weapons systems are sent to Ukraine, and that is determined by a process that seems to be derived largely from the old children’s game of ‘Mother May I’ (also known as ‘Giant Steps’).The opening move is quite straightforward: Kyiv asks Washington for a hundred HIMARS multiple-launch rocket systems so that it can counter Russia’s huge superiority in older artillery and rocket systems and drive Moscow’s forces from Ukrainian soil.

Washington replies that it can take two giant steps and a frog hop. No, wait a minute, it replies that Ukraine can have four HIMARS systems now. Once the crews have been trained and have demonstrated their proficiency in using the weapons, Kyiv can start the next round of the game by asking for more. This takes four weeks.

Getting into the spirit of the game, Ukraine then asks for only twenty more HIMARs, leaving the rest for later. Washington replies that it can take four baby steps and a pirouette – or rather, four more HIMARs now, but with the range still restricted to 70 km. and no thermobaric ammunition (fuel-air explosives). And so on.We are now in the fourth round of this game, with sixteen HIMARs promised of which Ukraine has already deployed between eight and twelve on the battlefield. At this rate, Ukraine will have the hundred HIMARs it needs to expel the Russians around April of 2024.

Similar games are being played with other badly needed weapons from NATO stockpiles like Western-made combat aircraft, modern anti-air defence systems, and longer-range missiles for attacks like the one on Saki Air Base. This is all driven by an excess of caution about such ‘escalation’ at the White House and in the National Security Council.

Washington is right to be concerned about Russia’s reactions, but it is prone to see the Russians as dangerously excitable children. They are not. They are poker players (NOT chess-players) who bet over-confidently, and are now trying to bluff their way out of trouble. The Russian ruling elite, or at least most of it, remains rational.

The Ukrainians, however, have to take American anxieties into account even when they use their own weapons, some of which have been modified for extended range, on distant Russian targets. The simplest way is just to pretend it wasn’t their weapons that did the damage.The same policy applies to the numerous acts of sabotage carried out in Russia by Ukrainian agents – and by a happy accident the Russians are willing to collaborate in this fiction. They’d rather blame the clumsiness, ignorance and incompetence of their own troops than give the credit to the Ukrainians.

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Book Review : An incisive exploration of Sri Lanka’s religiosity

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Title: ‘Multi-Religiosity in Contemporary Sri Lanka’ – Innovation, shared spaces, contestation

Editors – Mark P. Whitaker, Darini Rajasingham- Senanayake and Pathmanesan Sanmugeswaran

A Routledge South Asian Religion Series publication

Exclusively distributed in Sri Lanka by Vijitha Yapa Publications, Colombo 5. (e-mail: vijiyapa@gmail.com)

Reviewed by Lynn Ockersz

This timely publication could be described as a revelation of the fascinating nature of Sri Lanka’s religiosity. It is almost customary to refer to Sri Lanka as a ‘religious country’ but it is not often that one comes across scholarly discussions on the subject locally. ‘Multi-Religiosity in Contemporary Sri Lanka..’, a collection of research papers put together in book form, fills this void most adequately.

Although not necessarily synonymous with spiritual development, religiosity in Sri Lanka essentially refers to the widespread prevalence of organized or institutionalized religion in the lives of the majority of Sri Lankans. What qualifies the country to be seen as religiously plural is the presence in it of numerous religions, though mainly in their institutionalized forms.

What ought to pique the interest of the specialist and that of the inquiring layman alike is the fact that though falling short of the highest standards of spirituality most of the time, religion is used innovatively and creatively by its adherents to meet some of their worldly and otherworldly needs. That is, religion is a dynamic and adaptable force in the lives of Sri Lanka’s people. ‘Multi-Religiosity in Contemporary Sri Lanka..’ explores these characteristics of religion in depth and underscores the vitality of religion in the consciousness of its diverse practitioners. A chief strength of the publication is the featuring of almost all the main religions of Sri Lanka, from the viewpoint of their innovative and adaptable use by devotees.

The research papers in question, numbering 16, were presented at an Open University of Sri Lanka forum held in mid-July in 2017. The editors of the volume have done well to bring these papers together and present them in book form to enable the wider public in Sri Lanka and abroad to drink deep of the vital insights contained in them, considering that religiosity has gained increasingly in importance in post-war Sri Lanka. Fittingly, ‘Multi-Religiosity in Contemporary Sri Lanka..’, is dedicated to the memory of well-known Sri Lankan social scientist Malathi de Alwis who, unfortunately, is no longer with us, but had contributed a paper at the relevant forum prior to her passing away. Her paper too is contained in the collection.

