Diyabubula  means  “bubbling water”. This fresh water spring refreshed and quenched the thirst of many pilgrims and travellers. The land was owned by Nimal Senanayake, Laki’s lawyer brother who received it as part payment for a brief and initally grew chillies there. Laki first occupied this property in 1972, but bought it off his brother [...]


Laki’s landscapes of the mind

Leading architect Anjalendran reflects on the life and work of Laki Senanayake

Anjalendran with Laki at Diyabubula in January last year. Pic by Nipun

Diyabubula  means  “bubbling water”. This fresh water spring refreshed and quenched the thirst of many pilgrims and travellers. The land was owned by Nimal Senanayake, Laki’s lawyer brother who received it as part payment for a brief and initally grew chillies there.

Laki first occupied this property in 1972, but bought it off his brother in 1975. He then dammed the brook to create a large, slow-moving pool and surrounded it with heavy planting. In time it became a lush forest filled with birds and provided various settings for Laki’s sculptures.  He also hid hi-fi speakers in the bushes across the lake so that he could indulge in his passion for music.

This dry-zone retreat, completed in 1987, fulfilled one of Laki’s lifetime ambitions.

The house is essentially a simple pavilion built on a platform of timber which is supported on timber piers over a large boulder. It is perched above the lake and is reflected in its water. The roof is cooled by a thatch of coconut husks, which is covered in turn by a mat of the creeper Wel Kohila (Lasia spinosa). This shelter, despite its lack of sophistication, touches the earth lightly and has become an integral part of it.

Laki settled permanently in Diyabubula in 2006 and it functioned as his studio for inspiration, recuperation, and art, also taking on the role of workshop for his large scale sculpture and architectural installations and a laboratory for his experiments with integrated corrugated sheeting, with ‘A-Frame‘ structures made from living areca (puvak) palms and with printed tiles.

Over the past 46 years Laki’s main collaborator and supporter has been Noel Dias.  Noel, having run away from home, cadged a lift on Laki’s motorbike, took refuge in Diyabubulu and stayed. Laki’s daughter Minthaka,  was born in 1967, and her son Brandon Lee Grenard Jr, was born in 2006.

Impressions of Laki

Often bare-bodied, or wearing a stringy sleeveless banyan with a sarong of vibrant colour, flute in hand, a satchel over his shoulder, full of smiles, and looking casual, yet about him an air of quiet distinction… this was Laki the artist.  More than once he had been taken into custody on suspicions aroused by his unconventional appearance, though his reputation as an artist soon ensured his release.

My most memorable impression of Laki was at his open house in Ethul Kotte in 1983. He was recovering from a dislocated hip, having fallen off a stationary motorbike and was stretched out on a large divan-like bed, being pampered by the many companions who formed his extended family, and surrounded by gigantic tropical palms which dramatically contrasted with his creative abstractions in colour, all of it simultaneously exotic, modern and princely. Despite the agony he must have felt, the smiles had not disappeared, and refrains from his flute were heard amidst happy conversation.

Laki was born on December 18, 1937.  His father, Reginald Vincent, a Trotskyist planter, was imprisoned by the British and later died as a consequence. His mother, Florence, needed to support their six children and became the first woman coconut estate manager when she took over an estate in Madampe near Chilaw in 1944.  After the death of her husband she came to Colombo to contest the Kiriella seat in the general election in 1949.

Laki joined Royal Primary in 1946 and later Royal College in 1949 where he failed in art.  Undeterred, he joined the Young Artists’ Group which had been founded by Cora Abraham. Laki taught in her Melbourne Art Classe from 1961 until 1964.

An architectural

Laki started his working life in 1957 as an apprenticed draughtsman in Billimoria & De Silva, Pieris & Panditharatne and in 1959 with Valentine Gunasekera in the office of Edwards, Reid and Begg.  Here he became involved with the innovative work of Geoffrey Bawa and his associate Ulrik Plesner.

His renderings of tropical foliage in the presentation drawings of the early publications of their work made the drawings ‘feel’ like the buildings they represented This led to the development of a special drawing style that was adopted in Bawa’s office and, following the publication of the ‘White Book’ in 1986, became the lingua franca of tropical architecture in Asia. Laki’s concern to render plants accurately in his drawings kindled his interest in botany.

