On Irangani Serasinghe’s 94th birthday, her longstanding friend, Sumitra Peries, pays a glowing tribute to the veteran actress.
By Sajitha Prematunge
Irangani Seransinghe’s reputation preceded her. Of course, Sumitra Peries was too young to grasp the true meaning of the word ‘radical’, but being a contemporary of Irangani, at university, Sumitra’s brother, who was a radical himself, would rant on and on about ‘those radical Meedeniya sisters’. “Irangani and Kamini Meedeniya were legendary even then,” said Sumitra.
During their university days, the Meedeniya sisters would go swimming in the S. Thomas’ College, Mount Lavinia pool and in Serasinghe’s own words in her biography, ‘rode bicycles when good Sinhala girls were not supposed to ride’. Serasinghe’s radical nature manifested at a young age, earning her the childhood nickname ‘Chandi’.
Born Irangani Roxanna Meedeniya on June 9, 1927 in Ruwanwella, she attended St. Bridget’s Convent, Bishop’s College, and later Girls High School, Kandy, to do her Higher School Certificate, where she played Professor Higgins in Bernarrd Shaw’s Pygmalion. As fate would have it, her husband, Winston Serasinghe, is said to have been in the audience.
Serasinghe first hit the stage in 1948 in Prof. Cuthbert Amarasinghe’s production of Arthur W. Pinero’s ‘The Second Mrs. Tanqueray’. She played the lead role in Jean Anouilh’s Antigone. This performance left an indelible mark on Sumitra Peries. “It was at the King George Hall at the University. I must have been 13 or 14 at the time. I wouldn’t have known that much about the play, but I was highly impressed by her performance, which was critically acclaimed.” Sumitra recalled how she had been awestruck by a life-size portrait of the actress by Lester James Peries’s brother Ivan Peries, at the museum Petit Palais in Paris. “This was pre-Peries era and I didn’t know the Peries’ at the time, but for me Irangani was an idol. She was in a floral dress with a two-plait hair do. This made an impression on me.”
In Lionel Wendt’s maiden play Maxim Gorky’s ‘The Lower Depths’ directed by Austrian director Neumann Jubal, Serasinghe played Nastya. “Neumann Jubal was responsible for training university students in theatre,” says Sumitra. Among her other plays are Black Chiffon, Othello, Ernest MacIntyre’s The Caucasain Chalk Circle and Macbeth. She played mainly English roles at first, but ventured into Sinhala Theatre in Henry Jayasena’s Apata Puthe Magak Nethe. She went on to play roles in Dhamma Jagoda’s productions including Ves Muhunu, the Sinhala adaptation of ‘A streetcar named Desire’ by Tennessee Williams.
Irangani entered the University of Ceylon in 1947 and immersed herself in theatre under the guidance of Prof. E. F. C. Ludowyk. After graduating with an Arts degree she travelled to London with her first husband. At Prof. Ludowyke’s suggestion she attended Bristol Old Vic Theatre School for one year and the London School of Speech Training and Dramatic Art for two years. Meeting of renowned actresses Flora Robson and Dame Sybil Thorndike was quite influential for Serasinghe.
Serasinghe is the first academically and professionally qualified Sri Lankan actress. “She was very conversant with acting method and could use her body, her voice and the background to complement the character she played.” But, according to Sumitra, unfortunately the limited range of roles restricted her. “But with every new role she attempted to introduce some nuance. She was an actress par excellence.”
In the 1940s, she was exposed to Marxism through Professor Ludowyke. But, according to her biography, ‘Irangani … as told to Kumar de Silva’, she abandoned it for it left little room for self discovery.
Irangani was cast by Lester James Peries in the documentary, ‘Be Safe or Be Sorry’. But the role of an old woman, Kathrina Hamy, in Rekava, marked her true cinematic debut, an exemplary performance delivered at the age of 29. “Irangani used to accuse Lester of turning her into an old woman at such a young age,” chuckles Sumitra. In many ways Rekava was a turning point for Serasinghe, who also met her second husband, actor Winston Serasinghe, on the set of Rekava.
Fondly called mother of television and cinema for over 65 years, Serasinghe portrayed exemplary roles of mothers in Delovak Athara, Ran Salu, Deveni Gamana, Doo Daruwo, Awaragira, Loku Duwa, Nedeyo, Sathpura Vasiyo, Village by the sea – Gamperaliya, Veeduru Mal, and Sihini.
