Photos courtesy of threeblindmen
Laki Senanayake (1937-2021)
Laki is seated on a black, high-backed, padded executive swivel chair. He is bare-bodied, in a bright red sarong, dappled sunlight catching his white beard. On the table in front of him is a pair of binoculars, which he picks up frequently to look at the birds in the trees around the pond that he overlooks from a raised open-air platform. Esoteric avant garde music is playing from speakers hidden in the trees.
And everywhere you look, art. Mostly sculpture. A bronze wild boar at the water’s edge. An other-wordly ‘rain tree’ in the middle of the water. A horse on the other side of the pond. A golden sun high up in a tree. An owl looming from the roof. More animals appearing the longer you look. A leopard adorned with geometric shapes in gold and green. A rhinoceros perched on a rock. A tiger attacking a deer in the trees. A unicorn, a hornbill, an emu. The water monitor in the undergrowth turns out to be real. Laki is working on a sculpture right now. Two assistants are welding pieces of wire together in a form which quickly becomes recognisable as the framework of another owl with outspread wings.
This is Diyabubula, the ‘water garden’ outside Dambulla that was Laki’s home for the past 50 years. When he first came here in the 1970s, it was dry zone chena land beside a small river, where he planned to grow chillies and onions. It developed gradually from there: a series of ponds were created, fed by the spring after which the property is named, all the coconut trees were removed, indigenous trees were planted and nurtured all around. A simple structure for a house, mostly open to the elements, perched on boulders and nestling between them, with rough-hewn tree trunks for columns, and a living roof covered with plants, growing in a base of coconut husks. Water drips onto the rock from a pipe along the edge of the roof, cooling it. A constant, slow drip falls into the centre of a shallow cement dish full of water, creating ripples. At night, the scene becomes magical, the sculptures and trees lit and reflected in the water, while the ‘rain tree’ (lit internally) sprays water like a fine mist.
There are no dogs or cats at Diyabubula, as they would upset the natural balance. Monkeys are tolerated, despite the damage they can wreak on an open-sided house with a living roof. Rats are discouraged, but never killed.
What Laki achieved at Diyabubula was more than just an aesthetic and environmental triumph. He also brought together a group of people who lived and worked with him in what he referred to in the terminology of the 1970s as a ‘commune’. Several members of this community have been at Diyabubula from the start, and are still there. Laki may have been the lynchpin of this community, but he was never the ‘mahattaya’. This egalitarian outlook was integral to his personality, and can be traced back to his earliest influences and experiences.
Laki was born in 1937. He could have had a privileged Colombo upbringing, but his parents belonged to a radical left-wing and pro-independence political movement. His father, formerly a planter, was a founder member of the LSSP, who spent some time in hiding in India. His mother, a teacher, was later the first woman MP in the country. When Laki was five, his father was imprisoned by the British colonial administration for his subversive political activity, and Laki moved with his mother and seven siblings to a coconut estate near Chilaw. As a result he spent a large part of his early childhood living in the countryside, and relatively unsupervised. This suited him well, and he launched into the two passions which were to become central to his identity: exploring the natural world, and art. “I was drawing birds … I had become fascinated by them, especially the colourful ones, red woodpeckers, blue kingfishers, yellow orioles, green parakeets. My first recollections of painting and drawing are using coloured school chalk crushed with gum Arabic.”
Back in Colombo, Laki was “educated in absentia” at Royal College. His love of art flourished, but his attitude to formal art classes was the same as his attitude to formal education generally: “immensely boring”. He won the annual school art competition, spending the prize money on G.M. Henry’s book Birds of Ceylon. His only other passions were swimming and diving. One of his earliest paid jobs, when he was still a teenager, was to design the diving board at the Otter Aquatic Club.
After school, Laki found work as an assistant in an architect’s office, but was sacked for encouraging his co-workers to form a trade union. The architect Geoffrey Bawa noticed his talent, and employed him as a draughtsman. “Geoffrey Bawa … shanghaied me to do his draughting – and I drew trees on the house design facades to help confuse prospective clients. In those days there was a standardized way of drawing trees in architectural offices; I found this boring and started drawing trees as they actually were, on the elevations of buildings. Previously I had looked at trees merely as the settings for my studies of birds, and I didn’t really see them for their own sake. … After that I began to have a fascination with more botanical drawing of plants.”
Laki became part of an extraordinarily creative and prolific set of artists and architects which included Geoffrey and Bevis Bawa, Donald Friend, Ulrik Plesner, Barbara Sansoni and Ena de Silva. In collaboration with these and others, he worked in a wide array of different media – as well as pen and ink drawings, paintings, murals and large-scale sculptures, he also worked in silk screen printing and batik. When Bawa built the Nazareth Chapel of the Good Shepherd Convent in Bandarawela in 1965, Laki designed the vestments for the priest at the consecration service. Working in Bawa’s studio was also the start of a lifelong association with fellow artist, architect and naturalist Ismeth Raheem, with whom he travelled all over the island and collaborated on numerous projects.
