Coming together of Art and Design

Sri Lankan architect Laki Senanayake first worked with Geoffrey Bawa and later pursued art independently. 

I spent a morning talking to the renowned Sri Lankan artist, architect, sculptor, musician and landscape designer Laki Senanayake at his forest retreat Diyababulla, a magical water garden tucked away deep in the dry zone in Central Sri Lanka. The gurgle of the perennial spring within the garden and the intermittent bird calls formed a sonorous backdrop to our conversation.

Delightful landscapes and architecture form his subjects. In Laki's sketches and paintings a luscious Sri Lanka of myriad moods is revealed. As a child, Laki took to drawing and his journey began with birds, butterflies and waterfalls that surrounded him (his passion remains). His mother encouraged him to choose architecture; he spent a year working in the office of Billimoria and De Silva.

Shortly thereafter, he began working in the office of Edward Reid and Begg with legendary Sri Lankan architect Geoffrey Bawa. Laki's association with Geoffrey Bawa was extremely fruitful. Laki is the originator of the elaborate and intricate drafting technique that had been appreciated widely (has been imitated extensively across monsoon Asia) as Bawa office's drafting style. The evocatively rendered drawings captured the dialogue between Bawa's buildings and the surrounding landscape.

Chasing art

Laki is averse to the idea of work. However ‘art' for Laki is play. Hence after working in the architectural practice of Geoffrey Bawa for a few years, he left to pursue art independently. His association with Bawa led to a series of artworks in stunning and important projects across Sri Lanka including sculptural work in the Sri Lankan Parliament building. In the Kandalama hotel, Dambulla, Bawa's masterpiece where the built emerges out of the rock face, Laki's owl soars high above the staircase. In Bawa's Lighthouse hotel, Galle, Laki's railing design is a sculpture depicting the battle between the Sinhalese and the Portuguese.

His life-size wall sketches adorn Bawa's Neptune Hotel in Beruwala and Club Villa, Bentota. His works continue to be featured prominently in buildings and gardens designed by leading Sri Lankan architects.

His aesthetic oeuvre is varied. He has designed beautiful currency notes with flora and fauna endemic to Sri Lanka. The ecology of the place is very important to Laki and this is reflected in his works — both in his art and in landscape design.

He is also fascinated by the idea of biomorphic sculptures –in creating sculptures that live, grow and transform. He experiments constantly with such sculptures. Double coconuts that have gathered moss and a living (and growing) house in areca palm in Diyababulla are amongst such experiments. Owing to his obsession with birds and animals, Laki's owls are gathered in his sketches, paintings and sculptures and these art works of several hundred owls is what he wants to put together in a book, he says.

A joyful exercise

Laki firmly believes that everyone can draw. When I invited him to do an art workshop in India, ‘I don't think art is work, it's play' he corrected. Indeed for Laki, drawing is a joyful exercise!

The remarkable aspect of Laki is that he embraces technology! He often combines hand sketches with computer techniques. He creates perspectival photomontages where he combines the two techniques — analog and digital.

While discussing his sketching and painting technique, he says “My drawing methods are unorthodox, my drawing tools are rather unusual and I use a porcupine quill for sketching, and my vast wall sketches are made with sketch pens.”

His technique (based on that of Australian artist Donald Friend who lived in Sri Lanka) has him start off on a paper wet with water, painted and then sketched upon, allowing the colours and forms to naturally emerge.

He said he often gives away a drawing and immediately wants to take it back to improve on it. ‘Don't finish a drawing quickly or you will have to start another one!' he exclaims. He draws amidst his favourite subjects who are either residents or visitors to Diyabubula — several species of birds and small mammals!

He graciously agrees to make a sketch for this writer – a kingfisher is revealed on paper within no time amidst his melodic whistle. Sri Lanka's largest kingfisher that sat perched in fairly close quarters was hidden in the foliage of a banyan tree.

Varna Shashidhar
The Hindu JUNE 25, 2011