Laki: Artist who lived on his own terms (1937-2021) | Sunday Observer

Laki: Artist who lived on his own terms (1937-2021)

5 June, 2021

There is no suitable, single subtitle for this artist who lived life on his own terms. So, when asked to write on Laki’s contribution as an artist to the country, I can only oblige if I attempt to capture the multi-dimensions of a man who, undaunted by his passions, made his life his finest work of art.

If viewed as a single canvas, Laki’s life would be twisted lianas and glossy leaves, vibrant colours and his fine line work, complex erotiscapes and mythical beasts, textured and patterned, stamped with the wisdom of the owls and detailed with his deep knowledge of so much.

But it was all really simple as, he just captured what he was passionate about — and that was his key to excellence. Laki was first recognised for his exquisite, detailed drawings of nature. I recall, visiting the Triton Hotel as a teenager in the 70’s, and watching a young man, with a flower tucked behind his ear, crouching by the stairway and finishing the finer points of a forest floor; even to my young eye, it was obvious that his details came with in-depth knowledge of a rainforest.


Of course, his knowledge of the precise forms and proportions of nature came from time spent. To simply sit in a forest, gave Laki peace and joy. He could trill like a Tickell’s Blue Flycatcher, matching the bird, note for note or confuse the Common kingfisher, who perched on the rock, below Laki’s own perch at Diyabubula, his home.

Every grove of trees beckoned and he would wonder off, to commune with nature as he chose. Many are the tales from the vicinity of Veddagala in the Sinharaja, of being surprised by a naked man on a rock, playing a flute… and occasionally sketching.

Laki himself was the most amused by the reaction of those who encountered him in the raw— even quite proud, of once inspiring a group of staid bank employees to skinny dip (typically, taking too long to process this new idea, the bankers had reached the village when, to the horror of the villagers, they decided to throw caution and their clothes to the wind). But to someone who clearly heard only his own drum, to march to his own tune was inescapable.

He worked with Ena de Silva, capturing the fantastic forms that danced on her batiks, as they began adorning prominent buildings; the Oberoi Hotel, with its massive pennants that once graced the multi-storey lobby space, giving it character that it has since lost.

Sri Lanka’s first beach resort, Bentota Beach Hotel with its sobering stone entrance way that led your eye upwards to the spellbinding batik ceiling. Laki’s fame grew.

His stunning designs for Sri Lanka’s currency, in 1979, displaying our indigenous species of fauna and flora, which won him and Sri Lanka, a rare award for the best currency design.

Sadly, since then, Sri Lanka’s Central Bank has mostly reverted to the less - than - delightful, faces of politicians and their limited visions of development, to blemish our currency. Laki’s spectacular sculptures, black and white tree sketches, mythical beasts and his signature, owls became familiar to Sri Lankans. Working closely with the supernova architect, Geoffrey Bawa, Laki’s work appeared as the cherry on the cake of every Bawa masterpiece. His chandelier of silver palms graced the centre of the new Parliament of Sri Lanka, a Portuguese army battled up the stairway of Jetwing Lighthouse, a gigantic owl on silent metallic wings, prepared to whoosh overhead at Aitken Spence’s Kandalama Hotel. Hotels, homes and gardens of the not necessarily rich nor famous, but art aficionados, carried ‘a Laki’. By the 80’s, the familiar, angelic smile of the bare-chested, bearded artist in his vibrantly coloured sarongs, became the face of Sri Lankan art.

In his own words, he was a jack of all trades, but a master of none. I disagree. I believe, like most brilliant minds, he mastered most of his pursuits with ease, outdid the ‘masters’ of that trade and quickly, got bored and moved on to the next. Having started his working life in an architect’s office, he occasionally undertook an architectural design assignment.

A client, who let him experiment with building systems, was ideal. Then, he poured all his knowledge of sun, wind, water, behaviour of wildlife from termites to elephants, applied his poor-man’s systems and produced a ‘viewpoint’.

Everything he built was a viewpoint — a picture window, a frame for tree scapes. His first building was his own, non-house at Diyabubula, near Dambulla. Initially, it was a five acre chena land that his older brother, Nimal the practical lawyer, banished Laki to in exasperation. Laki was supposed to plant chillies, but Nimal returned to find his cash crop flooded and forested, with a timber platform overlooking a newly excavated lake.


Diyabubula was growing into a hub of bohemian gatherings and Laki extended the platform over the water, up to the ebony tree, with his newest idea, a poor-man’s slab; asbestos sheets laid on coconut rafters, with a thin layer of cement.

