INTO THE UNKNOWN

de Silva Wijeyeratne, G. (2006). Into the Unknown. Serendib, the in-flight magazine of Sri Lankan. July-August 2006. Pages 44 – 51.

Kanchane Marasinghe is a Television Programme Producer for Rupavahini, the state television channel and Bandu Gunaratne is a professional Still Photographer. The company I work for has handled the ground arrangements for many film crews, with me occasionally having to play the part of a presenter. Therefore the invitation by Serendib to interview Kanchane and Bandu, on a recent filming adventure, was one I was delighted to accept.

Kanchane, tall and strongly built looked like he was made for the part. To be out in the field all day, lugging camera gear, bullying and cajoling a crew to work more hours than was available in a day. But a strong physical deportment was offset with a soft-spoken, self-effacing manner. Speaking to him one would not aware that he spent his life making a television crew work sixteen hours or more a day. Lucky me, I don’t work for him. His crew will understand I hope that no one said television was going to be easy. Bandu on the other hand is lightly built, with his spectacles giving him a technical wizard’s look. Bandu is a successful commercial photographer who is not averse to spending his time outdoors with wildlife. I first got to know him when he had winning entries in the Nature Photographer Competition. Bandu is acquainted with Block I of Yala or Ruhuna National Park, in the south-eastern corner of Sri Lanka. It is one of the best national parks in the world and the best chance in Asia for seeing leopard and is also good for a host of other mammals. The park in four blocks permits normal visitor access to Block I. Entry to Block II requires special permission. Kanchane and Bandu had been friends for some time. When Rupavahini decided to shoot a series of four episodes in Block II of Yala, Kanchane had invited Bandu to assist as well as to do a photo essay on a rare opportunity to spend a week in an area which is off limits to the casual visitor.
Bandu not only looks a technical wizard but is one. In his hands a camera becomes a tool which transforms the ordinary into a creative statement. I have been with many film crews, local and foreign and taken my share of hasty record shots with a still camera. Bandu played back his images on a laptop and showed what a skilled photo essayist with a pre-determined mandate can do. Low angle shots of the film crew, silhouetted against the sky, with men and equipment curving in an arc, cold light casting a blue overcast, demonstrated his expertise to ‘make’ an image. His grasp of lighting and mood was complete. However breathtaking his landscapes were, to me, it was his ability to take a seemingly mundane subject and elevate it to a work of imagination, which underscored his professional skills.
A Land Rover thundered through, mud spraying in an arc. The entire scene was backlit by an orange glow from the setting sun. Bandu probably asked the jeep driver to do this more than once for his photo essay. But it was his skill to see an image which transforms the hackneyed ‘jeep in the mud’ into something which would leap out and arrest attention. As for his landscapes, the less said the better. Not because they were not good, but professional envy might overcome me. They were mouth wateringly good. I began to wonder how many such scenes have I raced past in search of leopard and failed to see the evocative landscapes captured by Bandu. His landscapes, some of places which no Sri Lankan ever sees, created a yearning to go out to Block II. But they were not easy to take. To reach Miniha Gal Kanda, a rock outcrop in the shape of a man, it was an arduous four kilometer walk each way on soft sand along the beach. But the physical demands had been worth it. The crew had documented unusual landscapes for Sri Lanka, formed by periods of sedimentation and up-lift in the earth’ past.
Sarisara is a program broadcast on Sunday between 7.30 pm to 8.pm. It had started in 2002 and to date has aired over 150 episodes. The series had been started by Gamini Pushpakumara and Kanchane. Since it began, Kanchane and Gamini have been producing on average an episode every week and a half. Although Kanchane does other work, the series seems to have taken over his working life. “And his family life’ chips in Bandu, articulating the personal sacrifices Kanchane has to make to bring Sarisara to households. What was the motivation? I ask him. “It is my job to produce’ he says with characteristic understatement. With a little more prodding, it emerged that they had identified a gap in Sri Lankan television production. Cable and satellite TV was bringing National Geographic, Discovery Channel, etc to Sri Lankan households. People could watch caving in Sarawak, Big Game Safaris in Africa and trekking in Nepal. But there was very little to show the beauty of Sri Lanka, away from the beaten track. Sarisara was intended to give Sri Lanka its own travel show. An exploration of people and places in Sri Lanka.
But it had not been easy. The Television industry in Sri Lanka is still too narrow to create room for specialists who focus on travel or wildlife programming. Kanchane has to work with cameramen, sound recordists and presenters who work on shifts in a pool. They do their best to use a small group of individuals in the entire pool of professionals in the Rupavahini stable. But this still does not make easy for the producers who are the only continuous stable element in the production of the episodes.
Block II was a marathon in many ways. A crew of seven with four members of the Department of Wildlife Conservation stayed at various camp sites for a week. They lived in tents, leaving at dawn and not coming back until after dark. Lunch was for wimps. Every night they operated a petrol powered generator to charge the camera batteries and Bandu took advantage of the portable electricity for his magical images to sail bit by bit from his flash cards into a mobile hard drive. Not all assignments are this hard, but it must take an enormous amount of commitment and energy to have worked on a program such as this for over four years. Kanchane clearly has an enormous fire burning with him. Sri Lanka needs more people like him with fire in their belly to make the best use of this island of their with un-tapped resources.
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Wildlife & Tourism celebrity Gehan de Silva Wijeyeratne (gehan@jetwing.lk, www.jetwingeco.com) is a writer, photographer and CEO of Jetwing Eco Holidays.
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[Text Box]
Yala National Park
Yala or Ruhunu National Park comprising of five blocks is located in the south-east of the island. It is a part of the Yala Protected Area Complex. The Yala National Park is contiguous with another five designated reserves. These are the Nimalawa, Kataragama and Kudimbigala Sanctuaries, Yala Strict Nature Reserve and Yala East (Kumana) National Park. They include a total land area of around 1,500 square kilometers.
What did the film crew see?
On their week in Block II, they encountered only a few elephants, mainly single bulls. One bull gave them a fright by charging them. The large grassy plains had big herds of Spotted Deer, larger than the herds in Block I according to Bandu. They had frequent sightings of Jackal. Many of the smaller mammals which can be seen in Block I such as Hanuman Langur, Toque Monkey, Mongoose species, etc were seen by them.
Visiting Yala
The animals are not used to people and vehicles and were shy in the Block II visited by the film crew. Photographers and wildlife enthusiasts will find Block I a better use of their time. Visitor access is generally only to Block I and is fairly straightforward. But bear in mind that between 1st September and 15th October, the park may be closed for maintenance.
More Information
A pdf file of a 32 page book on the National Parks & Reserves can be downloaded free of charge from www.jetwingeco.com. Past copies of the Sri Lanka Wildlife eNewsletter is also on the site.