Adding some Japanese flavour to Bookaroo fest

Kala Ramesh has organised five Haiku festivals in the country and also teaches the art at various other writing and literature festivals

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Kala Ramesh

Kala Ramesh the most popular Haiku writer in India, conducted sessions at the fest for the young enthusiasts. With a background of Indian Classical Music, she brings the nuance of silences and pauses to her Haiku works. She has organised five Haiku festivals in the country and also teaches the art at various other writing and literature festivals. Here are excerpts of an interview with DNA.

Why Haiku?

My finding haiku was sheer serendipity. Haiku was not known to us in 2005 and there was no Google search or social media to connect to … books on haiku had to be bought from the USA and they cost a bomb. I accidentally came upon a poetry blog,, which had five lessons on how to write haiku! Since I was then into classical music (as a vocalist), I tried writing haiku all based on music, without any connection to the ever-changing seasons. Blissfully unaware of haiku's subtle nuances, I began to submit my work within a week. Every rejection made me look at my work through the editor’s eyes and that helped a lot.

Tell us a bit about your journey of how you mastered Haiku?

I don’t think anybody can be a master of any art form, definitely not me – it’s constantly growing beyond my grasp. My teaching for the last 12 years helped sharpen my understanding of this elusive poetic genre. Like any other Japanese art forms, be it karate, landscaping, judo, or tea ceremony, which take years to understand, haiku is no less complicated. Let’s put it the other way round – the complication is in its simplicity. Nothing simple is easy!

Was Haiku the only form of poetry that you found solace in or were there others before that you experimented with?

I was not into writing at all. My passion, from the time I can remember, was to become an Indian classical musician. Writing or becoming a poet was never even remotely visible on my horizon!

Do you find a connection between Indian classical music and Haiku poems?

Life is a flowing, meandering river of incidents and every single moment that has passed has vanished forever and can never be experienced again. Haiku in few words capture such moments and freezes them for posterity! If the delineation of a raga is the canvas on which a musician works – the ever-changing season is the vast canvas on which the haijin (haiku poet) works. The famous Bharatanatyam dancer, Rukmini Devi Arundale, once said that Abhinaya in dance — the rendering of emotions through body postures and facial expressions — needs to be mere suggestion; anything more becomes drama. To learn the knack of leaving things unsaid — which leads us to what the Japanese call ma, the void between and around things, unclutteredness — brings the distilled essence to the surface. All this is deftly dealt with in a few words in haiku, perhaps in the time even of a single breath. Our classical music is heavily based on seasons, much like haiku, where seasonal references are important. Another very interesting correlation between haiku and Indian music is the rhythmic cycles of 5 beats, 7 beats and 9 beats. No other music system in the world lays so much stress on these rhythmic patterns, which are called as Taal. Students of music are taught how to keep these beats intact when they sing a song or delineate a raga, and it takes years to understand and internalise these rhythmic cycles! So it would not be too grand a stretch to say that with haiku, we are touching our roots. I strongly feel the silences and the internal rhythm in music are what attracted me to haiku.

Where does your inspiration come from?

Where does inspiration come from … from unexpected corners surely? I write haiku (season’s poetry), senryu (about people), haibun (prose embedded with haiku), tanka (a 5-line lyrical poem), tanka prose (prose embedded with tanka) and renku (collaborative linked verses). Each genre is all about one’s ability to tell a story coherently and interestingly which naturally leads us to our experiences, imagination and craft. My personal work is mostly done in isolation – going deep within, touching that void, the silences that lie embedded in each one of us. On second thoughts, I think my inspiration lies in this internal connect.

Do you have to be a wiz in 'precis' writing to master the art of haiku or is it the message that counts?

I would say both are important. To be concise, cut out redundancy and practice brevity is not easy . . . it needs awareness and a deep understanding of the art of editing. On top of this – we need to say something worth saying! A favourite quote from Hemingway – Every good writer needs a built-in-shit-detector.

Tell us a little about your journey from being a classical vocalist to being a Haiku writer.

From childhood, I was taught Indian Classical music by leading musicians – first in Carnatic Classical and later in Hindustani Shastriya Sangeet, in both veena and vocal. For over 19 years, I was a disciple of Smt. Shubhada Chirmulay who lives in Pune, and who guided me in Pandit Kumar Gandharva’s style of singing, known for vigour and vitality. My passion, from the time I can remember, was to become an Indian classical musician. As late as October 2004, I began to write short articles and essays on Indian music. Before that, all I remember writing were school leave notes and debates for my two children. Nothing more! My brother did mention the existence of a type of poetry called ‘haiku’ as early as 1998 when we were seriously discussing Hindu philosophy, but that passed me by like an autumn breeze.

How has your experience of organising Haiku festivals in the country been?

It’s been a beautiful journey. I have organised five Haiku Utsavs in India in 2006, 2008, 2010, 2013 and 2016. Under my initiative, IN haiku was formed on February 23 at the Haiku Utsav 2013 — to get Indian haiku poets under one umbrella to promote, enjoy and sink deeper into the beauty and intricacies of haiku and allied genres of Japanese short forms of poetry. My main intention is to hold a Haiku Utsav annually, if possible! It's about celebration! It's all about our coming together! Starting with eleven members in 2006, we are a whopping 150 members now. I also teach haiku, senryu, haibun and tanka at other festivals like the Bookaroo Children’s Literary Festival and the Katha Utsav for CBSE students. Seeing that spark of discovery in my students’ eyes is the greatest gift and reminds me of my own journey – a journey of discovering one’s self, surroundings and that need to express.

Does your musical background reflect in your work (Haiku)?

Music has played and will play a dominant role in whatever I do. In the silences between notes, between words, between lines, the emotions that arise is rasa —the aesthetic essence— which gives poetry, music or dance, a much greater sense of depth and resonance. Something that cannot be described by words because it has taken us to a sublime plane where sounds have dropped off. The most important aspect of rasa, the emotional quotient, is that it lingers on; long after the stimulus has been removed. We often ruminate over a haiku we’ve read for days and savour the joy of its memory. Thus, although the stimulus is transient, the rasa induced is not. What RASA does to Indian aesthetics is exactly what MA (the Japanese concept of void, intervals and uncluttered space) does to renku between the verses and the juxtaposition between two images in haiku. This is my honest effort in trying to understand the Japanese concept of MA in relation to my own evaluation of Indian aesthetics. It is these silences and pauses in haiku, and what this does in the reader’s mind, that fascinates me— and this can only be credited to raga music I practised for years.

You’ve been collaborating with Indian art forms. How do you combine an Indian art with a Japanese art form?

Given this background in Indian classical music and the Japanese aesthetics of ‘link and shift’ that is strongly prevalent in haiku and other allied forms, a ‘link’, connecting these two ancient cultures together, which I have been trying for the last five years, seemed like the most logical step forward. In addition, many stage performances, such as dance and theatre, are based on the effective portrayal of images and haiku is also strongly image-based, so the collaborations seem most natural to me. I refuse to call these collaborations ‘fusion’ or ‘jugalbandi’, for I believe each art form needs its own breathing and dreaming spaces and should retain its own voice. With this in mind, what I have attempted is ‘saath sangath’—two art forms weaving in and out of each other, each designed to capture the undivided attention of the audience while the other remains subservient— until they exchange places. My collaborations with various artists are beginning to take concrete shape and I want to pursue this further – weaving haiku, senryu, tanka and haibun in and out of mime, theatre, classical dance, contemporary dance, raga music, percussion and painting.

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