JANE REICHHOLD’S INTERVIEW with Kala Ramesh
Jane Reichhold: Kala, thank you so much for agreeing to do this interview. There is so much we do not understand or know about poetry and about haiku in India that I hope you will forgive me if the questions seem too basic. To begin with, can you give a brief overview of the poetry scene in India. What kind of poetry is most popular?
Kala Ramesh: Jane, I want to thank you for doing this interview. I’m deeply honoured. Ever since I came into haiku I’ve been an ardent admirer of your work. The last few years we’ve been directly in touch, which makes this interview even more special.
Poetry in India began several thousand years ago with the Vedas. The first known text, the Rig Veda, derives its name from the word 'rik,' which means verse. It is full of exquisite poetry.
The sun, the eye of the universe, is divinely placed.
It rises with bright sunshine,
May we live to see it for a hundred autumns
[Rig Veda. 7.66.16]
From The Holy Vedas
Tr. by Pandit Satyakam Vidyalankar
The first Indian epic poem, the Ramayana, composed in Sanskrit, is good poetry and was followed by an intense and long lasting poetic tradition. Possibly the very first book ever written on poetic meter was the complex Chhanda Shastra, also in Sanskrit, which dealt with the seven main meters of the Vedas.
I first heard about the Sangam Literature in Tamil from my mother, who had studied it in school and often spoke about it. The poems comprised an ancient oral tradition first written down between 150 B.C. and 300 A.D. Like haiku, Sangam poetry is nature poetry. Over one hundred trees are described in these poems. However, the elements of nature are intertwined with human love, friendship, agony, ecstasy, kindness, cruelty, war, valour, honour, and charity.
Around the 7th Century the Bhakti Movement began in Tamilnadu and quickly gripped the imagination of the whole country. One of my favourite Bhakti poets is Kabir:
Drop falling in the ocean —
Ocean absorbed in the drop —
a rare one knows
Tr by Linda Hess and Sukhdev Singh
Today, poetry is being written in most of the 22 official languages of India, as well as many smaller language groups. There are many distinctive poetic forms, such as the ghazal, which is popular mostly in the north. A mediaeval form, the Thirukkural, written in Tamil, is sometimes even shorter than the haiku.
English-language poetry in India has evolved mostly in the 20th century. Most of the earlier English-language poets, such as Tagore, wrote in their mother tongues as well as in English. More recently, English-language free verse — the mainstream poetic form all over the world today —has been encouraged by poets like Nissim Ezekial, and many Indian poets now write and publish in English.
The number of magazines and newspapers which publish poetry is in steady decline but the poetry scene is thriving with the upsurge in literary and arts festivals in India.
JR: How do the writers of popular poetry relate or cross-over with writers of Japanese genres?
KR: Not much, sadly. Even well known poets’ knowledge of haiku is the 5/7/5 kind, or they talk about ‘haikus’ or they “keep a distance from haiku.” Two years back an organizer of an excellent poetry meet told me that since haiku won’t be appreciated by the others [the more important mainstream poets] I was requested not to read my haiku, tanka or haibun. I’m hoping things will soon change for the better, and there are a few mainstream poets who show a keen interest in Japanese genres and feel that they have much to learn from haiku aesthetics.
JR: Can you give a brief history of haiku in India?
KR: It was discovered and brought to India by Rabindranath Tagore [Bengali poet and Nobel Laureate] and Subramania Bharatiyar [Tamil poet] a hundred years back. A recent phenomenon in our haiku landscape has been Prof. Satya Bhushan Verma, a professor emeritus at Jawaharlal Nehru University, who was chosen for the Masaoka Shiki International Haiku Prize in 2002. He shared the prize money of one million yen with the American poet, Cor van den Heuvel.
Poets writing in almost all regional languages, such as Assamese, Bengali, Gujarati, Hindi, Kannada, Marathi, Malayalam, Punjabi, Telugu, and Tamil, have a deep knowledge of haiku translated from the Japanese, but less knowledge of English-language haiku. However, many are developing fine haiku sensibilities. In 2013 issue 52, I was asked to write about “Haiku in Indian Languages” for Muse India, a reputable online journal of Indian Poetry. I got my haiku friends to cover Tamil, Hindi, Punjabi, Malayalam, Telugu, Marathi and Bengali. It was very well received.
