The Jetwing Lighthouse Hotel is the ideal setting to celebrate Laki Senanayake. It is permeated with the feel of the turquoise ocean, whether you are in the sea sprayed verandah with polished floors and pettagamas or upstairs, where you see at eye level the shimmering horizon. Looming here and there are a number of Laki’s [...]


Of Laki times and tales

The Artra festival held in Galle celebrated the many-faceted Laki Senanayake

Detailing Laki’s stairway: Ismeth Raheem enlightens the group. Pix by Akila Jayawardana

The Jetwing Lighthouse Hotel is the ideal setting to celebrate Laki Senanayake. It is permeated with the feel of the turquoise ocean, whether you are in the sea sprayed verandah with polished floors and pettagamas or upstairs, where you see at eye level the shimmering horizon. Looming here and there are a number of Laki’s bronze owls and of course, his classic handrail of the central spiral staircase.

Organised by the Artra Magazine headed by Azara Jaleel, last week’s art festival aimed to fete a man who by following his whims and heart spawned a legacy of art and sculpture.

The festival was comprehensive and looked at aspects of his art and life.

Mintaka, his daughter whom Laki fostered freely- allowing radical freedom (she was only sent off to Holy Family Convent in Dehiwela when she felt she wanted to school) was supposed to attend the event but could not.

One of the most intriguing events at the festival centred on the currency notes from the ’70s that Laki had designed. They were the first Sri Lankan notes to be printed one side horizontal and had flora and fauna copied from those 19th century zoological illustrations by artists fascinated by the mystique of Ceylon –  a menagerie of indigenous creatures and plants: flying squirrels, spur fowl, hornbills, bear monkeys, magpies, lizards and palm civets against their natural foliage and habitats.

From indigenous creatures to plants: Michael Meyler on the banknotes

Michael Meyler, who is compiling a book on the notes, said many a rumour was flying as to why the notes were so soon out of circulation.

Some said it was jealousy of the professional bank note designers, while many at the time reasoned these did not ‘look like money’. Some even were said to be queasy about having geckoes and skinks and lizards on their money. They were also said to be ‘easy prey to forgers’. The last Michael says, could’ve been ‘a canard’.

While restricted colours were a challenge, Laki enjoyed his trips to Peradeniya, Hakgala or the Sinharaja- to research, paint and draw the notes.

“Several weeks were spent in locating various species… in the hill country,” he once wrote. “I knew the Hakgala botanical garden had a very large and very special tree fern and in the hope of seeing the aphrodisiac… Daffodil orchid, and the bear monkey… I set off with paints and sketchbook- together with friends armed with guitars and bottles of alcohol.”

The private Laki was very much the enfant terrible as Anjalendran, Dominic Sansoni and the audience reminisced in the event titled, Recollecting Laki, a Seer & Soothsayer. Dominic associated Laki ‘with the smell of chlorine’ because his earliest memories were of his mother’s friend giving him swimming lessons at Otters’ Club in Colombo where Laki had also designed the diving platform.

Anjalendran remembered that an unknown Laki began his career exhibiting at the Senaka Senanayake gallery at the Oberoi- ‘an irony of fate’.

The Sansonis possess a collection of Lakis and some of these Dominic had taken off the walls and brought along- including a portrait of Ranjini, Laki’s wife.

Many memories: A rapt audience listening to Dominic Sansoni, Anjalendran and Artra editor Azara Jaleel

“But my God what fun we had!” Dominic exclaimed vis-a-vis trips in any vehicle available with Laki and friends- travelling far. Laki was far from being isolated, with friends often arriving on motorbikes at Diyabubula, his Dambulla home.

The Laki set would set out in true vagabond spirit, stopping at kadeys where Barbara Sansoni loved to linger and eat on the way to places like Trincomalee.

Many a tale was told- like how, travelling in the front seat of his van he would wrap himself in robe-like fabrics and look asleep so the vehicle was never stopped.

Anjalendran talked about the owls of which he keeps a large collection.

Originally, the nightly predator was used by his elder siblings to further little Laki’s horror of the shrieking ulama.

Later, he was to see a dead owl shot in an estate and slowly the mysterious bird became his motif. Anjalendran alone possesses some six major sculpted owls, not counting paintings.

On the light side, Dilini Raheem recalled going to a jazz concert with Laki when he as usually déshabillé shouted from behind her “Dilini please tell the security guard I’m not your chauffeur!”

He wore his shirts inside out because ‘the label scratched’ and explored whatever that piqued his interest from astronomy and batiks to mathematical problems.

Another exciting presentation was when architect/artist and historian Ismeth Raheem took us on a tour of Laki’s famed handrail at the hotel. We wound up admiring the details of the Randeniwela battle between the covetous Portuguese and the canny Sinhalese using guerrilla tactics: the decapitated soldiers, the crazed horses, the fire belching cannon, the cheetahs used by the Iberians and on the top floor at the end, King Senerath unruffled playing flute recalling a certain Roman emperor!

Finally Hiran Cooray, chairman of Jetwing Hotels had his anecdote of Laki at the Lighthouse working on the famous handrail to round up the fare:

“I think he spent a good three months here with workers brought from Colombo. The hotel wasn’t ready and there were no decent rooms to give him to sleep. When we asked him how he would like to be accommodated he said ‘oh no no don’t worry about me’. And after about three days, I asked the project manager ‘where is Mr Senanayake sleeping?’ he said ‘ah, no he’s fine. He eats and sleeps with the workers; most of the time he sits out at the beach where he loves to be’… Well. That’s how simple he was…”

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