In 1962, Laki married Ranjini Perera, and their daughter Mintaka was born. “My wife and I had separated when she was one and a half years old. As my wife was migrating to the United States of America, she asked me if I would look after the baby. I was delighted and relieved as I didn’t see any possibility of a judge granting me custody. So suitably equipped with Dr Chumley’s handbook on bringing up babies and several bottles of pasteurized milk I set out on what turned out to be the greatest adventure of my life.” Laki continued: “She was given her name by my friend Reggie Siriwardena who apart from translating Russian poetry, writing Sinhala film scripts and studying Boolean algebra, was also an astronomer and had a 10” reflector telescope. When I asked him for a name for the child he rushed into his room and came out with a large star atlas, and said ‘This is it. Mintaka, the third star in Orion’s belt. And it will look good written calligraphically.’ This was sufficient reason to convince me.”
Meanwhile, Laki was beginning to make a name for himself as an independent artist. His first large-scale commission was a forty-foot high bronze-finished aluminium bo leaf for the Ceylon Pavilion at Expo ’70 in Osaka, Japan. A maquette of this work survives at Geoffrey Bawa’s house in 33rd Lane, Colombo, where several examples of Laki’s early work can be seen. He also started working with Ena de Silva, experimenting with batiks. Their creations included large-scale works such as banners, batik ceilings and stage sets.
In the early seventies, Laki moved to Diyabubula. In addition to the vast creative energy which he devoted to developing Diyabubula itself, he continued to create works of art. He became a frequent visitor to Peradeniya, where he would spend his time ‘loitering’, as he liked to say: “Loitering is an activity regarded in our society as being just beyond the pale of crime. However, loitering is a way of life, and those addicted to it will brave many vicissitudes to indulge their passion. To these, I can recommend highly the Royal Botanical Gardens at Peradeniya.” The result of his ‘loitering’ was a set of fine botanical drawings, some of which were published as prints.
In the late seventies, when Laki was commissioned to design Sri Lanka’s currency notes, he was a most unlikely choice. Although he was already a well established artist, he was also known as a bohemian character, habitually bare-bodied, wearing a sarong, often with a flower behind his ear, and playing his flute or whistling to the birds. Yet he turned out to be an inspired choice. The resulting set of six currency notes issued in 1979, featuring the endemic flora and fauna of Sri Lanka, are generally recognised as the most beautiful Sri Lankan banknotes to date, and gained worldwide recognition for the high quality of their design. The work included six weeks of research camped out in the Sinharaja rainforest, and a trip to the UK to oversee the final printing. Dominic Sansoni recalls Laki cutting an exotic figure at a house party in England, where he passed himself off as an expert palm-reader.
Although no longer working full-time for Geoffrey Bawa, he continued to undertake major assignments for him, notably the pieces he created for the Bawa hotels. Plaster-relief palms for the Neptune and Triton hotel lobbies. A brass palm tree at the Neptune, a bronze peacock at the Bentota Beach, a felt-pen foliage mural at the Triton, and the vast owl in flight at the top of the staircase at Kandalama. Most ambitious of all, the life-size historical battle scene in brass and copper which runs the entire length of the central spiral staircase at the Lighthouse in Galle. This was originally conceived as a mural to run up the wall of the staircase. The decision to bring it alive as a three-dimensional sculpture was inspired.
One of his most high-profile commissions, also for Bawa, was the giant silver-plated ‘double coconut palm’ chandelier which hangs in the centre of Sri Lanka’s Parliament chamber.
In later years, Laki no longer created pieces on such a vast scale, but he continued to work at a prodigious rate, undertaking multiple private commissions, and exhibiting regularly at Barefoot Gallery in Colombo. Ever ready to embrace the new, he also experimented with digital artwork.
Laki’s artistic output was incredibly diverse. He did multiple pen and ink drawings, sometimes executed with a porcupine quill (“the best drawing instrument I’ve found”), and painted in watercolours, acrylics and oils. He did silk screen printing and batik. He created large-scale murals, fanciful sculptures and extravagant chandeliers. He worked with ceramic tiles. Bored by the repetitive patterns normally associated with tiling, he took a mathematical approach. “I worked out a method of using 9 different patterns, similar but not identical, so that when a tile was rotated through 90 degrees, the pattern would alter without breaking up the continuity of the design. The possible combinations rotating nine tiles through 360 degrees are astronomically large, so this achieves a flowing pattern and not a repetitive one.”
Much of Laki’s art featured aspects of the natural world. Sometimes these were naturalistic portrayals of animals and birds, or detailed botanical drawings, as in his currency note designs. More often, they were highly stylised, and sometimes entirely abstract. He also depicted the human body in multiple guises, including intimate nudes and more abstract erotic drawings.
Owls are a recurring subject, in drawings, paintings and sculpture. Realistic owls, stylised owls, abstract owls in utterly un-owl-like reds and blues. Hidden owls. Owls which appeared to Laki from what began as a daub of colour on a blank sheet. Winking owls, staring owls, frowning owls. An owl standing tall on human-like legs, an owl swooping down onto an outsize frog, another peeping out from behind a folded wing. An owl with the body of a lion, another with wings spread out like a peacock’s tail.