“She was Lester’s first choice for Matara Hamine’s role in Gamperaliya, but she was pregnant at the time.” In Peries’ Delovak Athara, Serasinghe found herself in her element, delivering a no-holds-barred performance as Clara Wijesinghe, the mother of Nissanka Wijesinghe, played by Tony Ranasinghe. According to Sumitra, it was a wholesome role, befitting Irangani’s range and class she was born into. “Consequently, she was quite comfortable in her role. There was irony and comedy to a certain extent and the role enabled her to show off her acting prowess.” According to Sumitra, she is the antithesis of Clara. “Although her character was on the wrong side of the moral curtain, Irangani played the part with conviction.”
“She is one of the most humble people I know, despite her affluence, who had no qualms about eating packeted rice, mingling with the average person.” Sumitra notes that her kindness had a tendency to be abused. “On one occasion, while on location, she spent the night reading in the bathroom because she was so considerate that she didn’t want to disturb the rest of the cast and crew by turning the lights on.”
Being an actress, drama comes within the territory. In Peiris’ Sandeshaya, Serasinghe nearly drowned when she jumped into the river. “But then she is that kind of daredevil actor.”
“In God King, she played the role of a traitor who was burnt alive. She had to lie on a pyre while other actors doused it with kerosene, (in reality water), and set it alight. But she walked on to that pyre so stolidly, making it one of the most moving performances in cinema. In Irangani Serasinghe’s determination to make the scene work, her life came second.”
She won the Sarasaviya Award for the Best Actress for her role in Oba Dutu Da and for Pavana Ralu Viya in 1995. In 1985 she won the Presidential Award for Best Supporting Actress for Adara Kathawa and at the 28th Sarasaviya Awards she bagged the Best Supporting Actress award for her performance in Sudu Seveneli. She was awarded the title Kala Keerthi by the Sri Lankan Government, the Sri Lankan of the Year award (2017) – Entertainment Distinguished Achievement – Ada Derana and Best Actress Special Jury Award – State Radio Awards 2019. She is also a recipient of the Deepashika Award.
She is also an environmental activist and set up Ruk Rakaganno with sister Kamini Vitharana. Serasinghe would nostalgically long for the quietude offered by the Mudugomuwa Walauwe, the ancestral Meedeniya home, the idyllic tranquility that she confessed, always seem to escape her in the current urbanised setting.
Sumitra’s only regret is that she had not been able to do a comedy with Irangani. “She played light comedy so beautifully, her role of Aunt Catherine in Wekanda Walawwa is a case in point. She would have played a role like Giulietta Masina in Nights of Cabiria exceptionally well. Watching her act has been an enriching experience. She was a role model for everyone and I wish her a long and healthy life. May the blessings of the Triple Gem be with her!”
Govt. actions must be for people’s benefit
By Jehan Perera
The government celebrated the 75th Anniversary of its independence from colonial rule under tight security. President Ranil Wickremesinghe did not even deliver a speech on the occasion. He had an excellent written speech, but chose not to deliver it for reasons not known. The speech was circulated later. The exclusion of the general public from the parade grounds was another notable feature of the Independence Day event. Under normal circumstances, Galle Face green where the celebration took place, is packed with people who come to enjoy the sea, the fresh air and the vast expanse of greenery. The spectacle of a military parade and an air show provided an occasion that people would not have wished to miss if they had been given the chance to attend it. But the government was clearly insecure and wanted to make sure it controlled the situation, which accounted for large security deployments.
The general public were kept away from the celebrations as the government feared that if they were permitted into the area some of them might protest. Indeed, the previous night a sit down public protest (satyagraha) organised by a mostly youthful group of protestors was water cannoned and forcibly broken up. The youth were protesting against the misallocation of resources for celebration at a time when the country’s people have little cause to celebrate. Although there was a large presence of security forces, they stood by when a group of political thugs attacked the peaceful protestors. When the satyagrahis resisted the attack they were chased, beaten and arrested by the security forces. The government was less concerned to win the hearts and minds of its people than to conduct its Independence Day event without disturbance.