The thematic substance of the volume could be said to have been set out in some detail by co- editor Darini Rajasingham-Senanayake in her introductory essay titled, ‘Spaces of Protection, healing and liberation…’ She writes: ‘Religiosity appears as a means of coping with life’s transitions, celebrations, disappointments, diseases, conflicts and violence; and events such as birth and death, illness, exams, marriage, divorce, the sense of the sacred, the auspicious, and inauspicious (Sumangali-Amangali). Fundamentally, beyond the political, (multi-)religiosity provides an individual’s coping strategy and/or a social performance for negotiating with the perceived power, energies and structures that are greater than oneself, particularly the supernatural and transnational.’

When seen from the above perspective, the ability of many Sri Lankans to comfortably worship at multiple religious institutions and shrines, for example, while claiming adherence in the main to this or that religious belief makes considerable sense, because the average Lankan devotee is of a pragmatic bent and not a religious purist. Depending on her needs she would worship at a major Buddhist or Hindu temple, for example, and also supplicate her cause at a prominent Catholic church. Such practices speak volumes for the flexibility and innovativeness of the devotee. They also testify to her broad religious sympathies and her ability to share her religious spaces with others of different religious persuasions. A few places of religious significance in Sri Lanka that thus draw adherents of multiple religions are Adam’s Peak, Kataragama, Madhu Church and St. Anthony’s Church in Kochchikade, Colombo.

At these places of reverence the usually restricted adherence to a single religious belief or faith is easily transcended by worshippers as apparently part of a personal or collective coping strategy to deal with multiple personal and societal pressures. ‘Kataragama Pada Yatra – Pilgrimaging with ethnic “others” ‘ by Anton Piyaratne and ‘Religious innovation in the pilgrimage industry – Hindu bodhisattva worship and Tamil Buddhistness’ by Alexander McKinley are just two papers in the collection that deal insightfully with this aspect of worshippers’ abilities to comfortably manage multiple religious identities and spaces. These habits of the average Sri Lankan devotee highlight the potentiality of religiosity, among other things, to be a bridge-builder among communities.

For instance, Mckinley sets out in his exposition: ‘Religious innovation at shared sacred sites can thus blur or sharpen the dominant ethno-religious divisions of ‘Sinhala Buddhist’ and ‘Tamil Hindu’ in Sri Lanka. Saman devotion can simultaneously be interpreted as a sincere form of highland Hindu religiosity, a strategic innovation by Tamil workers to appease Sinhala pilgrims, as well as an opening for Sinhalas to either convert Tamils into Buddhists, or to cooperate with them towards common goals, such as environmental conservation’.

A conspicuous and continuing theme of the collection is the wide-ranging and often damaging impact of the Sri Lankan government’s 30-year anti-LTTE war. Quite a number of the researchers, thus, deal with its adverse impact on women, and quite rightly, because the war revealed as perhaps never before the marked vulnerabilities of Sri Lankan women in conflict situations. ‘Of Meditation, Militarization and Grease Yakas’ by Darini Rajasingham-Senanayake and ‘Vijaya and Kuweni retold’ by Neena Mahadev deal quite elaborately on this subject and throw valuable light on the multi-dimensional impact the Northern war has had on women, besides focusing on the resourceful ways in which religion is used by women to cope with social and political issues.

‘Emerging innovative religiosities and what they signify’ by Selvy Thiruchandran continues with the focus on women and religiosity but introduces a wider societal dimension by bringing into the discourse the phenomenon of New Religious Movements (NRM). The researcher points to the immense popularity among mainly middle class women of two of these movements, the Satya Sai Baba cult and the growing interest in Brahma Kumaris Yoga centres, and elaborates on the roles they play in enabling women to deal with personal and societal pressures.

However, Thruchandran arrives at the thought-provoking conclusion at the end of her wide-ranging research that, ‘The old religion and the new so-called innovation that is sought in the new religions can be summarized in a well-known cliché – old wine in new bottles.’ That is, these New Religions are mainly forms of escapism. We have here a fresh perspective on issues relating to the liberation of women that calls for deep consideration. Moreover, these New Religious Movements do not help in any substantive way to change the fundamental and perennial reality of male domination over women; for, we are given to understand that some men actively discourage their wives from joining the Brahma Kumaris movement.