In 1964 he worked with Ena de Silva Fabrics and contributed to their dazzling batiks as an artist-designer-director for six years, working alongside Ena’s son Anil Gamini Jayasuriya. He then ventured out as an independent artist-agriculturalist whose compound pursuits were fulfilled by the establishment of the farm-commune at Dambulla in 1972.

Large sculptures and Bawa

Although no longer employed as an assistant in Geoffrey Bawa’s office, Laki continued to act as his artist collaborator and contributed paintings, murals and sculptures to many of Bawa’s architectural projects.  One of his first large-scale sculptures was the forty-foot high bronze finished aluminum bo-leaf  (of the Ficus religosa that is sacred to Buddhists) that was installed at the entrance to the Ceylon Pavilion at the 1970 Expo in Osaka, Japan.  Although this has sadly disappeared, a maquette has survived and is on display in Bawa’s town house on 33rd Lane.  During this period he also created the large brass peacock that stood over the staircase in the restaurant of the Bentota Beach Hotel and the brass palm and plaster reliefs that graced the upper reception of the Neptune Hotel, also in Bentota

His felt-pen drawings of foliage on the ceiling of the Indo Suez Bank (1979) were  echoed in the Triton Hotel (1981). His three dimensional art culminated in a chandelier of silver palm fronds which forms the spatial apex of the chamber of the Parliament Building at Sri Jayawardenapura (1982). There is a photograph of Noel, sitting like a faun on one of its fronds, while it was being hung.

Bawa also commissioned Laki to sculpt the giant owl on top of the stairs leading to the dining room at the Kandalama Hotel in Dambulla (1994). He also created the spectacular sculpted stair balustrade in Bawa’s Lighthouse Hotel in Galle (1998). Depicting life-sized Sinhalese and Portuguese soldiers fighting at the battle of Radeniya while the Sinhalese King, perhaps a self-portrait,  sits above them on his throne playing the flute, it is a masterpiece in copper

Among the sculptures he created for this writer were an elegant wire owl in the Crooked House (2008) and a ‘Submerged Cathedral’ in the Malalesekera House (2011).

He also painted a huge six-storey high crystalline structure for the Lanka-Libya office complex in the Beira lake enclave in 1990.

In 2014, Laki was commissioned by Lion Brewery to do a floating “Men in Ecstasy” to celebrate their flagship store interior, designed by Shayan Kumaradas at the Dutch Hospital in Fort.

Laki’s many chandeliers enhance the architectural spaces of Channa Daswatte and include a 6 foot-tall Solar Flare and Puswel Creeper (Endanda pursaetha) for the Gunawardena House, (2008), a 16 foot-tall Araliya  (Araliaceae sp) Tree for the Balendra House (2013), and a 20 foot wide Prism in brass & gold leaf for the Water Garden Hotel, Sigiriya (2016). Laki also created a 10 foot square Sun Dance in cast iron for Chammika de Alwis, that stands at the entrance to his house in Maharagama (2017).

Flora and fauna: Banknotes

Laki’s faultless execution of indigenous flora and fauna drew recognition from the government and he was invited by the Central Bank to design the currency notes of 1979. These were awarded the first prize in the exposition of Numismatics Paris in 1985, and the design for the 50 rupee note appeared on the cover of a book of (paper) currencies of the world.

Recording  vernacular

During the mid 1960s, Laki joined Barbara Sansoni, Ulrik Plesner and Ismeth Raheem in a project to record fast-disappearing examples of vernacular architecture in Sri Lanka. Revived by Barbara Sansoni during the 1980s, the results were finally published in 1998 in the book ‘Architecture of an Island’ with drawings by Laki and Barbara and text by Ronald Lewcock.


His landscape consultancy Botanica started with his friend Noel Dias in 1983  has seen life into many gardens, and rescued the lesser efforts of others.

Laki’s earliest landscape projects was to assist Bevis Bawa, the brother of Geoffrey Bawa,  with his ‘village gardens’  at Sigiriya Village in 1977. Laki later further extended these in his own distressed idiom in 1990.

His later projects include the ferro cement waterfall in the central stairwell of the Jinasena Building (1989).

