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Creativity is a wild bird

Illustration based on a photograph of young Laki Senanayake from Laki's Book of Owls, 2013

It was 2012, and the world still hadn’t collapsed, and Diyabubula had not yet become a resort. It was simply the house of the master creator, Laki Senanayake. No furniture, no walls—no standard way to live, no boundaries fearing the wild… It was simply Laki. Birds flew in to eat the treats Laki kept on his balcony lounge; the monkeys were only shooed away if they got too close to Laki's computer. The way nature flew in and out of Laki’s unwalled house, making it thick with experiences, reminded us how life flits in and out of the creator’s open mind, making it a fertile bed for creative harvest.

It was the first time he met us, but our presence didn’t even stir a molecule out of Laki’s true self. He sat on the balcony with us, bare-chested, in a pyjama sarong, chatting; just as he would with a wild bird using a whistle that perfectly matched its call. Laki had a way with whistling. He whistled to himself—old Sinhala songs and impromptu tunes—he whistled in response to birds, to call someone over; sometimes he seemed to whistle for the jungle, at the sky, for life, for no reason in particular… 

Wild tortoise came by to eat leftover pieces of vegetables from his kitchen; the freshwater fish in the pond were fed from minute scraps left behind; nothing was wasted, everything had its place in the mind of the creator.

‘What kind of music do you listen to?’ was one of the first things he asked us. Although we didn’t realize it at the time, for Laki, music was a road to meet someone in a personal sanctuary—where they were bare, free and themselves. Laki himself used music as a vehicle to transport himself to other worlds. 

After quietly watching a red sun fall into the black jungle in a spectacular descent, Laki politely said that it was time to listen to his ‘weird music’. It was a ritual time to return to that inner place where all artists feel compelled to retreat. One by one, lamps lit Laki’s jungle in fleeting glimpses of his sculptures, moving leaf and water. As hypnotically bizarre music echoed from speakers scattering the wild, theatrics fed from nature, sound and our imaginations unravelled. His music was a curious mix that reminded us of sound poetry and Dadaist meditations; it transformed everything—living and nonliving— into animated extensions of the jungle. Bathed in that furiously wild music and cinematically placed lights, his metal sculptures seemed to flick, bob and twitch from the corners of our eyes. Even Laki’s pond fish came out to gracefully circle the surface in time with the music or our fancy—we can never be sure. For hours no one spoke.

We realized that we just got a rare entry into the secret place where Laki’s genius was let loose to run free. We’re not sure when he returned from that strange place at all that night. He simply seemed to fade into it, leaving the world behind.

Long after we left Laki in his jungle, the lesson he gave us remains. This lesson on what it means to live a creative life—like all lessons given by great masters—was not taught in words or actions. It was something that penetrated us from his being. From Laki, we learnt that creativity is a wild bird. You may analyze its habitat, build charts about its behaviour, and write books about its biology; but to know the wild bird, you must simply visit the jungle. You have to return to the wilderness again and again; and, to have it come perch on your shoulder, you must become as wild and as unlearned as the jungle. Laki taught us that creativity is the most natural thing that there is. It’s the way of the world that recycles life and death; it’s the way of the jungle that’s far stranger than fiction. Yes, creativity is a wild bird. It permanently altered our very perceptions about what it means to inhabit this world as creators.

This is why when we think of what it means to live a creative life,  we like to remember Laki on his balcony, whistling with a bird. He knew that creativity was not a secret, but simply naked nature—wild, practical, genius. 

Rest wild Laki; thanks for pointing to us where the wild birds live.


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