Through the Lens of Keyali
By Priyangwada Perera Ceylon Today Features
“When I was in Colombo with Ammi and Thaththi, seeing us, one uncle came to us and asked ‘This baba is the one who takes photographs in Wilpattu, right?’ He was one of the drivers we had met in Wilpattu. My parents could not remember him.
But he saw me and immediately recognised me,” sevenyear-old Keyali Suraweera said with much amusement. Unknown to any of us, Keyali has made a name for herself as the ‘Photographer-kid’ of Wilpattu, not just that Keyali is also called the Gramasevaka of Wilpattu by the safari drivers in Wilpattu. Speaking to us about her hobby, Keyali recalled. “I first saw thaththi taking photographs.
Then at the age of five, I too was given a small camera.” Keyali’s mother Kishani confirmed this. “Since my husband Kalpa was also into photography as a hobby, he gave Keyali a small ‘point and shoot’ camera. Keyali used to carry this camera wherever she went and took pictures of anything and everything she found interesting or beautiful.” To their surprise, they found Keyali to have a brilliant eye for things. Her shots were quite impressive for a child of five years.
This was when her father decided, the girl should be encouraged to do better. Although initially reluctant to give his good camera, Keyali was growing up to be a very well behaved and trustworthy child. Thus, by the time she was six, her father was ready to teach her to handle a DSLR. There began the beautiful combination of the dad and daughter duo.
Being right at home, Keyali started focusing the left, right and the middle and capturing birds and butterflies. Right behind their house in Gampaha, the paddy field gave her ample opportunity to try out her photography skills. From cranes to the mongooses, it was a matter of looking at the paddy fields right behind their house. Standing at the balcony, Keyali would catch her stars on camera. Keyali was four years old when she visited Wilpattu for the first time.
Keyali and family prefer travelling to Wilpattu since it is less congested as compared to Yala. When asked what it is like to photograph these wild animals, Keyali was not hesitant at all. “There is a variety from leopards, exotic birds like eagles to elephants. If you really want to see them, you have to be very quiet and still,” she said. “If anybody goes there, one has to remember that you should not feed animals.
No matter what, you have wait for the wild animals to come. So, you have to be very patient,” she added thoughtfully. Her mother said her daughter has been true to her word.
“She has actually been waiting, like that for a leopard that was sleeping on a tree for nine long hours. It is no exaggeration when she talks about patience.” It is no wonder she is called the Gramasevaka of Wilpattu because Keyali can actually tell us which leopard is found where. She has the ability to recognise each leopard associated to their territories.
In a quiet, childlike wisdom she has become so much a part of nature. Her favourite is the leopard she has named Pinky. We had to clarify more, lest someone is to discard all this as mere bragging. A seven-year-old to be this brilliant, how often did they visit Wilpattu? “We used to go at least once a month. However, during the COVID break, we went there every two weeks. We would travel all night and Friday mornings, Keyali would do her online lessons from the jungle,” her mother explained.
Keyali has the patience. She would brave the extremely cold mornings. “You should not shout. Plus, you should not get excited when you get to see magnificent animals,” she told us. Keyali has about 50 photographs she has clicked. “Thaththi is teaching me. Ammi edited my photographs at the start. Now, I do it on my own,” she said.
Does she have a message for parents of any other child like her, who would like to take up photography, we asked Keyali. “Yes, I would like to ask parents to teach their children who likes photography. Or give your children the freedom to learn it on their own,” little Keyali said. Who can doubt that we have a brilliant wildlife photographer in the making?