In Kumar de Silva’s account, Irangani Serasinghe takes us through her life and work on her terms. It’s a fascinating and insightful book, packed with anecdotes and reminiscences that have perhaps never been made public before.
By no means an actress shrouded in secrecy, Iragani hasn’t exactly turned her career into an open book either. Indeed, if the reputations of icons can be compared to shares in a company, hers has been oversubscribed: interest in her career, not just on film or TV, but also in theatre, has never been matched by adequate coverage. There have been many books and articles, of course, but Kumar’s work is the first that gives us a more than passing glimpse of the woman behind the icon. This is what makes his intervention so important: it tells us her story, but as she has written it.
The truth is that Irangani, who turns 95 today, is more than just the definitive, quintessential actress of the country. Yet not many attempts have been made to locate her in her proper context. What milieu did she emerge from? What circumstances pushed her into her later career? How did she prevail without letting those circumstances circumscribe her? Most importantly, how did her early work on the stage — a phase almost no critic today considers — translate into and spill over to her work in the cinema?
Irangani Serasinghe’s evolution as an actress was conditioned by two broad trends: free education and the franchise. In 1922, five years before she was born, a Dramatic Society was formed at the University College. Led by the then Professor of English, Leigh Smith, it became extremely popular among campus students. Initially confined to readings, it later produced a short play to a non-campus audience at College House.
The play, A. A. Milne’s The Princess and the Woodcutter, gives a good indication of the limited circumstances the Society found itself in at this juncture. At the same time, these efforts were hardly what one could call esoteric: they quickly caught on with students and lecturers.
In 1932 Smith retired from University College. His successor was E. F. C. Ludowyke, who had left the country for Cambridge four years earlier. A year after his arrival Ludowyke took over the Society. His immediate concern, as he later recounted, was to perform plays “in public for the benefit of a public not confined to the university.”
Ludowyke accordingly went on to stage a stream, and later a cascade, of productions that went beyond the limited frame the Society had operated from until then. It should be noted that his attempts at expanding the base of the Society coincided with a period of far-reaching political reforms: the country had obtained universal franchise and the first State Council, which members of Irangani’s family would enter, had been convened a year before Smith’s retirement.
These developments also coincided with an era of rapid expansion in the university system. Despite the colonial administration’s avowed policy of managing the campus as “a training ground for persons who would become members of the leading strata of Ceylonese society” and despite restrictive criteria, the envisioned university population rose from no more than 500 in 1938 to 1,000 in 1940.
By 1950 the actual population had increased to 2,000, and by 1965 to over 10,000. This had a considerable impact on the Dramatic Society, or “DramSoc” as it had come to be known then: productions of Sophocles, Shakespeare, and Shaw, as well as original works (including a little Spanish sketch) went down well with people, encouraging those staging them to think of contemporary plays, themes, and dramatic forms.
In 1935 the Society moved to King George’s Hall in Colombo. It was a new venue, far away from its original location, at a place that bore the imprint of colonialism: it had been built by the Public Works Department on the orders of Robert Marrs, a man who N. M. Perera would later call “a diehard imperialist.” Here, for a long time to come, the trajectory of the English theatre played itself out.
At the same time, the conflict between two worlds — between the democratisation of society and the cultural elitism undergirding it— made itself felt within theatrical circles. That would be at first a matter of indifference, later a cause for concern, and much later a handicap for DramSoc. It was at this particular point that Irangani Serasinghe made her onstage debut.
The Dramatic Society sought to adjust to these transitions by broadening the range of its productions. Ludowyke’s contribution here was considerable. Associated far more than any of his contemporaries with DramSoc, he personally intervened to resuscitate interest in the English theatre.
Like many of her colleagues, Irangani became his muse. She had taken part as Henry Higgins in a school production of Pygmalion; at university, she would be featured in a prominent role in a more serious production: the titular woman in Arthur W. Pinero’s The Second Mrs Tanqueray, directed by Cuthbert Amarasinghe.