Laki was also in great demand as a landscape designer. His interest in landscapes was a natural progression from his love of the natural world, and his detailed knowledge of the local flora, nurtured by the time he spent at the Bawa gardens, Brief and Lunuganga, his ‘loitering’ in the Peradeniya Gardens, and his experience at Diyabubula. His landscapes were always an attempt to recreate a natural environment. Coconut trees were taboo. Indigenous trees were planted, some of them rootballed and transported from far away. Water always featured prominently. Laki loved the visual effect of natural rocks and buttress roots. And the landscapes he created were the perfect setting for his own sculptures. At the Sigiriya Village Hotel, he recreated ancient ruins and ponds reminiscent of the Sigiriya gardens themselves – with such success, he claimed, that the Archaeological Department came to check them out.
Laki’s final exhibition – called The Greedy Forest and held at Barefoot Gallery and Lunuganga in 2018 – was a retrospective of his landscape designs. The exhibition featured a delightful brass fountain in the form of an abstract tree, in which water was channelled though spouts which splashed against dangling bo leaves, making them shimmer and spin.
Laki never qualified formally as an architect, but he designed a number of houses and hotels, including at Diyabubula itself, where he built a hotel consisting of a series of ‘water villas’ on the land adjoining his home. One of these is a living structure, defined by two parallel rows of live areca palms, planted at an angle and crossing each other at roof height, to form the A-frame structure. He always favoured low-cost, environmentally friendly building techniques, and he was always experimenting. One technique which he developed at Diyabubula was the use of corrugated roofing sheets embedded in a thin layer of cement, as an alternative to the ubiquitous reinforced concrete ‘slab’.
Laki’s most significant work in print was the book The Architecture of an Island (1998), which he co-authored with Barbara Sansoni and Ronald Lewcock. His principal contribution was the measured drawings he made (together with Barbara Sansoni) of significant buildings all over the island, many of which are no longer standing. This was a project which they had worked on together over a period of 30 years. Ronald Lewcock also authored the book on Laki’s life and work published by the Geoffrey Bawa Trust in 2014.
Despite his relative lack of formal education, Laki was erudite and well-read, with an extensive knowledge of fields as diverse as astronomy, philosophy, mathematics, and that avant garde music he was playing at Diyabubula. His taste in music was “Bach and backwards and Stravinsky and forwards. … When I was around ten I recall seeing Walt Disney’s animation film, ‘Fantasia’, which included Stravinsky’s ‘The Rites of Spring’, which in contemporary parlance ‘blew my mind’.” In music, Laki saw shapes and colours and patterns which he incorporated into his abstract paintings, sometimes explicitly in works titled ‘Homage to Bach’ or ‘Homage to Xenakis’. Even the ‘rain tree’ in the middle of the pond at Diyabubula, a recent creation, was inspired by a piece of music of the same name, a haunting piece for three percussion players by Japanese composer Toru Takemitsu.
In later years, he read widely on the internet, and listened to lectures on YouTube. He had a love of language, and obscure words, though he would never be so affected as to use them himself, except in fun. He invented a game which he called Unscramble, a mix of Scrabble and anagrams, which appeared under the name Babel in the newspaper. He even developed an interactive version of the game. The engaging enthusiasm with which he described it was characteristic of his constantly enquiring mind.
When Laki wrote, his style was delightful: clear, witty, unpretentious. It can be seen in the account of his experiences with owls at the start of his Book of Owls, in the various autobiographical sketches which can be found on his website, and in the humorous and self-deprecating ‘bios’ which accompanied his various publications and exhibitions: “Little else remains to be said about his lack of endeavour, …” He also had a wicked line in doggerel verse. On the owl: “It to-wits / and to-woos / and when in love entangled / (ornithologists, / that rare breed, / are all agreed) / screams like a woman being strangled.”
Laki had an infectious sense of fun and was always unorthodox. Emails were written in an oversized and unfashionable Comic Sans font. He had an unconventional attitude to nudity, recalling “the times I have been nude in public” – including in a bus, and at Heathrow airport. The back cover of his Book of Owls features a nude photograph of Laki gesticulating grandly atop an ancient brick ruin, together with a characteristically droll blurb, describing himself as “an amiable old man who is a jack of many trades and has mastered none.”
Back at Diyabubula, Laki makes you feel welcome. He makes you laugh with his stories, he impresses you with his broad knowledge and deep wisdom, coupled with an utter lack of pretention. If there is a lull in the conversation, he will start whistling. He whistles beautifully. Only when he stands do you realise that he walks with difficulty, and is becoming physically frail.
Laki was far too down-to-earth to believe in any kind of afterlife, but we can still imagine him already seated on an executive swivel chair in some eternal Diyabubula.
(I am grateful to Dominic Sansoni, Ismeth Raheem and Sam Soundy for sharing their memories of Laki for this piece.)