The short verse: Haiku revolution in India

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Kala Ramesh’s first attempt to write a haiku poem didn’t go as planned. “This is not haiku at all,” said the rejection letter that was accompanied by four haiku journals. Reading the poems in the journals again and again, Ramesh knew she had to teach herself how to write haiku. In the end, her failed haiku poem laid the foundation for India’s first college course on Japanese short form poetry.

“Indians are getting published and winning awards,” says Ramesh about the growing interest in haiku—a poem in a 5-7-5 syllable pattern—in the country. Among those Indian haiku poets are several students of Ramesh, who started a 60-hour course for learning the popular short form poetry, the first such teaching programme in the country. Offered to under-graduates of the Symbiosis School for Liberal Arts at the Symbiosis International, a deemed university in Pune, Maharashtra, the course turned 10 years this year.

Haiku and five senses

The Chennai-born Ramesh, a speaker at the just-concluded Jaipur Literature Festival (JLF), says it is the simplicity of the poetry that attracts her and new students to haikai, the name for the many Japanese short verse forms like haiku, senryu, tanka, haibun and renku. “It is not about your vocabulary or ability to impress people,” explains Ramesh. “We don’t talk about gods and goddesses. It’s all about observation, being aware of the five senses.”

At the JLF, participating in a session with author and politician Pavan K Varma, Ramesh recited one haiku after another drawing applause from the audience. “Rainforest/The lives/I step on” was one such. The six-word haiku, one of Ramesh’s favourites, is about how human beings impact on other people’s lives with their actions. The Chennai-born teacher’s first love was classical music. “I wanted to be a professional musician,” says Ramesh, who lives in Pune. The first haiku poem that she sent for publishing was on music.

Ramesh is always ready to explain the different forms of Japanese short verse and what they mean to literature and the society. Haiku, which is riddled with rules, is about human nature. It is 400 years old compared to tanka, a five-line lyrical poetry that is 1,300 years old. Senryu, a sister of haiku, is based on human behaviour. Haibun on the other hand is prose embedded with haiku poetry. There is also a haiga, which is a mix of haiku and artwork. Another art-related poetry is tanka art, which is tanka poetry combined with painting, tanka prose (tanka poetry with prose). One of the haiku teacher’s senryu poems reads: “Playing ball/With my grandson/My back goes for a toss.”

Walk for writing poems

The 60-hour course at the Symbiosis School for Liberal Arts teaches all the haikai forms, beginning with haiku. “The first month of the course is dedicated to learning haiku,” says Ramesh, who gives “a lot of homework” to students. At the end of the first month, the students are required to complete 30 haiku poems. The haiku classes are followed by lessons of 15 days each in senryu, haibun, renku and tanka. Once every month during the course, the teacher and students go on a nature walk, called Ginkoo Walk, aimed at revitalising the haiku students. At the walk, the pupils will write poems based on their observations of nature and read them out aloud. “I tell my students to think like a six-year-old,” says Ramesh, author of Beyond the Horizon Beyond, on writing haiku and haibun poetry. “The idea is to make the whole poem bare. It is a lot of work,” she adds.

Ramesh is quick to acknowledge the work of others before her to promote haiku in the country. “Rabindranath Tagore and Subramania Bharati first exposed Indians to haiku poetry,” she says. Since then, many more, including Satya Bhushan Verma, considered the first professor of Japanese language and literature in India and the founder chairman of the Centre for East Asian Languages in Jawaharlal Nehru University, Hindi writer and scholar B S Aggarwala, who launched the quarterly journal Haiku Bharati in 1998, and Dr Angelee Deodhar, an eye surgeon-turned-haiku poet, have contributed to promoting the popular Japanese short form poetry.

Growing interest in India

Many of Ramesh’s students, too, like Ikra Raza, Shreya Narang and Rohan Kevin Broach, have also done well publishing their haiku poems. “There are so many Indians who are publishing haiku poems today,” beams Ramesh, whose nine-essay collection published in the British Haiku Society journal on how to write haiku poetry is popular among aspiring haiku poets. “Indian haiku poets are also winning awards,” adds the haiku teacher whose works have been translated into Hindi, Punjabi, Russian and Spanish.

Outside the campus, Ramesh has also been working hard to take haiku to the masses, organising haiku festivals. The first haiku festival in Pune in 2006 drew only nine people. But Ramesh was determined to carry on. More haiku festivals followed. In 2013, she organised a Haiku Utsav and formed an organisation, INhaiku, to popularise the poetry. She also published books, including Haiku and a Companion Activity Book illustrated by Surabhi Singh (2010), Naad Anunaad: An Anthology of Contemporary World Haiku (edited by Kala Ramesh, Sanjuktaa Asepa and Shloka Shankar in 2016), First Katha Book of Haiku, Senryu, Tanka & Haibun (edited by Kala Ramesh, Johannes Manjrekar and Vidur Jyoti and illustrated by Surabhi Singh in 2016), Beyond Horizon: Haiku & Haibun (2017) and The Forest I Know: A Gathering of Tanka Verses (2021), the last book, as the author says, is “14 years of work”.

INhaiku was followed three years later by Triveni Haikai India, a bigger platform with members across the country. During the Covid-19 pandemic, Triveni Haikai India kept the morale of haiku lovers high, hosting a virtual haiku festival in August 2020. Says Ramesh, “We want more haiku poets in our country.”

The author is a freelancer