A DramSoc presentation, The Second Mrs Tanqueray was followed a while later by a production of Jean Anouilh’s Antigone, a landmark in the history of English theatre in the country, not least owing to Ludowyke’s rejection of the standard English translation of the text, by Lewis Galantière, in favour of a translation he had co-written.
Antigone would go on to be praised by leading critics, including Regi Siriwardena, becoming one of Irangani’s signature performances and favourite parts: reflecting on it decades later, she recalled that “I just poured my soul into that role.” It was a sign of things to come: in the years that followed, Ludowyke introduced to Colombo upper class audiences the delights of contemporary theatre, including Brecht (The Good Woman of Setzuan, 1949) and the Čapek Brothers (The Insect Play, 1953).
Yet such developments did not prove adequate in the face of far-reaching changes that independence brought with it. Contemporary as they would have been, these productions could not resolve the growing rift between the franchise, free education, and demands for swabasha on the one hand and DramSoc’s sustained emphasis on overwhelmingly English drama on the other.
Ludowyke’s departure from the Society, in 1956, brought to a standstill the entire project. It is not a coincidence that he chose to leave not just theatre, but also the country, in the same year an election brought to power the social forces against which the elitism of university theatrical circles seemed like an oddity. Regi Siriwardena put it in perspective in a review: DramSoc had outlived its relevance, and in a culture dominated by Pabavati and Sinhabahu, it was adamantly pursuing Sophocles and Plautus.
However, Ludowyke’s departure and DramSoc’s demise never really resulted in a rupture between Sinhala and English drama. It seems tempting to say that 1956 opened up a breach between these two spheres. But the truth was far more complex than that.
For one thing, the Sinhala dramatists who dominated the scene from 1956 had themselves obtained an elite English education: not just Ediriweera Sarachchandra, but also Dayananda Gunawardena and Henry Jayasena. This ensured their familiarity with the Western theatre.
For another, those who had taken part in DramSoc plays made a transition to Sinhala plays and movies in the mid-1950s; among those who made that transition, Irangani and Winston Serasinghe, Ranjini Ellepola, and Sita Jayawardena stand out. This brought them into contact with a world they had not fully entered and immersed themselves in before.
As Shelagh Goonewardene noted in an interview, moreover, the early to mid 1960s marked a period of “active and fruitful collaboration between the Sinhala and English theatres” that brought out to the open a new generation of thespians: among them, Joe Mustapha, Karen Breckenridge, Haig Karunaratne, and Ernest MacIntyre on the one hand, and Sugathapala de Silva, Gunasena Galappatti, and Dhamma Jagoda on the other. It was to facilitate exchanges between these groups that the Lionel Wendt Arts Centre Club was established.
Such developments were by no means limited to English, Sinhala, and Tamil circles. In the years to come, Sri Lankan theatre witnessed extensive, fruitful engagements with countries such as Czechoslovakia (where Salamon Fonseka became the first Sri Lankan to obtain a PhD in theatre) and West Germany (from where a revival in children’s and youth theatre made its way to Sri Lanka, contributing to the careers of Kamal Addaraarachchi, Sriyantha Mendis, and Jayantha Chandrasiri). These, then, were hardly years of cultural decline.
In one sense a product of her time, home, and class, and in another a product of various transformations that threatened to undermine them, Irangani Serasinghe epitomised these developments more so than her colleagues. They did not uproot her; they emancipated her, a point she subtly hints at in Kumar de Silva’s book. Her dalliance with political activism may not have cut her off from her familial roots; as Haig Karunaratne argued in an interview with Wilfrid Jayasuriya, “she was able to live in both worlds” while “searching for emancipation.” Yet that search very much shaped Irangani’s life, as it did the history of her country.
In Kumar’s account she confesses why she let go of her immersion in Marxism. Her response is both profound and simple: she felt that her attachment to the Marxist movement, though altruistic, left no room for her to discover herself. Such revealing anecdotes dot the life and career of one of Sri Lanka’s most fascinating icons, a living testament to a period which once was. A product of two worlds, she has since become a woman of her world.
The writer is an international relations analyst who can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org