The role of Sri Lanka’s Christian Left in giving religion a progressive and socially emancipatory orientation in recent decades is the subject of Harini Amarasuriya’s paper titled, ‘Beards, cloth bags, and sandals – Reflections on the Christian left in Sri Lanka’. The researcher’s prime focus is on an institution of mainly Left political activism established by a Christian clergyman, Sevaka Yohan, in Ibbagamuwa, Kurunegala in the seventies decade by the name Devasaranaramaya. Besides committing itself to robust Left political activism, the latter centre possessed an indigenous cultural ethos and sought to unite the country’s cultures and religions. In other words, the institution aimed at being a shared space where religions comingled on the basis of shared values.

Accordingly, the publication of ‘Multi-Religiosity in Contemporary Sri Lanka…’, is a welcome development. The book sheds invaluable light on the subject of local religiosity, which is a relatively unexplored but vital area of knowledge that has important implications for nation-building in Sri Lanka. Besides the papers discussed above, there are numerous other learned and insightful research papers on religiosity in this collection that call for urgent reading. Collectively the papers constitute a treasury of knowledge that those pursuing Sri Lankan Studies could ill-afford to by-pass.

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Reflecting on Swineetha Weerasinghe

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By Uditha Devapriya

One of the clearest memories I have of Welikathara is Gamini Fonseka lavishing his love and later his anger on his wife. Welikathara is the closest to a Hollywood thriller (in the classic mould) ever made in Sri Lanka, and this aspect comes through even in its depiction of the romance between the two leads. By then Fonseka had established himself as more than just a primus inter pares of the Sinhalese cinema: he had become its king. Cast opposite him, the equally great Joe Abeywickrema, along with all other cast members, could only quail before Fonseka. That was why Abeywickrema’s Goring Mudalali had to go off like a dog at the end: because no other fate would have done for anyone playing Fonseka’s foil.

There is, however, one sequence where Fonseka’s supremacy is put into question. It comes towards the end, right after Goring Mudalali makes his big revelation about Fonseka’s past. Confronted with the fact of her husband’s infidelities, his wife taunts him, asking him why he is so afraid of Goring and why he doesn’t do anything about him. Ever gentle to his wife, he refuses to say anything. This only aggravates the situation, sparking off a fuse: in an ever rising crescendo, his wife goes on to ridicule him, reminding him of the difficulties of their marriage. She then questions his manhood. That hits him badly: getting up from his bed in a fit of anger, he slaps her harshly, then dons his police uniform to go after Goring.

Cutting between close-ups of Gamini Fonseka’s and the wife’s face, the sequence plays out beautifully: it reminds you of the café sequence in Juan Bardem’s Death of a Cyclist, where the characters’ faces betray unspoken and desperate dreams and desires. In Welikathara Nihalsinghe gives us the most Americanised film to hit Sri Lankan theatres; the dialogues, written by the great Tissa Abeysekara, take you back to the films of Billy Wilder. The first encounter between Goring and the wife, and the later confrontation with Fonseka, unveil with so much tension that we feel tense watching them ourselves. Much of that has to do with the acting of its three leads. And in her encounters with the two male leads, Swineetha Weerasinghe winds up with one of the finest performances in her career.

Swineetha Weerasinghe is an enigma, an ineffable mystery. She hasn’t been in too many films. By the standard which one may use on, say, a Malini Fonseka or a Sandya Kumari, her career hasn’t been prodigious. She herself has told me that she has been selective, that she has been careful about the scripts that came her way. Perhaps. But this is just half the story. Swineetha’s life, as with her career, has certainly been colourful. I doubt she’s failed to get the recognition she deserves. Yet seeing the plaudits lavished on her peers, that recognition came rather belatedly. It came around the time I first met her, in 2014, the year she opened her life and story to writers, just before she got featured in the only programme which could have done justice to someone like her, Rupavahini’s Alakamandawa.

Swineetha hailed from a middle-class Sinhala Buddhist family. Her father, a retired Army gunman, and her mother had both hailed from Dehiwela. She was raised there, educated initially at Buddhist Girls’ College in Mount Lavinia and later at the Dehiwela Madya Maha Vidyalaya. “I liked singing and dancing,” she told me, when I asked her whether she “took to the arts” at that age. She had also played netball and had been an avid athlete, managing to complete all three stages of Kandyan dancing while at school. Yet she refuses to believe that these had a large say in her career: “I never considered any of these seriously, certainly not as my career.” She felt her vocation lay elsewhere: in medicine.

With this in mind, she eventually enrolled for a four-year course at the Indigenous Medical College. Three years into that course, however, Swineetha came across an advertisement in a newspaper. “It was for an upcoming film, and it called for aspiring actresses. Acting never figured in my scheme of things, but I decided to take a shot at it.” In my interview she noted and emphasised that last point rather strongly: “Making it out at the movies may have been at the back of my mind, but I never considered it more than a passing interest.” Her parents, for their part, had mixed feelings: her mother objected to the idea, but her less conservative father managed to convince her that it was in their daughter’s best interests.