Ironically, the manner of the celebration, with the general public not present at the site of celebration, and security forces out in strength on the roads, was reminiscent of the days of war that the country experienced decades past. In those days too, the Independence Day celebrations took place under tight security, with the people preferring to stay in their homes than to brave possible LTTE bombs. This throwback to the past is relevant as those years of war have contributed in no small measure to the economic collapse that has befallen the country and blighted the life of its people. More than 70 percent of the population have reduced their food intake and 40 percent of the population have descended below the poverty line. In recognition of the connection between ethnic conflict and economic underdevelopment, President Wickremesinghe has prioritized a political solution to the ethnic conflict without delay.
The public protests against the celebration of Independence Day was not only in Colombo but also in other parts of the country, most notably in the north of the country. The main Tamil political party as well as smaller ones also called for a boycott of the Independence Day events and did not participate in them. University students in Jaffna declared a hartal and flew black flags. Most of the people, however, showed no interest either way. There was no display of national flags in a spontaneous manner nor did the government make such an appeal. It seemed as if the government was celebrating Independence Day for itself. Gleaming new vehicles with police escorts drove in assorted governors, ministers and other dignitaries into the stalls where they would seat themselves with all the national television stations focusing on them. However, to the general public watching the celebrations on their television sets, the sight of the luxury vehicles bearing the dignitaries would have been infuriating.
Not even a year ago, these same political leaders were hiding in the face of the protest movement that took to the streets in the aftermath of the collapse of the national economy and declaration of national bankruptcy. The general public, many of whom had never taken part in public protests, came to the streets to protest. They came from near and far, children with their parents, the elderly and the differently abled, to demand the exit of the government leaders who had stolen the wealth of the country and brought the masses of people, including them all, to near penury. These same people who watched the Independence Day events on television would have been greatly angered to see those same political leaders now disembarking from luxury vehicles while they scraped the bottom of the barrel in their homes. What they demand from the government, both in street protests and in their homes, is an end to impunity for corruption, abuse of power and extravagance in public life, which the government appears to be shying away from.
The question arises for whose benefit was Independence Day celebrated in this manner? Independence Day in a situation of economic collapse was celebrated in a most unimaginative manner. The government tried to heed the public opprobrium regarding the cost of the event, and reduced the size of the military parade. It also axed the cultural parades that represent the aesthetic side of life. Independence Day should have been celebrated differently, not for the political leaders and not for the international community, but for the people. This event did not receive much international publicity. It would not have changed the way the world sees us. It did not touch the hearts of the Sri Lankan people either. They were watching on their television sets and conscious of the expenditures that were being incurred for no good reason, and certainly not for their benefit.
The celebration of Independence Day could have been done differently. The government could have recognised the poverty that has ravaged the lives of the people. It could have organised an Independence Day event that demonstrated an ethos of care for the people. It could have brought a thousand schoolchildren from the poorest families around the country, and from all ethnicities, religions and castes, and made them a symbolic presentation of schoolbooks and school clothes that would have reflected the government’s commitment to invest in the country’s children. This was an opportunity lost and would work to the detriment of the government which will be reflected in its electoral performance at the forthcoming local government elections. President Wickremesinghe’s pitch that the country needed a plan to become a developed country in 2048 is to miss people’s concerns to get by the day. In his televised speech to the nation he said “Let us devote ourselves, unite as children of one mother. Let us make our country one of the most developed in the world by 2048, when we will celebrate 100 years of independence.”
Despite all the criticism of the priorities of President WIckremesinghe and the government there are still many who continue to place their hope that the president will succeed in problem solving that is in the national interest. One of President Wickremesinghe’s bold pledges has been to resolve the ethnic conflict that gave rise to three decades of war and to reach a situation of national reconciliation in this 75th year of Independence and “unite as children of one mother”. When he first committed himself to this task three-months ago, there was some anticipation that this ambitious task may even occur prior to Independence Day itself, or “mission accomplished” would be announced on the auspicious day. This has not been the case and it appears that even the first steps are yet to be made. Now the focus of attention will be the president’s policy statement on February 8 when he reconvenes parliament following its prorogation by him a fortnight ago.
National reconciliation in an ethnically divided society is never an easy proposition. It requires the support of multiple actors in multiple sectors. An indication of the president’s determination in this regard was the singing of the national anthem in both Sinhala and Tamil languages at the Independence Day event. This was after a lapse of four years and reflects the president’s resolve to overcome the divisions of the past. It must be noted that it was under his leadership as prime minister in the period 2015-19 that the national anthem was sung again in Tamil on Independence Day after the passage of many decades. There are elements in the president and his government that require support from civil society. We need to overcome the legacy of past mistakes and forge ahead to a future in which lessons have been learnt and mistakes not repeated.