One of his first distressed gardens was for the colonial home of Thirukumar Nadesan in Horton Place (1990) which appears as a series of ruins. Inside the distressed plaster and cabook (laterite, which is soft and porous) and pergolas he has placed shrubs and ponds. It also has a 10 foot high brass and nickel plated Falling Icarus. Laki also made a 25 foot high ferro-cement horse, a 12 foot high phallus and yoni bath, and a double coconut fountain for Nadesan’s Siesta Park at Nilaweli in 2005. A full size ferro-cement maquette of this horse still stands at the entrance to Diyabubula.

The Barberyn Gardens Hotel  in Weligama (2003)

Here Laki has created a much larger and varied distressed ruined landscape. At night, the subtle lighting adds to its magical air.  This hotel also contains a 14 feet chandelier. The Barberyn Group later commissioned Laki to design a series of cabanas on a site next to Diyabubula. (2014) A central attraction for guests was the chance to meet Laki himself and to visit his garden.

Mount Cinnamon, Mirissa (2005)

The sublime landscape for Miles Young’s cinnamon estate at Mount Cinnamon (2005)  frames the bungalow and the views in a subtle and minimalist way. This appears in stark contrast to the exotic sculpture “Enchanted Forest”  which separates the formal living and dining areas within the bungalow.

Balasuriya House, Ritigala (2010)

This stands on tall stilts within a body of water making it possible for its owner to watch wild elephants without being intimidated.

Vairavanathan Villa C-Beyond, Ghandinaga, Kuchuveli (2017)

Here Laki created a low-cost  five bedroom villa with an infinity pool merging onto the sea beyond.

Books and exhibitions

Laki’s oeuvre as an artist ranges across many styles and employs a huge range of different media. It includes painstakingly accurate botanical drawings, abstract paintings and sculptures, designs for currency notes, landscape paintings, figure drawings, erotic art and architectural installations.  He was a consummate draftsman and an artist of great skill and inventiveness.

In Colombo’s claustrophobic and self-regarding art world, artists of his versatility are often viewed with suspicion.  His skill made his work seem easy and accessible at a time when art is supposed to be ‘difficult’ and obscure.  Laki’s reputation suffered from the fact that he enjoyed his work, that his art was suffused with wit and that he sought to give pleasure to his public. However, he deserves to be recognised as one of the most important and significant Sri Lankan artists of the post-independence period.

In 1972 Laki staged an exhibition of watercolours at the Lionel Wendt.  This was followed in 1974 by an exhibition of paintings and drawings at the Public Library sponsored by the Soviet Cultural Organisation, and a private viewing of his work sponsored by the Asia Foundation in 1983.

In 1982 he published a folio edition of drawings from the botanical gardens at Peradeniya. Laki’s experiments on a silk screen base titled ‘Pictures at an exhibition’ were shown at the Barefoot Gallery at 706 Galle Road in 1985. The Gallery also displayed his varied talents, including poetry titled “Involuntary Verse” in 1992.

Barefoot also presented an exhibition of Laki’s various interpretations of St. Sebastian in September 1999. A series of exhibitions of paintings entitled ‘Laki’ followed in October 2002, June 2011 and December 2014.  Barefoot also presented an exhibition of Laki’s sculpture in August 2015.

Laki was featured as the Sony artist in their supplement in the Time Magazine of  8th September 2003.

Having experimented with digital art in 2006, Laki advertised “high quality prints, which are water & UV proof”  for sale at a sq.ft rate.  At this time digital art was in its infancy and Laki wanted to produce authentic works of art at affordable prices.

Laki’s Book of Owls was released in December 2013. An authorized biography of Laki by Ronald Lewcock, published by the Geoffrey Bawa Trust, was launched in June 2014.  Laki’s Lost Collection of drawings and paintings between 1971 and 1978 was exhibited in September 2016, along with a sale catalogue.

An exhibition and catalogue celebrating Laki’s work, curated by Max Moya was shown at Barefoot from August 2018 till September 2018 and repeated at No.5, Lunuganga in September 2019.

A lavish manuscript book “Everything begins from the Forest” by Toshiya Ochiai (Japan) was published in October 2020

Laki breathed his last on Sunday May 30, 2021. At a very personal level I have never known Laki to be negative about life or any other human being. He was always constantly full of smiles.

May the blessings of the Triple Gem be with him.

(This article written in August 2018 and in part based on previous articles, was updated in collaboration with David Robson)


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