Bevis Bawa was born on the 26th of April 1909 to Benjamin Bawa, a noted lawyer, and his wife, a lady of Dutch-Burgher ancestry. With his pedigree, he went on to Royal College, where he apparently was quite the young rebel. When offered the chance to study art in England, he turned it down on the grounds that you either have it in you or don’t, and chose to focus his efforts on learning to be a planter instead.
In 1929, Bevis went on to join the Ceylon Light Infantry, a gentleman’s regiment, where he impressed everyone so much that he was selected to be AIDE-DE-CAMP to the Governor of Ceylon. It was a position that he went on to hold under no less than four Governors – Stubbs, Caldecott, Monck-Mason Moore & Soulbury – while fighting off the unwanted attentions of Colombo society who saw him as one of the most eligible bachelors around.
During the 50’s & 60’s he made a name for himself by writing a newspaper column, Briefly by Bevis, Initially about the genteel subject of landscape gardening before he moved on to start lampooning the pomposities of local society, he prose lancing and lacerating with delight those targets he found most appealing; wannabes, great pretenders & social climbers. He had a stab at landscape gardening as a full-time profession (a modern day ‘Capability’ Brown) but soon afterward Bevis decided to call it a day, and retreated to the comfort of “BRIEF”
Bevis Started work on Brief in 1929, when his mother left it to him. It was a rubber plantation then, and ever the pragmatist, when choosing where to build his house he apparently picked the bit which had the worst-performing rubber trees and chopped them down. Bevis’s younger brother Geoffrey was the most celebrated Architect Sri Lanka ever produced; but while he chose a more formal structured approach to his work, Bevis delighted in taking more playful approach. However what Bevis did with his gardens and sculptures and much in common with what Geoffrey did with his houses and spaces. Their many creations were uniquely imbued with a sense of the spirit of the place; that deep and almost primal connection between the surroundings and the creations they inspired.
The Bawa of Brief by James Broughton
In the land where the jaggery grows
and the skies are raucous with crows
years ago on a pastoral hill
which was left to him in a will
a young man was heard to declare:
‘I will build my kingdom there
I will proclaim myself its chief
as the one and only Bawa of Brief!
I am much too bright and too tall
to dwell down upon the wastes
where people are murky and small.
Besides I have curious tastes
which I wish to practice alone
and call my own life my own.
time is a ruthless thief!’
said the foolhardy Bawa of Brief
So he fashioned a baronial scene
of verdurous tropical green
with thickets and orchids and ponds
among highly exotic fronds,
tiled follies of moss and fern,
odd statues at every turn
and even a bold bass relief
by the talented Bawa of Brief
His subjects were boys from nearby
who had caught his fanciful eye,
and they usually served him well.
But whenever something went wrong
he struck a sepulchral gong
and uttered an awesome yell
that was almost beyond belief,
the hot-headed Bawa of Brief.
Though they seldom covered their feet
his yeomen were generally neat.
He himself wore the garb of a major
with a towering plume of white
which made him look twice his height
and made everyone else look minor
as they stared in disbelief
at the fabulous Bawa of Brief
Said the gossips behind their hands:
‘His habits are the talk of the land.
From many corners we hear
there are more than a few things queer
about this devilish creature.
Since he shows no repentant feature
he’s bound to come to some grief,
this scandalous Bawa of Brief!’
The many sight-seeing heads
who examined his floral beds
tried to peek in his bedrooms too
for more singular sights to view.
One lady was heard to remark:
‘With such a luxuriant park
you’d think he’s turn a new leaf,
this unnatural Bawa of Brief!’
The persons who made such attacks
didn’t know that behind their backs
he was turning them into jokes.
He made sport of such prudish folk
by writing outrageous lampoons
embellished with artful cartoons
which he kept in a sizable sheaf,
the mischievous Bawa of Brief.
So for many long years of our age
he played the star role on the stage
of his countryside monument
where the audience came and went.
He rewarded with appropriate whim
all those who took care of him
and who never asked for relief
from their beloved Bawa of Brief.
He has always been prone to ailing
and one day this unfortunate failing
proved almost as fatal as death
when to his friends’ and doctors’ dismay
he bodily wafted away,
yelling down with his vanishing breath:
‘wave farewell to your wonderful chief.’
You’re still very clever, now and forever
unforgettable Bawa of Brief!’
- James Broughton (31 March 1980)