Issues in fully implementing the 13th Amendment – Police Powers
By C. A. Chandraprema
While most provisions of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution have been implemented, sticking points have persisted with regard to two matters – the devolution of police and land powers. Appendix I of the Provincial Councils List in the Ninth Schedule of the Constitution provides for the devolution of police powers. The implementation of these provisions will entail the division of the Sri Lanka Police Force into a National Police Division which includes special units such as the CID; and a Provincial Police Division for each Province, headed by a DIG.
According to Section 6 of Appendix 1, the IGP shall appoint a DIG for each Province with the concurrence of the Chief Minister of the Province. If there is no agreement between the IGP and the Chief Minister, the matter will be referred to the National Police Commission, which after due consultations with the Chief Minister shall make the appointment. Thus, the effective appointing authority of the provincial DIG is the Chief Minister. Section 11 stipulates that all Police Officers, serving in units of the National Division and Provincial Divisions, in any Province, shall function under the direction and control of the provincial DIG who, in turn, will ‘be responsible to’ and ‘under the control of’ the Chief Minister in respect of the maintenance of public order and the exercise of police powers in the Province.
According to section 12.1, it is the Provincial police forces that will maintain law and order and be responsible for the prevention, detection and investigation of all offences in the Province except for the 11 specified offences allocated to the National Police Division which are as follows: international crimes, offences against the State, offences relating to the armed services, offences relating to elections, currency and government stamps, offences against the President, Ministers, MPs public officials, judges, etc., offences relating to state property, offences prejudicial to national security, offences under any law relating to any matter in the national government list and offences in respect of which courts in more than one province have jurisdiction. Most of these offences are not really a part of day to day police functions and occur infrequently. Thus, under the 13A, it is the Provincial Divisions which will handle the bulk of actual day to day police work.
Provincial Police to the forefront
Signifying the extent to which the National Police Division will be expected take a back seat, Section 10.1 of Appendix 1 requires members of the National Police Division to ordinarily be in plain clothes, except when performing duties in respect of the maintenance of public order. For all practical purposes, the only uniformed police force, visible to the public, will be the Provincial Police. Recruitment to the National Police Division is to be done by the National Police Commission and to the Provincial Police Divisions by the respective Provincial Police Commissions. According to Section 4, the Provincial Police Commissions will be made up of a) the Provincial DIG, b) a person nominated by the Public Service Commission, in consultation with the President; and c) a nominee of the Chief Minister of the Province. Thus the Chief Minister has complete control over both the Provincial Police Chief as well as the Provincial Police Commission.
In addition to the above, according to Sections 7 and 8 of Appendix 1, the Provincial Police Commissions, which are completely under the sway of the Chief Minister, will have a say in deciding on the cadre and salaries and even the type and quantity of firearms and ammunition used by the Provincial Police forces. However, the potentially horrendous implications of Sections 7 and 8 are mitigated to some extent by the proviso that ‘uniform standards and principles’ shall be applied across the board with regard to these matters for all Provincial Police Divisions.
When recruitment for the Provincial Police Forces are to be carried out by Provincial Police Commissions which are completely under the sway of the Chief Ministers of the Province, the politics of the Province will become the politics of the Provincial Police force, as well. The most obvious foreseeable result of recruiting, within the Province for the Provincial Police force, is that the Northern Province Police force will be predominantly Tamil, the Eastern Province police force largely Tamil and Muslim, and the police forces of all other Provinces, predominantly Sinhala. The implications of politicians, elected on communalistic political platforms, having armed police forces under their control, to further their political objectives, should be clear to anybody. For a country like Sri Lanka which has experienced protracted conflict between ethnic and religious groups, the police powers provisions in the 13A are a guaranteed recipe for disaster.