He promptly tested the tensile strength of the experimental slab, superb, he told me years later, twenty people did the baila on it and nothing happened. About twenty years later, he added a room with a clear Perspex roof, to sleep in the moonlight, he said.

But I suspected, this additional load was to test his poor-man’s slab, with its ageing asbestos as its only reinforcement. My husband, Karu and I were kindly invited to spend a first night in the new room. Sipping nightcaps till well after midnight, enchanted by Laki’s stories, the music from his speakers in the trees across the water, moonlight and shadows… I only remembered the structural concerns I had, when I awoke to the moon shining like a spotlight overhead.

I tossed and turned and worried till the sun beamed through the clear roof in the morning, and fortunately, we were still high and dry and not swimming below, with the overfed water monitor. My last exchange with Laki, a fortnight ago, was on what I now refer to as ‘Laki’s Slab’. I debated with him about bamboo reinforcement instead of asbestos and if it would withstand the vibration of a cement-cutting machine…. His response was a typical, I am not sure. The only way is to try it.

Trying and failing was the only way forward and Laki embraced the excitement of experiment. From his undertaking initial nursery at Jetwing Vil Uyana, I worked with Laki on many a project.

His inimitable style as a landscape artist, his sculptures that sometimes caught me by surprise when I visited a site, tremendously enhanced my work as an environmental architect. We debated, if Mi (Madhuca longifolia) was suitable for a montane rewilding (being a rewilding purist, I thought not), “If you put in so many ponds there will be no garden” “I’m not happy with so much asbestos in the pond construction….” Laki, was always amiable, but happily did as he wanted.

He played the flute in a shaded corner of the building site, occasionally pointing out a particular placement to Noel, his faithful acolyte, who slaved in the sun and swore incessantly at the labourers.

After the day’s work was done, simple distress was on the agenda. We would drive to Diyabubula or to Dunvila, Karu’s and my cottage near Wasgomuva (it took Laki two minutes to pack - 3 flutes and 1 sarong), because we all needed forest air to recharge our batteries.

If he scorned anything, it was the non-thinkers — the conformists. Systems were for sheep or so it seemed, as he played dull bureaucracy. I learnt from Laki that it is easiest to travel overseas in a wheelchair, as you’re whisked through, luggage collected and passports stamped.


Even if the wheelchair passenger hops off, to purchase a bottle of arrack at the duty free shop, only the wheelchair assistant will look askance at the accompanying traveller, and then, I only had to shrug in response.

The only time I heard him raise his voice, was at a particularly daft driver, who horned every ten seconds out of habit, rather than necessity. An engineer or contractor, even an occasional client who was limited by rote learning or social norms, would earn a sympathetic smile.

But the essence of Laki was his open mind; a rare willingness to learn from a child or a leaf. Endless were his stories and never for a minute boring, of the troupe of clever Macaques who lived at Diyabubula.

The otters who knew when to appear, just beyond his line of sight, the grey-headed Fish Eagle with precise knowledge of where the largest fish came up for air.

But, it was the Brown Fish Owl, which was Laki’s greatest source of inspiration; every time we visited, he had an owl story and his owl paintings and sculptures, many which appeared in Laki’s Book of Owls (with a blurb that is the closest he came to an autobiography), was the closest to his heart. Once, we spotted a Brown Fish owl having a mid-morning bath on the far bank of the Yodha ela.

Laki and I were thrilled, and despite grumbles from everyone else, we watched it for a half hour; these moments are what memories and life are made of.

His creations, display, not only a rare familiarity with the environment, but an added dimension of a passion pursued. To me, it was his passionate indulgences, uninhibited by stale, social frameworks that gave him the edge; a mental edge that manifested most visibly in his art and sculpture.

And, despite his range, that was his signature style. Conversely, I believe it is the absence of deep passion that inhibits a need to touch and taste, which is lacking in the work of most artists and certainly in the many copyists who have emerged ‘after Laki’.His free-spirited pursuit of passion, thrilled most, but surely hurt those who loved him too deeply.


But from afar, it was easy to love him and not expect the social norms of responsibility. Nothing was simple and everything was magic and mystery and herein was the simplicity.

To his friends he gave freely of his time and his lightning quick mind, but made no apologies and found his peace within. What we had in Laki was a lesson, that life could be as simple or as burdened as we chose to make it. Laki Senanayake was a guru I salute, who I will, seated under a spotlight of a dappled moon, drink a toast to, on many nights to come!