To Look Life in the Face


“When you look at the better examples of what remains to us of these earlier buildings, you will find that they all look at life in Ceylon squarely in the face. They look at the rain, at the termites, at the social needs, at the view to be had from verandahs and windows, at the needs of life at the time…”

Geoffrey Bawa, The Times of Ceylon Annual, 1968

I have always thought that Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, that seemingly thin and surface-like play about invented, courtly, sentimental and disguised love, is strangely his most universal work.


I like to imagine a theatre festival during which various countries perform their versions of the play. The plot is so skeletal in situation, so rampant with possibility, that, like music boxes from all over the world, each version could mirror the place where it was made and came from. I have seen Indian versions, Noh versions, all male versions, and farcical French versions and each one showed their own brand of comic timing and their differing depths of tragedy. Shakespeare’s invented country of Illyria in Twelfth Night can exist anywhere. The play emerges as something as regional and autobiographical and as focused as a garden. And gardens, as we know, must follow all the rules of local climate and site and the visionary hand of the gardener and ‘the needs of life at the time’.

Visiting any country you will hopefully find, somewhere, that rare thing, the personal garden; a garden made perhaps by a postmaster in France, a garden made by a poet in Scotland, a garden conceived by a monk in Japan. (We could see these places as private and yet as universal as the work of a great writer.) In Sri Lanka you would most likely be directed to two such gardens – one created by Bevis Bawa and the other by Geoffrey Bawa — a rare pair of brothers whose landscapes could not be more different.

This show and catalogue celebrate the work of that younger brother, Geoffrey Bawa, a world-renowned architect. In Sri Lanka his imprint is everywhere – in Montessori schools, farm orphanages, convents, universities, factories, hotels, parliament buildings and private homes. His public work spanned 40 years. He built wondrous edifices that often felt and looked better from the inside than the outside. As he got older his work became purer, revolutionary in its spareness, so that his last structures, such as the house in Mirissa, were almost physical versions of Bach’s later minimalist compositions.

But I think that if we wish to see a self-portrait of Geoffrey Bawa we will find it most clearly in his own garden and home in Lunuganga. Lunuganga is in every way a life work, and the garden there a clock wound around mortality. It is his memoir, representing a body and a mind and a constant vision. Geoffrey Bawa was a gracious and gregarious man. He had great wit and courtesy, but he could also be difficult and private. In some way Lunuganga represents all of this. There was no attempt by him to turn Lunuganga into a vain and pompous estate. The gardens are intimate and suggestive, full of personal notes (see the grave of Ensa, his ayah), and yet as various and ambitious (lowering the horizon of a hill) as a literary masterpiece such as The Duino Elegies. Each vista, each location feels like another elegy or another voice — the first person, then the third person, the vernacular, and then the classical. You discover you wish to be at one location at noon, another at twilight, some when you are young, others that you will appreciate later in life. It is a complex and also a subtle place, so subtle that there is the famous story about the visiting guest who said, looking over the landscape, “but Mr. Bawa – wouldn’t this be a lovely place to turn into a garden?” It was, said Geoffrey Bawa, the best compliment he ever got.

Every artist works on a different scale. A page.A painting.A sonata.A film.A novel.A house.A garden. But essentially they all create, in some ways, self-portraits of themselves. Art is a long intimacy. The scale of the achievement might be grand and take years but it has to be personal and carefully pieced together and specific to its culture. Illyria, with all the chaos of love there, and the rains, and the termites, can also be as well made as Byzantium.

by Michael Ondaatje, 2004
The writer Michael Ondaatje was born in Sri Lanka and lives in Toronto. His books include “Running in the family”, a bitter sweet account of the lives of Ceylon Burghers, and “The English Patient”.