An equally important consideration is the fact that crime prevention, detection and investigation is very much an inter-provincial, countrywide activity in this country. The creation of nine separate Provincial Police Divisions, answering to nine different lines of command, will seriously hamper the crime fighting capacity of the police which we now take for granted. Today, the IGP and the police force, under him, acts on the imprimatur of the national government, and its outreach extends to every nook and corner of the country. If the 13th Amendment is fully implemented, and the principle day to day police functions, such as maintaining law and order, and crime fighting, becomes the exclusive preserve of the various Provincial Police forces, whose authority does not extend beyond the borders of their Provinces, even pursuing a criminal across Provincial borders will become a tedious, process heavy with bureaucratic procedures and the entire country is going to suffer as a result. (The Colombo and Kotte city limits will not belong to the Western provincial police division but to a Metropolitan police under the National Division according to Item 1 on the Provincial Councils List.)
Readers may recall the 2005 incident during the ceasefire where some policemen, attached to the National Child Protection Authority went into an LTTE held area in search of a fugitive European pedophile and were arrested by the LTTE police. If the police powers in the 13A are fully implemented, in a context where some Provincial administrations are going to be openly hostile to the national government, as well as to other Provincial administrations, similar incidents will become day to day occurrences. The sheer practical impossibility of effectively carrying out police work in a small, densely populated country divided into nine separate police jurisdictions, manned by police forces under nine different lines of command was one of the main reasons why the police powers in the 13A have remained unimplemented for the past 37 years.
Political control over Provincial Police forces
While the IGP will nominally remain the head of the Sri Lanka Police force, even under the 13A, actual day to day police work will become the preserve of the provincial DIGs, acting under the direction and control of the respective Chief Ministers. Under Section 12.4(b) of Appendix 1, the IGP’s discretion in matters related to crime fighting will largely be centered on assigning investigations to units of the national division, like the CID, if he believes that is required in the public interest. But even to do that, he will need to ‘consult’ the Chief Minister of the Province and to have the approval of the Attorney General. Appendix 1 does not have provisions for any mechanism to enable the Provincial Police forces to work in unison in crime fighting or indeed any mechanism that can respond expeditiously to crime fighting requirements throughout the country.
The 13A was passed into law nearly four decades ago, in a different era. In the new millennium, the dominant trend has been to prevent politicians from influencing the police force but the provisions in the 13A seeks to do exactly the opposite.
Even though the new millennium has seen three Constitutional Amendments, (the 17th, 19th and 21st) promulgated for (among other things) the depoliticisation of the police force, Appendix 1 of the Provincial Councils List in the Ninth Schedule of the Constitution, was left largely untouched. I use the word ‘largely’, because the 17th Amendment did make a few changes in Appendix 1, but that was only to reduce the powers of the President. The Chief Minister’s powers over the Provincial Police remained untouched.
The total and complete politicisation of the police force, envisaged in the 13A, renders it out of step with the times. It was just a few months ago that the 21st Amendment to the Constitution was passed and under its provisions, the President cannot appoint the IGP unless the Constitutional Council approves his recommended candidate and the President cannot appoint the Chairman and Members of the National Police Commission except on the recommendations of the Constitutional Council.
How will the people of this country react if the police powers, envisaged in the 13A, are implemented, and they wake up one morning to find that the Chief Ministers have been given effective control over the appointment of the provincial DIGs and complete control of the Provincial Police Commissions?
How will the people react when they find that the country has been rendered ungovernable overnight because the police force has been fragmented into nine separate police forces, under nine different chains of command? The gestation period for the fallout resulting from a wrong decision with regard to the police powers laid out in the 13A will not be years or months but weeks and days. Hence this is an area where the government will have to proceed with great caution.
Valentine’s Day gig in Kolkata
Yes, Valentine’s Day is fast approaching…one week from today, and there’s going to be lots of action on Tuesday, February 14th.
The showbiz scene will have plenty to offer those who celebrate this day.
Our very own Yohani, who is now a mega star in India, will be in Kolkata, on Valentine’s Day.
And this is what she has to say:
“See you all on 14th February, 2023, as I would be coming for my maiden gig in the city of joy. Super excited, thrilled to meet you all.”
However, a Valentine’s Gala will be celebrated, four days ahead – on February 10th – at the Claireport Place Banwuet and Convention Centre, in Toronto, Canada.
This event, they say, has been put together to support a very talented young band (youths of Sri Lankan origin), called BluPrint, whose passion for Sri Lankan music has thrilled Toronto audiences for the last seven years.
The members have been a part of a series of sold out concerts, starting from API concert series, in 2016, to BluPrint’s Roots, in 2022.
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