Laki and his landscapes of the mind


by C. Anjalendran in collaboration with David Robson


Diyabubula in Sinhalese means "bubbling water" This fresh water spring refreshed and quenched the thirst of many pilgrims and travelers to the nearby Dambulla Buddhist Cave Temples. The land was owned by Nimal Senanayake, Laki’s lawyer brother who received it is as a part payment for a brief.

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. This shelter, despite its lack of sophistication, touches the earth lightly and has become an integral part of it.

The pavilion seem to fulfill a popular dream of an idyllic retreat, far removed from the modern world. It was featured in Robert Powell’s ‘The Tropical Asian House’ of 1996.

Laki settled permanently in Diyabubula in 2006. Since then it has functioned as his studio for inspiration, recuperation, and art. It has also taken on the role of workshop for his large scale sculpture and architectural installations and has served as 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 Diyabubula and stayed. Laki’s daughter Minthaka, was born in 1967, and he is now a grandfather to her son Brandon Lee Grenard Jr, born in 2006.


Often bare-bodied, or wearing a stringy sleeveless banyan with a sarong of vibrant color, with flute in hand, a satchel over his shoulder, full of smiles, and looking casual, yet about him an air of quiet distinction… this is Laki the artist. He has more than once been taken into custody on suspicions aroused by his unconventional appearance, though his reputation as an artist soon ensures 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. He 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 started his working life in 1957 as an apprenticed draughtsman in the firm of Billimoria & De Silva, Pieris & Panditharatne and in 1959 with Valentine Gunasekara 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 its 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 Diyabubula, Dambulla in 1972.


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 1970 Expo in Osaka, Japan. Although this has sadly disappeared, a marquette has survived and is on display in Bawa’s town house in 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 debating 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) that 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, is a masterpiece in copper


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


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. This project was revived by Barabara Sansoni during the 1980s and the results were finally published in 1998 in the book ‘Architecture of an Island’ with drawings by Laki and Barbara and texts by Ronald Lewcock.



Since 1983 Laki has run a landscape consultancy called Botanica with his friend Noel Dias. Their efforts have breathed new life into many gardens, and rescued the lesser efforts of others.

Laki’s earliest landscape project 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



Laki was featured as the Sony artist in their advertisement 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 square foot 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 launched 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.

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 is 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 makes his work seem easy and accessible at a time when art is supposed to be ‘difficult’ and obscure. Today’s artists are expected to restrict themselves to a single medium, a single style, a single theme. They are expected to be deadly serious about their work, to struggle with big intellectual issues and to express their own inner emotions. Laki’s reputation suffers from the fact that he enjoys his work, that his art is suffused with wit and that he seeks to give pleasure to his public. However, he deserves to be recognized as one of the most important and significant Sri Lankan artists of the post-independence period.

An exhibition celebrating Laki’s work, curated by Max Moya, will be shown at Barefoot from 30th August till the 16th of September. All true art lovers are welcome.

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