Diyabubula and the landscape of ideas | Sunday Observer

Diyabubula and the landscape of ideas

12 June, 2021

Laki was born in 1937, the son of Reginald Senanayake, a planter and political activist who, having been imprisoned in India by the British, died when Laki was only ten.

He was then brought up by his mother, Florence, who became Sri Lanka’s first woman Member of Parliament in 1947. His only formal education was gained at Colombo’s Royal College where, by his own admission, he was regularly ‘in absentia’. He then briefly attended the Melbourne Art School where he encountered the teacher Cora Abrahams and the 43-Group artist Richard Gabriel, but soon graduated to being a teacher himself. Laki was essentially ‘made in Sri Lanka’.

Although he spent some time in India and would later visit his daughter in the States, unlike many of his generation, he didn’t study abroad and he spent little time in Europe. Although largely self-taught, he became a superb draughtsman and colourist and the master of a variety of media. More than anything, however, his work is characterised by wit and inventiveness.

At the end of the 1950s, Laki became an architectural draftsman in the firm of Edwards Reid and Begg, beginning what would be a long association with the architect Geoffrey Bawa and a growing interest in architecture and landscape.


Working with Ismeth Raheem, he created the characteristic Bawa office drawing style which would later feature in Bawa’s ‘White Book’ and be imitated across Asia. Through Geoffrey he joined the circle of people who gathered around Geoffrey’s brother Bevis – among them Donald Friend, Barbara Sansoni and Ena de Silva – and he seems to have drawn on all of them in different ways for his inspiration.

Friend encouraged him to draw and gifted him his set of paints when he quit Ceylon in 1963. Sansoni recruited him to help in recording the old buildings of Ceylon, a collaboration that would eventually produce the book “Architecture of an Island”. De Silva persuaded him to join her batik studio where, with her son Anil, he created many of the designs which she later reproduced.

Over the years he functioned variously as a market gardener, a landscape designer, an architect, a poet, an illustrator and a decorator – indeed he matched Donald Friend in his range of interests and accomplishments. In the late 1970s, he even designed a full set of Sri Lankan banknotes based on his superb drawings of flora and fauna. But it was as an artist and sculptor that he excelled.

At the end of the 1960s, Laki’s lawyer brother bought a piece of land a few miles south of Dambulla and east of A9 highway to establish a chilli farm. The farm was not a success. In 1972, Laki took it over and began to transform it into his own garden retreat. It wasn’t a large plot – about the size of two football pitches – and was covered mainly in scrub, but it was blessed with a perennial stream that was fed by an underground spring. He named it Diyabubula, which in Sinhala means bubbling water.

He was inspired initially, perhaps, by the gardens that his friends Bevis and Geoffrey Bawa had made on either side of the Bentota River. But Diyabubula was different from Bevis’s Brief or Geoffrey’s Lunuganga: Brief was conceived as a series of interlocking rooms with connecting vistas while Geoffrey’s Lunuganga opened up to the wider world and borrowed views from its surroundings.

At Diyabubula, Laki transformed the dry terrain into a watered oasis of fecund greenery. He dammed the stream to form a meandering series of eight ponds and planted a dense array of indigenous trees – calamander, ebony, sandalwood – which he grew from seeds that he collected in the Peradeniya Botanic Gardens. Shutting out the surroundings, he created a hidden world that was almost subterranean in feel and its centre, he built his house and studio – a series of platforms perched on a cluster of boulders and sheltered by roofs of thatch and coconut husk supported on corrugated sheeting.

Whenever I visited Diyabubula it seemed to me that I was leaving the real world behind me and entering a topsy-turvy wonderland where an eccentric Lord of Misrule held court.

Laki would be seated on his studio platform, a cross between the Cheshire Cat and the Mad Hatter, dressed only in a sarong, hard at work on a painting and surrounded by music that emanated from loudspeakers hidden in the surrounding trees.

All around were animals and birds, some of them real but many of them sculptured in beaten metal – here an owl, there a leopard, by the water a wild boar, across the pond a horse and over there a rhinoceros. He never seemed to mind impromptu interruptions and would lay down his brush, refocus his twinkling eyes and greet with his velvet Singlish voice.

Practical considerations

Diyabubula began as an occasional retreat, a commune for like-minded friends and collaborators, but later the communal ideals had to give way to more practical considerations. After 1980, it became Laki’s main home.

From here with his friend Noel Dias, he ran Botanica, a garden design and contracting business, creating gardens for homes and hotels across the island.

It was here that he established a workshop to produce architectural sculpture. In 2014, Laki entered into an ‘equity release’ agreement with the Barberyn Hotel Group through which he sold them the garden and allowed them to develop a part of it as a boutique hotel with five Laki-designed villas while he retained a life-interest in the remainder.

Laki was Geoffrey Bawa’s favourite artist. Over 35 years, he filled his empty niches with sculptures and covered his blank walls with murals and paintings.

It was for Geoffrey that he created the giant Bo Leaf sculpture for the Osaka World Fair (1970), the great ‘double-palm’ chandelier which hangs above the Kotte Parliament (1982), the staircase of battling warriors which leads up to the piano nobile of the Lighthouse Hotel (1996) and the now faded mural that graces the loggia next to the ha-ha at Lunuganga.

Working with a team of assistants, he even created one-off murals in every one of the hundred-and-twenty bedrooms of the Neptune Hotel (these have sadly disappeared).

Although in failing health, he continued to paint and sculpt and plan gardens well into his eighties. He continued to entertain his friends like some latter-day Peter Pan, regaling them with his wit, entrancing them with his flute playing and beguiling them with his pictures.

But Laki was out of step with the Colombo art establishment: Senake Bandaranayake made no mention of him in his book “Sri Lankan Painting in the 20th Century” and the cognoscenti dismissed him as a mere decorator.

Serious artists are expected to stick to one theme, to struggle, to grapple with inner demons. For him art was not a struggle: it was a delight. Like his near contemporary David Hockney, Laki simply enjoyed making and creating; he enjoyed exercising his considerable talents and experimenting with changing themes and different media. He enjoyed giving pleasure to others and celebrated beauty, especially the beauty of the natural world.

Versatile artist

His work as an artist included painstakingly accurate botanic drawings, abstract paintings and sculptures, designs for currency notes, landscape paintings, erotic drawings and architectural installations. But, like his mentor Donald Friend, he was suspect for being too versatile and too clever and dismissed as a mere entertainer and trickster.

The day will come, however, when he will surely be recognised for what he undoubtedly was: one of the most talented Sri Lankan artists of his generation and someone who has altered the way in which Sri Lankans see themselves.

The artist Laki Senanayake died at the end of May after a long illness.