Feature: Haiku in Indian languages
Kala Ramesh: Introduction; http://www.museindia.com/viewarticle.asp?myr=2013&issid=52&id=4980;
A Thiagarajan: Tamil haiku; Angelee Deodhar: Hindi haiku; Arvinder Kaur: Punjabi haiku; Geethanjali Rajan: Malayalam haiku; Perugu Ramakrishna: Telugu haiku; Puja Malushte: Marathi haiku; Sanjuktaa Asopa & Kashinath Karmakar: Bengali haiku;
JR: How did you find Japanese poetry?
KR: By sheer accident. As recently 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.
I again came upon haiku accidentally through an Indian poetry online site--boloji.com--on the 14th of January, 2005. I downloaded their five lessons on haiku and started to write. Since I was then into serious classical music [as a vocalist], I tried writing haiku all based on music without any connection to nature. 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 I think that helped a lot.
JR: As a modern woman of India, what do you feel you bring that is special to haiku literature?
KR: I’m a product of post-independence India. During 150 years of British rule, Indians lost much of their pride in being an Indian. A reverence for white skin and disrespect for all that was Indian were evident by the time I was a teenager. Ayurveda [medical science], Vedic maths, Advaitic philosophy, languages, literature, yoga, and martial arts like kallaripattu took a back seat. We studied English Literature and Western Philosophy, which changed the very way we thought. But luckily most of our art forms survived Western influences. Indian classical dance with its abhinaya [facial and body languages], and Indian classical music with its raga delineation and its brilliant rhythmic cycles all survived, and are performed all over India to this day.
I’ve had a very strong cultural upbringing, since both my parents were interested in fine arts. My mother still writes verses and sings them too. I have studied classical Indian music all my life. Being rooted in Indian arts through music, I feel I have brought these aesthetics into haiku writing, though it might not be evident to others. I think I understand the silences embedded in art forms, the relation between the artist and the listener, the Japanese aesthetics of Ma to a little extent, and the relation between my inner and my outer self – if I may say so. My friends do tell me that a hidden rhythm lies in my work and I do so want to believe them.
JR: Which of the Japanese forms do you enjoy writing the most? Could we have some samples of your work with your comments or thoughts you have about them?
KR: Jane, you’ve worded your questions so well! Had you asked for my best haiku, tanka, or haibun, I would have replied that I’ve yet to write my best! But you’ve tactfully said “give samples of your work.” I do write haiku, senryu, tanka, haibun and renku.
receding wave …
crab holes breathe
the milky way
This is a memory ku, from my childhood days. I grew up in Chennai on the shores of the Bay of Bengal. Every Thursday my father would take us all to the Marina beach. When I was no more than six, I would bend and try to catch the sucking sound of crab holes each time the waves receded. I’m happy that this haiku won an honourable mention in the 13th Mainichi Haiku Contest in 2009.
autumn dusk . . .
without any fuss the end
of a yellow leaf
This haiku was published in Prune Juice, a journal of senryu & kyoka, in April 2012. The editor, Liam Wilkinson, commented that my haiku was stunning and that he couldn’t resist publishing it! This is a memory ku that arose from a lecture by the renowned philosopher Jiddu Krishnamurti, who spoke about the fuss human beings create before they die. He said just look at the leaves.
When I was one of the editors of Take Five: The Best Contemporary Tanka for the years 2008/2009/2010, we had to read and vote for over 19,000 tanka we reviewed each year. Undoubtedly I’ve read a lot of tanka. Somehow in tanka I don’t much care for the constant linking of nature and human nature. It’s been done too often, perhaps. And yet, here is one such tanka of mine, published by American Tanka in June 2012:
of tangled thoughts . . .
even this rugged moon
looks tattered at the edges
One more tanka I would like to showcase:
the red dot
on my forehead
to a man
who's in his own orbit
This was written in 2007 and was published in Simply Haiku. That red dot, called the bindi, is found on the forehead of married Hindu woman. This custom is slowly fading among the younger generation, who are mostly in jeans--the “red dot” doesn’t sit well with that attire!
walking the other side
of rush hour traffic
I feel smug
as line after line speeds up
to become a tanka
Prune Juice, Journal of Senryu & Kyoka, April 2012
Saturday night dinner
the guests all-consumed
with their own stories
I remember this [published in spring 2008] and many others that Alan Pizzarelli chose for Simply Haiku when he was the senryu editor. I used to love reading his comments on each senryu, his comments about music, and his closing with a Sanskrit mantra. Now I’m an editor of a few journals and I don’t find time to do these things for every poem I accept, although I would like to. It makes the acceptance letter so special.
