Muhammad said that if you have bread in one hand, you should have a flower in the other because one feeds the body and the other feeds the soul,” says Veena Dass, one of the early Indian exponents of ikebana, the Japanese art of flower arrangement.
We are discussing the forthcoming ikebana conference in Delhi next week. Yes, flowers need conferences too. Delhi is hosting the 12th Asian Regional Conference from 21-25 November at The Lalit. If you love flowers and are in Delhi, you might want to phone Delhi Ikebana International and register to attend.
The big names in Indian ikebana, most of them women—the senseis and the rijis, as the various masters are called—will gather to cut and arrange flowers, foliage, branches, rocks and anything else that catches their fancy to create objects of beauty. The two big schools—Sogetsu and Ohara—will have masterclasses for interested participants.
Gursharan Kaur, wife of the Indian Prime Minister, is the chief guest for one masterclass by Rishi Otsuka, a visiting Japanese ikebana artiste. Salma Ansari, wife of our vice-president, will preside over a demonstration by Dass, who was recently conferred the title of Kyoku-jitsu Soko Sho, or the Order of the Rising Sun—Gold and Silver Rays, by the emperor of Japan. Which lends credence to my theory that titles should never be translated because many poetic names and titles sound silly in English.
Dass’ presentation will “trace a woman’s emotional journey expressed through the language of ikebana”, she says. While she does her ikebana demonstration, there will be a live dance performance choreographed by Shovana Narayan. “I am using the concepts of navras, or emotions of the Natya Shastra, and expressing it through ikebana,” says Dass, who was one of the founder-members of the Delhi chapter, established in 1966.
They blow me away, these women—these mothers and aunties who belong to a generation before ours. It is not only that they are able to combine ikebana with navras; the global and the local, with feet firmly on the ground while allowing the winds of other lands—or the fragrance of other flowers, in this case—to blow through their homes in a way that would make Gandhiji smile. It isn’t only that they are able to be both modern and Indian—like Chandra Jain, a woman I met recently who combines the spirit of Western volunteerism through her NGO Kadambari with a deep Indian reverence for heritage and craft. What blows me away about these women is how rooted they are in their identity and culture while venturing into the world. Like Sensei Malathi Pandurang, who started the Sogetsu School’s Chennai chapter.
I have known Malathi aunty (she is the mother of my college classmate) for some 20 years. Clad always in simple saris, mostly cotton, she exudes a refinement that comes from years of studying the Japanese aesthetic. Like many of the women who inhabit this space, she is both housewife and artiste. She visits Japan frequently, and speaks Kannada at home. She is among the most senior senseis or teachers in India. Yet she leads a quiet life in Chennai, attending concerts at The Music Academy and family weddings.
Get her in front of flowers and she changes. At a recent demonstration in Chennai, she offered critiques and provided context. “Delhi and Bangalore are blessed with lots of flowers so the ikebana there is very exuberant and generous. In Chennai, we are forced to be more minimalist.” She doesn’t say this but her tone seems to indicate an approval for Chennai’s minimalism.
Ikebana and India have a long connection. Buddhism went to Japan from India and the temple priests were used to offering flowers to God. “Cut flowers are not part of India’s aesthetic culture,” says Malathi aunty “But once I explain to my students that ikebana originated as a sacred temple art, they infuse it with our concept of bhakti or devotion.” Marrying the local with the global—see what I mean?
I don’t know ikebana. My mother learnt it and a couple of years ago, she gave me her vases and bases with spikes—called kenzan. Since then, I have been sticking flowers and stems and converting them into arrangements. On Facebook, I stalk the Sogetsu Study Group and relax by watching photos of lovely flower arrangements. I never considered learning ikebana because I thought it would be complicated, with lots of trips to the florist. That, says Dass, is a fallacy.
“People think ikebana is expensive. Not so,” she says. “Sometimes my husband will come home and say we are having guests for dinner. I will fashion an arrangement using just a couple of leaves and a pebble. You don’t need a lot of flowers to express your vision. I sometimes pick up branches that are destined for the garbage bin.”
That’s the other thing I noticed about the ikebana gang. They are foragers. Wherever they go, they pick up objects from nature that have fallen from trees and are discarded: pine cones, flowers, leaves, branches, just about anything.
“Ikebana is my way of being mindful,” says Pandurang, echoing Zen teachings. “It is a way of connecting with nature and the seasons.”
Dass says it a little differently. “Ikebana is like a performance. The arranger is the composer; the vase is the conductor; and the flowers are the musicians. They must work together to create something of surpassing merit.”