It was unfortunate news when renowned Sri Lankan artist Laki Senanayake passed away on 30 May, at the age of 84. His work was celebrated all around Sri Lanka. The artist who has created many sculptures and murals for Geoffrey Bawa’s buildings, Senanayake is also known for his work, which includes paintings, drawings, sculptures, architecture, landscape gardening, silk screen printing, batik, and digital art.
Leaving his legacy behind, Senanayake is remembered for his designs for several currency notes in Sri Lanka, along with designing “Diyabubula, the Barberyn Art, and Jungle Hideaway”, a boutique hotel consisting of five villas located near the town of Dambulla.
Remembering the grandmaster craftsman, we spoke to a few of his close associates who shared some of their fondest memories with him.
His spirit will live on in his art: Shalinda Jayawardena, grand nephew
Uncle Laki was definitely one of my favourite uncles. He was a wise, knowledgeable, philosophical, humble, and jovial man, always smiling and always a pleasure to be around. He had an innate ability to keep us, the young ones, and even our parents and other relatives, entertained with many stories that were a combination of personal experiences and folklore and tales from his younger years. He had profound knowledge about the arts and crafts and shared tips and tricks with anyone who sought his help.
Growing up, our family used to visit Diyabubula quite frequently. I remember him always telling us to be careful because the monkeys and monitor lizards in the area would take us away if we ventured too far! My cousins and I used to row his bamboo raft around his pond (which used to be like a lake to us at the time), catch, cook, and eat theppiliyas (a type of fish) over open fires, which made Uncle Laki a little sad, but he always used to say “Circle of Life”; climb rocks and trees (putting on our best monkey impressions); and go exploring the surrounding wilderness and get lost in the serenity of his enigmatic sanctuary.
One of my fondest memories was sharing a smoke and having a shot with him nearly five years back. We spoke about music mostly; I introduced him to some modern Carnatic, world, and fusion music – bands like Karnatriix, Susheela Raman from India, and Thriloka and Sakwala Chakraya from Sri Lanka. He was so taken in by the music that he asked me to burn a CD for him. So we spent that night listening to these tunes on the speakers that surrounded Diyabubula and made it an almost cinematic experience. If I had to describe the experience in one word, it was definitely magical.
He truly will be missed dearly, but I know for a fact that his spirit will live on in his art, sculptures, creations, landscapes, and architecture. He will surely guide the hand of Sri Lankan artists everywhere. These are my final words to him…
We truly are honoured to have known you and call you family. Fly free wise owl, watcher of the mystic night! May your journey through the cosmos be magical in every aspect.
Laki was one with nature: Architect Rohitha Jayalath
Laki Senanayake was a master of art and craft. He lived a unique life of simplicity and his artistry to the Sri Lankan art and architecture community is an inspiration to many of us. I was blessed to have lectures, chats, and corrections from my good old Sri Lanka Institute of Architecture (SLIA) times. It was amazing that he was attached to Geoffrey Bawa’s work too. Laki was a person fully inside nature, and was one with nature; to put it simply – he is nature!
He was a person with a true smile, and I love people with such smiles. It was very soothing to our mind and soul.
He will continue to inspire through his timeless art: Azara Jaleel, ARTRA Magazine Founder and Editor-in-Chief
Spending time with Laki or conversing with him was always an absolute joy! He had a wicked sense of humour, which I find truly enticing, and I have always enjoyed the trips to his abode in Diyabubula, where we would have fun chats and delicious home-made lunch, after which I treat myself with solitary walks along the forest, embellished with Laki’s sculptures and carvings.
Less than a week ago, Dominic Sansoni and I arranged for an interview with him to share his experiences working with Barbara Sansoni for the forthcoming edition of ARTRA Magazine, and he willingly agreed to share his fond memories and riveting encounters with Barbara, even though he was unwell. That was the spirit of Laki, which transcends interests and comforts of one’s own. I will dearly miss him, but he will continue to inspire through his timeless art, standing tall for decades to come as one of Sri Lanka’s iconic art legends.
I can remember fun and laughter: Dominic Sansoni, Barefoot Ceylon CEO
I’ve known Laki nearly all my life and I’ve just had some of the happiest times with him. I had such lovely times travelling around this island with him with a group of friends, and what I can mainly remember are fun and laughter. It was lovely to be around Laki when he was working on the Sri Lankan currency notes he was designing. I loved having that opportunity to travel with him.
Some of the time, he was collecting material for those notes; it was endless hours spent at Peradeniya Gardens while he would beautifully draw a tree or whatever he was watching. We went up to Hakgala Gardens as well; he was looking at tree ferns up there. Of course, he kept Diyabubula open for us mad people running around on motorbikes and we were always welcome there. We had the happiest memories in that wonderful place.
He was simply a spark of bliss: Architect and artist Sumudu Athukorala
I think it was mid-2016. I was working with architect Channa Daswatte as the project architect of the Water Garden Sigiriya resort. Channa got Laki to do some commissioned work for the project. For an initial meeting, we went to Laki’s hideout, Diyabubula, in Dambulla. As he invited us to come in the evening, we reached his serenely beautiful forest lodge just around dusk. I had been there once before when I was a student of architecture, but I felt the place has evolved a lot during several years. We had a long chat about art, architecture, and how he enormously gets inspiration from nature, sitting on one of the decks surrounded by ponds that reflects the lavish forest around. I remember I was roaming around wondering how beautiful the place was and how wonderfully he had redesigned the nature around him, which is a piece of art itself. He had carefully placed some of his metal sculptures of owls and wild boars around the ponds and among trees and beautifully lit those up in perfect light levels. And the calm music he listens to appears mysteriously from the landscape as he has placed speakers around the bushes that left us wondering where the music comes from.
After a few months when he was working on his commissioned work, he wanted to visit the site and get some exact dimensions of spaces and a feel of the architecture. And at the site, he explained how he was planning the sculptural chandelier he was given to fabricate. He wanted to sketch and explain something and I happily gave him my sketchbook and pen. He drew a couple of sketches to explain his creation. Then later when he was about to leave, I asked him: “Laki, can you kindly put your signature in the sketch?” He looked at me with a curious smile, and knowing that I am going to preserve those two sketches with me, he asked: “Why?” I didn’t have an answer; I smiled like the child I felt. He grabbed my sketchbook and pen and signed it, and returned it with his most generous smile.
He was a legendary artist. A pioneering sculptor in our time. An unsung hero of contemporary art. His ink lines of perfection and brilliant work of metal sculptures have won a well-deserved position with its originality amongst the modern art of Sri Lanka. Besides being a master artist, he was a beautiful human being who led a humble and wonderful life. He will live on in the brilliance of his art and his inventive spirit will forever be an inspiration to me. He was simply a spark of bliss.