Come rain, sun or moody weather, Grandfather hardly ever missed his walk. As the old kitchen clock struck seven in the morning, he would be tying his shoes and then strut downstairs towards the park. To me, grandfather was always grandfather, always old.
He's been bedridden for the past three months. As I enter his room, he looks up and winks, this man who could never wink 'properly', however many times we tried to teach him. And now, much to my child-like amusement, he blinks both his eyes, his smile running into the creases on his face . . .
the swing: the sky
of a thousand dreams,
pulls me in
Published in A Hundred Gourds 2:3, June 2013, this haibun isn’t about my own grandfather, but about my sister’s father-in-law. Even I can’t wink for nuts, and that was why his wink, a blink with both his eyes, made the wink even more special. Maybe one day I’ll do the same thing to my grandchildren!
JR. I know you are more active bringing haiku to others than anyone I know, but could you list your activities and let us how they are going?
KR: It’s been said that if we love what we are doing, then it doesn’t sit heavy on our shoulders. That is the case with me. In the last two or three years I have conducted close to 86 workshops in schools, colleges and public places, and in Literary Festivals such as the Hyderabad Literary Festival; Prakriti Poetry Festival in Chennai; Bookaroo Children’s Literary Festival in Delhi, Kashmir, and Pune; Writer’s Bug at Mumbai, and Pune International Literary Festival.
My latest passion is to get haiku painted on city walls. I produced a film which was showcased at the North America 2015 Conference and at the British Haiku Society’s Winter Gathering in November 2015. You can view the film here: HaikuWall INDIA, is now on-line at: At Haiku Chronicles: https://www.haikuchronicles.com/podcasts/e31-haikuwall-india
& at CitizenLit, founded by Jim Warner and Aubrie Cox has my presentation on HaikuWALL India I made at Haiku North America 2015 Conference
In my recent trip to the USA and the UK, I conducted three haiku workshops at Tennessee, Austin and at Hornsey Children's Library, London.
In addition, Katha, an NGO in the field of children’s education, has joined hands with the Central Board of Secondary Education [CBSE] to promote creative writing in schools all over the country. I’m happy to say that haiku is one of the subjects offered. I’ve conducted two-day intensive haiku workshop at their regional meet in Chennai and Delhi, and a three-day intensive haiku workshop in Delhi in 2013 and 2014.
What is most satisfying is that haiku and its allied genres are being taught as an undergraduate elective in the Symbiosis School for Liberal Arts [SSLA], a reputable college in Pune. In January, 2013, I was approached by SSLA to participate in their “floating Credits Program”— a 60-hour module for management students at Symbiosis Centre for Management Studies. I was given complete freedom to design my 60-hour course, and since I write haiku, senryu, tanka, haibun and renku, I could easily incorporate all these genres into the syllabus. I’ve done more than 270 hours of teaching to under-graduates. The students are doing exceptionally well, but of course whether they become known as haiku or tanka poets depends on their own dedication and perseverance. The ginko walk has been a hit with all the students and the hills of Pune make the ginko walk an unforgettable experience.
During the Haiku Utsav in Pune, February, 2013, which I organised, we formed a group called IN haiku. ‘IN’ represents India, and also suggests being ‘in the path of haiku.’ Bhavani Ramesh suggested the name, which was unanimously approved. Two days later we started a face book group by the same name and we have around 150 members, of whom nearly 40 to 50 actively participate in the forum. We are getting to read more haiku poets in journals for sure!
I’ve also been the editor of short verses for Muse India since 2008. After I conducted the 8th World Haiku Festival at Bangalore in February, 2008, Susumu Takiguchi restarted the World Haiku Review and I’ve been the Deputy Editor-in-Chief ever since.