The interview was a success; she was selected. Thereafter she met her first figure of destiny. “Robin Tampoe cast me in three of his films: Sudu Sande Kalu Wala in 1963, Samajaye Api Okkoma Ekayi in 1964, and Sudo Sudu in 1965.” Emblematic of the popular middle cinema of their time, these three films hit it big at the box-office; Sudo Sudu in particular, based on the Sagara Palansuriya poem, in itself based on the Enoch Arden legend that the Jayamanne brothers and Rukmani Devi transposed in Kadawunu Poronduwa years before, revealed and brought out Swineetha’s talents to the world. She quickly set about proving her versatility: as she implied to me, her overarching desire was to show that she could play different types of characters and to show that she didn’t want to be pigeonholed and typecast.

It was at this juncture that she met her second figure of destiny. “At the time I was working at RT Studios. Sudo Sudu was playing in every hall. At one screening I was approached by a gentle, unassuming man, who said he wanted me for his film. By then I had grown tired of playing damsels in distress. He told me that his film would be completely different, in mood and in tenor. There would be no boys chasing after girls, no good guy versus bad guy fights, and certainly no melodrama. It would be more intellectual and sophisticated. I realised that the opportunity was worth taking, and that I had to take it. So I took it.”

That gentle, unassuming man was Lester James Peries, and the film, of course, was Delovak Athara, the most exciting and least conventional Sinhala film to come out by that point. The critic Philip Cooray has called it Peries’s most intellectual work. This is an understatement. In the film’s two-hour duration there’s not a scene or a sequence where we involve ourselves in or identify ourselves with the characters, emotionally. True to Lester’s words, it was to be an intellectual and sophisticated work. And having cast an up-and-coming actress in the role of the protagonist’s university friend, he ensured a decent popular audience for the movie, while providing that actress an opportunity to diversify her career.

Delovak Athara got Swineetha to think more seriously about the cinema. “I read books. I watched films. My favourite actresses back then were people like Glenda Jackson, Geraldine Chaplin, and Rita Tushingham. They innovated on the kind of performances that had been associated with women for a long, long time. Needless to say, they inspired me to push my frontiers, to challenge myself, to take on more challenging roles.” Which is what eventually happened: from Lester Peries she would move on to D. B. Nihalsinghe (Welikathara), H. D. Premaratne (Sikuruliya), and W. A. B. de Silva (Hulavali).

These roles and films took her places, literally. “Welikathara took me to Tashkent. I met Simi Garewal, Sunil Dutt, Nargis, and Shabana Azmi there.” From Tashkent to the Krakow Film Festival in Poland, and from there to Germany and Czechoslovakia, Suwineetha felt awed at seeing Europe’s movie studios and industries. “We were obviously miles behind them, but that didn’t mean we couldn’t catch up with them.” Hulavali took her to a different kind of world: the 1976 Tehran Film Festival in Iran, where she met, among others, the Shah of Iran and Rita Tushingham, and on his last day before departure, Satyajit Ray.

When television arrived in the 1980s, Swineetha poured out her talents there also, from Dharmasena Pathiraja’s adaptation of Chekhov’s “The Lady with the Little Dog” to H. D. Premaratne’s Sandun Gira Gini Ganee. Her other film credits include Mille Soya. For a long time after Ira Handa Yata in 2010, some felt that she had retired. She put an end to such rumours with her comeback in Bandanaya, in 2017. Directed by Udayakantha Warnasuriya, Bandanaya is, essentially, The Exorcist set in some southern village in Sri Lanka. Casting has usually been one of Warnasuriya’s stronger points, and in Bandanaya he manages to secure convincing performances from Swineetha and her coplayers.

Glancing through her credits and her performances, I realise just how versatile Swineetha has been. After playing the gentle but morally grounded woman in Delovak Athara and the frustrated wife in Welikathara, Swineetha gave arguably the best performance in her life in Sikuruliya, where, as she told me very convincingly, she plays not one woman, but three. It’s a sad and sordid testament to such talents that they have not been accorded the place they deserve in the pantheon of our cinema. I remain optimistic, however: as we wrapped up our interview, she seemed optimistic too. One thing is certain, though: she’s always been one of our more avid actresses. She’s taken her job seriously. And profited by it, too.

The writer is an international relations analyst, researcher, and columnist who can be reached at udakdev1@gmail.com

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