Irushi is best known for her series of films Animate Her on the lives of seven extraordinary Sri Lankan women. She told us what she plans to do on returning to Sri Lanka after graduation, what studying in the UK was like and the experiences she gained through the Chevening Scholarship programme.
Can you tell us a bit about your journey to the RCA?
I am from Colombo, Sri Lanka. Before coming to the RCA, I was an educator with a background in English studies and I taught English to undergraduates for almost a decade. I began experimenting with animation in 2016 and was largely self-taught. While my background in literature and education informed my creative practice and I had established my home-based studio, I longed for formal education in animation.
The MA Animation at the RCA was top of my list for several reasons. In addition to the reputation of the College for art and design, I was drawn to RCA’s focus on research and how it feeds into practice. I wish to continue academic research while concentrating on my studio practice in Colombo, and the programme immersed us in the best of both these worlds.
How has the Masters in Animation helped you develop your practice?
The MA Animation introduced me to a range of moving image work as well as key texts by researchers in the field. We learned about where animation fits in the larger genre of film and defining it across disciplines, materials and methods.
I gained some of my most important skills at the RCA when I directed my graduate film. While I had some experience directing animated films in the past, I was grateful for guidance from tutors, technicians and classmates. We received insight into production methods and planning a film, learned about pathways to funding and support in industry, and how to disseminate our work.
“I was drawn to RCA’s focus on research and how it feeds into practice.”
How did you find out about the Chevening Scholarship?
When considering fully funded opportunities for studying abroad, there are a few top scholarships that are appealing not only because of the financial support they offer, but also because of the opportunity to connect with a diverse international cohort from a range of disciplines.
The Chevening Scholarship is offered by the UK’s Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO) and it’s much like the Fulbright Scholarship offering the opportunity to study in the USA, but for the UK. It’s awarded to international scholars who have shown leadership and impact in their chosen field.
A primary reason I applied for Chevening was that they fund a one-year Master’s in almost any field in the UK. This was a good amount of time for me to take off my studio work and life back in Colombo for my studies. Also while they require an undergraduate degree, it did not have to be in the same field as your chosen Master’s programme. I was fortunate that despite coming from a different background, both the RCA and the Chevening Scholarship considered my self-taught practice and my work in the field of animation.
“Over the year Chevening organises a series of events, through these I got to connect with many interesting scholars doing remarkable work in their fields.”
How has the support of the Chevening Scholarship programme influenced you?
Over the year Chevening organises a series of events, through these I got to connect with many interesting scholars doing remarkable work in their fields. I was even fortunate to collaborate with some of them. A highlight for me was getting a personalised tour of the Kew Gardens and their private archives from a friend and fellow Chevening scholar from Mexico, who was doing her Master’s research at Kew. This visit and the conversations I had with her about plant life were important in the research stages of my RCA graduate film.
As the scholarship provided financial assistance that extended to both my tuition fees and living expenses in London, I was able to take on additional creative projects and roles that wouldn’t have otherwise been possible. Earlier this year, I collaborated with a composer from the Royal Academy of Music on a project inspired by one of our animation class readings, and I was able to take on the role of student exhibition lead in our graduate showcase.
“I was under the mistaken belief that funding for postgraduate studies in the creative arts was overlooked and I was surprised to find out that most international scholarships like Chevening do fund artists.”
What would be your top tips for applicants to the Chevening Scholarship?
My top tip for creatives from a Chevening eligible country who are considering a Master’s at the RCA is to take the leap and apply! For the longest time, I was under the mistaken belief that funding for postgraduate studies in the creative arts was overlooked and I was surprised to find out that most international scholarships like Chevening do fund artists.
When beginning your Chevening application, it is useful to reflect on your role as a creative in your community and how you have used your voice to create impact. The application includes four essays that cover the topics of leadership, networking, why you want to study in the UK, and your future career plans. The essays are a crucial part of the application process, and there are a lot of helpful tips on the Chevening website on how to tackle them.
When I was applying last year, I approached a few Chevening scholars from previous years who shared really helpful tips and advice based on their own experiences. Some of them helped by reading and giving feedback on my essays, while others helped by doing mock interviews to prepare for the final stages of the application process.
A core objective of Chevening is to encourage cultural exchange, and one of the scholarship conditions is that you return home for a minimum of two years after your Master’s. It is helpful (particularly when reflecting on your career plan essay) to think ahead of what experiences and skills you might like to take back home with you to enrich your practice and to share with your community.
You recently produced your final degree film, The Banyan Song. Can you tell us a bit more about the film and the process behind making it?
The Banyan Song is a narrative animation drawing on South Asian folk tales and centring on a woman’s kinship with an ancient banyan tree. The story takes place between the woman's home on a floating village, and a nearby island on which the banyan tree has spread its roots and taken over. Through the film I explore the themes of loss and nature as an archive of intergenerational memory.
On the MA Animation, we were encouraged to deep dive into research which helped me to realise that the work I was making did not take place in a vacuum but rather was informed and inspired by theory and moving image work that I had been exposed to. As for the actual process of making the film, I worked in the stop-motion studios in the basement of RCA Kensington and used collaged paper, ink and charcoal, and filmed it on a multiplane (a setup with layered glass for depth, and a camera shooting from above).
“We came from 21 different countries, and it was incredible to see how each of our experiences shaped our work.”
How would you describe the MA Animation Class of 2023?
I would describe my cohort as talented, inspiring and generous with their time, knowledge and resources. We came from 21 different countries, and it was incredible to see how each of our experiences shaped our work. What was also amazing was that we were all so different in terms of the materials and techniques we preferred to use when making animated films. I am truly grateful for their warmth and excited for each of our journeys as we graduate from the RCA.
What is the best thing about studying in London?
Being at the RCA was the first time that I was abroad for my studies and despite being an international student, the diverse communities that I engaged with – both in the RCA and in London in general – made me feel at home. Being surrounded by so much art and culture meant that I could visit the theatre or an art gallery or a film screening every week. And having free entrance to many galleries and discounts through the student art pass was wonderful!
These experiences I had in the city felt like an extension of what I was learning in my course. Some highlights of my year include visiting the London International Animation Festival, being immersed in animated films from across the globe and getting to meet some of the London based animators whose work I had admired for so long.
What do you plan to do now you have graduated?
I am working on some exciting projects back in Sri Lanka including completing an extended version of my RCA graduate film. I am also working on a documentary animation with two architect/filmmakers based on Sri Lankan architect Minnette de Silva (1918–1998) which will be screened later this year at the Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art in Sri Lanka.
A more long-term plan is to build up local platforms for animation storytelling like international festivals and screenings, as there are still very few in Sri Lanka. Sri Lanka’s animation industry at present mostly focuses on commercial work and having a dedicated platform would be so important for exploring and sharing animated stories from the community.