Don Baird has made me the editor of modern haiku for the journal Under the Basho and for Living Haiku Anthology. An’ya asked me to be the editor of ‘Youth Corner’ in cattails and so many issues have already been published showcasing children’s haiku. Lorin Ford asked me to be the ‘Guest Editor” of renku for the March 2016 issue of A Hundred Gourds. It will soon go online! Relegated to the bottom of the list are my own writing and submissions!
I have no complaints--I love every minute of my life. I just got a call from Sunaparanta--Goa Centre for the Arts, for a “collaborative session” in which participants will explore ways in which the spoken word inspires visual imagery. It’s planned for the end of April and I’m keenly looking forward to it. I’ll be joining Liz Kemp [from rural Scotland] in this one-day workshop to bring alive the magic of words as seen through images and colours.
On 27th February 2016, I’ll be running a short haiku workshop for senior citizens in Pune where I live. Like children, senior citizens need something to occupy their hours and what better pursuit than haiku and senryu. I'm hoping I get at least a few into haiku!
JR: Are there predigests or barriers to haiku by other poets? Or do you find it easy to get haiku published in other poetry outlets?
KR: Haiku is in its own pocket cushioned by the small but growing haiku community. It’s very difficult to find a decent publisher who would be interested in haiku. 99% of the haiku books brought out in India are self published. One publisher who has gone out of its way to encourage haiku and its allied genres is Katha, a well respected NGO in Delhi ( www.katha.org ). Katha brought out my book titled ‘Haiku’ for children, beautifully illustrated by Surabhi Singh, for which you have given an excellent review, Jane. The FIRST Katha book of haiku, haibun, senryu & tanka was brought out as an eBook, which contains haiku, senryu, tanka and haibun written by 35 Indian poets. A first for India! Johannes Manjrekar and Vidur Jyoti joined me as co-editors and it was launched at Oxford Bookstores at Mumbai on 21st September 2013.
Muse India ( www.museindia.com ) is an online poetry journal that promotes haiku in India. They conduct the Hyderabad Literary Festival, which prominently features haiku workshops. Many regional language journals also promote regional language haiku.
However, the rest of the poetry world in India would rather not have anything to do with haiku. But with college and school students taking up haiku in a big way, I’m hoping things will change for the better soon.
JR: How hard it is to find good translations of Japanese works? Is it easier to translate from English into Hindi (is that the language? Forgive my lack of information) or to go directly from Japanese?
KR: India, known for its unity in diversity, has no one national language. The official languages of The Republic of India are Hindi [with only 41% of speakers] and the official languages of each state—Marathi in Maharashtra State, Tamil in Tamil Nadu, and so on. English often becomes the shared language, and with globalization, it is becoming indispensible.
To my knowledge [and I could be wrong, since haiku is more or less practised in many of our many regional languages], there is no haiku poet in India who can translate directly from Japanese into his or her mother tongue, which is of course how it should be done. Dr Angelee Deodhar has translated several works into Hindi, but I think she worked from versions in English. Even that is not easy. My sister, Mrs. Geeta Dharamajan, has been in the field of translation for over 25 years and feels that, more than translation, we need to aim for “transcreation.”
JR: Is there anything the rest of us can do to help you with your work in spreading the good news about haiku?
KR: Jane, thank you for your offer. You have encouraged my work over the years and I know you’ve equally appreciated many other Indian haiku, tanka and haibun poets, for they were frequently showcased in Lynx.
A Hundred Gourds recently published a feature on haiku in India: (ahundredgourds.com/ahg23/feature01.html) and for the last two years Cattails has been featuring my students’ work on their “Youth Corner”. The haiku world has been very kind and encouraging.
I want to thank my parents for giving me such a rounded, catholic upbringing while still staying deeply rooted in Indian values. Thank you, Jane for these wonderful questions. I have enjoyed pondering my answers.
Note from the author: Jane Reichhold wanted this interview for Lynx and the whole interview was ready on 1 April 2014, but soon after that Jane decided to fold-up Lynx and this interview was later published with her permission at Haiku Reality in April 2016