A HISTORY OF INDIAN HAIKU, part 1.

Updated: Feb 18

Haiku and Classical Indian Aesthetics — Kala Ramesh Haiku seems to have become a new mantra in India. If you tell people you’re into haiku,

you’ll see stars in their eyes! Indians are slowly, but surely waking up to its beauty and the reasons are not far to seek. Haiku is about nature’s creative force and if we read the Rig Veda, all we see are verses in praise of nature. Imagine one of the oldest civilisations known to man, before there was language as we know it now—when the sun was not called the sun neither the moon nor the earth were known by their names. Probably, all that men and women did was to marvel at the colours and the wonders around them. It’s not surprising that nature was worshipped and adored in the Vedic period.

Hindus and Buddhists believe that all Creation is composed of five essential elements, The

Panchabhuta. With death, everything is transposed into these elements of nature, balancing

the cycle of evolution.

The five elements are:

Ether—Akasha in Sanskrit—is associated with sound

Air—Vayu—is associated with sound and touch

Fire—Agni—with sound, touch and form

Water—Jalam—with sound, touch, form and flavour

Earth—Prithvi—is associated with sound, touch, form, flavour and smell This classification and this thinking are woven into the fabric of our daily activities. It’s widely

used in all art, including poetry, literature, dance, music, painting and even Ayurveda—a

system of traditional medicine native to India.


To this, add that core ingredient of haiku—the art of suggestion. The famous Bharatanatyam dancer Rukmini Devi Arundale said that Abhinaya in dance—the rendering of the various emotions through body and facial expression—needs to be mere suggestion, anything more becomes drama. It would not be a far stretch to say with haiku we’re touching base with our roots. Haiku poetry fascinated both Rabindranath Tagore and Subramanya Bharathi—revered poets from Bengal and Tamil Nadu—at the beginning of the last century. A recent phenomenon in our haiku landscape has been Prof. Satya Bhushan Verma, a professor emeritus of Jawaharlal Nehru University. He was chosen for the Masaoka Shiki International Haiku Prize in 2002, and he shared the prize money of one million yen with the American poet, Cor van den Heuvel.

Unity in Diversity

India, known for its unity in diversity, has no national language. The official languages of The Republic of India are Hindi [only 41% of the country speaks in this language] with each state having its own official language, for example—Maharashtra State has Marathi as its official language and Tamil Nadu has Tamil and so on. It gets extremely difficult to codify them into one whole. English in many instances becomes the link language. And with globalization, English becomes indispensible.


A land of multi-cultural history and growth, poetry in India has flourished from ancient times. Probably the oldest form of poetry in India was the Sangam poetic traditions,2 which flourished nearly two thousand years ago. There are many proofs that the bulk of the literature was written from 150 B.C.E. to 300 C.E. It’s interesting to note [from a hokku/haiku perspective] that in these poems one finds close links with nature and almost every line has some element of nature—mammals, birds, insects, trees, flowers, plants, stars, constellations, planets, ocean, mountains, forests and so on. The predominantly secular Sangam poems influenced the later religious works of Jain, Buddhist, Saivite and Vaishnavite poets.


In Sanskrit, the mandalas in the Vedas consists of suktas or hymns of two lines, so also the epic Mahabharata and the Ramayana were in verse. The famous Bhagavad Gita [Song of the Bhagavan] is a 700-verse scripture, which is a part of the Mahabharata.


Many of the old poetic forms have been practiced like the Dohā and Barve in Hindi, Obi in Marathi, Boli and Māhia in Punjabi and Tirukural in Tamil. Satya Bhushan Verma says in his book Haiku in India that some of these succinct forms were very close to haiku. He continues to say that with no knowledge of the Japanese language and no direct access to the original works, the first interest in haiku in India developed through translations that were made available then. And, some of the Indian poets began to experiment with short poetry.


Bengali poet Rabindranath Tagore, the Nobel Laureate, wrote a travelogue titled Jāpān Jātri after his visit to Japan in 1916.3 In this the poet has spoken about haiku and quoted a few haiku, which had two famous poems of Bashō.


Furu ike ya kawasu tobikomu mizu no oto

and

Kare ida ni karasu no tomarikeri aki no kure



The Bangla translations are:

Purono pukur Bengar lāf Jaler Shabdo

and

Pochā dāl ektā kāk sharatkāl


Talking about haiku to his readers, the poet writes: “We don’t find three line poems anywhere else in the world. These three lines are enough for the poet and the readers. The heart of the Japanese does not sound like a waterfall; it is quite like a lake.”


Tagore later went on to write haiku-like poems, which he published in a book titled Sphuling (Sparks). Later it was translated into English as Stray Birds which the poet had dedicated to ‘Hara of Yokohama.’


As mentioned earlier, Subramanya Bharathi from South India, a contemporary of Tagore, took the initiative of introducing haiku to the Tamil people.


Tamil is one of the oldest languages in India, known for poems like one line Aathizhudi, two-line Thirukkural and three-line Sindhar but these are not called haiku.


In 1916, Bharathi wrote an article titled “Japanea Kavidhai” in the magazine Sudesamithran, based on a haiku article written by Yonae Noeguchi in Modern Review, Calcutta. Bharathi had translated two Japanese haiku in that article. These two haiku were the first introduction of this art form to the people of Tamil Nadu.


The Tamil translations by Bharathi were:


பருவ மழையின் Paruva mazaiyin

புழை யொலி கேட்பீர் puzaiyoli kEtpeer

இங்கென் கிழச் செவிகளே ingen kizach chevigalE

—பூசோன் யோ சாஹோ


தீப்பட்டெரிந்தது Theeppatterindhathu

வீழு மலரின் veezhu malarin

அமைதி யென்னே a amaidhi yennE

—ஹோ கூஷ


In this article, Bharathi says, “the one who understands loneliness and silence and the language of the flowers and lives in oneness with nature is a poet.” This only restates Yonae Noeguchi’s observation that, “the specialty of Japan’s poetry is telling something well even when written in a concise manner.”


Paavendhar Bharathidasan, who had affirmed Bharathi as his guru, had also published several translated haiku in Kuyil Magazine. It should be mentioned that these two have published only translations of Japanese haiku in the magazine.


Haiku introduced by Mahakavi Bharathi on 16th October 1916 is reaching its centenary year in two years’ time.4 In anticipation, a newspaper especially for haiku was instituted on Basho’s birthday, 15th September 2013, in his memory as the father of haiku. To celebrate the

hundred years of haiku in Tamil, the Tamil haiku poets have given a proposal to the state

government to bring out a haiku stamp and envelope and to name a street in Chennai as

Haiku. The Tamil haiku poets have already celebrated the silver jubilee (1984– 2009) to mark the completion of 25 years since the publication of the first haiku book in Tamil.



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1. The first part of this report was published in A Hundred Gourds 2.3, June 2013.

2. Details of the Sangam poetic traditions were taken from Vaidehi Herbert’s Sangam Tamil Poetry Translations.

3. References and details taken from Satya Bhushan Verma’s book Haiku in India for the information given here on Rabindranath Tagore.

4. Excerpts from the essay ‘The Birth of Haiku and its Growth in Tamil,’ written by Kannikkovil Raja and translated into English by Ramesh Anand for the information given here on Subramanya Bharathi. This entire set of essays was first published in The Haiku Foundation a few years back.

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