Updated: Feb 18, 2022
HAIKU IN INDIAN LANGUAGES — Kala Ramesh When Surya Rao wrote to me asking if we could attempt a small feature on “Haiku in Indian Languages” for the November/December issue 2013 of Muse India, I accepted wholeheartedly. We both agreed that doing such a feature will be of interest to many, now that the popularity of haiku is catching on rapidly. I contacted several English-language haiku (ELH) poets, as we’re called, to scout around for haiku in their mother tongue. This challenge was graciously accepted by Angelee Deodhar for Hindi, A. Thiagarajan for Tamil, Arvinder Kaur for Punjabi, Geethanjali Rajan for Malayalam, Sanjuktaa Asopa for Bangla, Rama Krishna Perugu for Telugu and Puja Malushte for Marathi. Of course I would have loved to showcase many more languages, but decided not to be too ambitious. Note we have: Vandana Parashar for Gujarati & Sanskrit and Ajaya Mahala for Odia. A lot of spade work was done by each editor. Many of them said they loved the exercise
and this experience has enriched them beyond words. But the most difficult, I think, is
translation. Geeta Dharmarajan of Katha once said that we should aim at transcreation and
not at translation. To keep the spirit of the original language and still retain the flow and
beauty of the language into which it is given birth, is tricky—it’s a walk on a razor’s edge.
Indian languages don’t readily lend themselves to translation into English. We could
probably say the same for the translations of the Japanese masters too, for they fall short
most often, except for a few remarkably outstanding translations. Bashō’s famous haiku “an
old pond / a frog jumps in / the sound of water” is said to have been translated more than a
several hundred times! In India we can consider Rabindranath Tagore and Subramaniya Bharati as pioneers of
haiku. And in most states haiku has been gathering momentum over the years, but existing
mostly in nuclei unknown to the world at large.
We now come to the important question—is haiku as practiced in our regional language
any different from the English-language haiku that’s written in India and the rest of the world?
It’s a very big yes and a no! Sound structure/syllables: Haiku is about sounds, which until recently was wrongly considered as syllables outside Japan. Haiku can be written in 1, 2, 3 or 4 lines and has no title. To make things easier, I’ll be dealing only with 3 line haiku, here.
Line 1 – 5 sounds / counts
Line 2 - 7 sounds
Line 3 – 5 sounds The traditional 17 sound structure in Japanese haiku doesn’t translate into 17 syllables in
English. The world knows traditional haiku in Japanese language as 5/7/5. But no longer
does English-language haiku follow this strict syllable count. ELH is best from 10 to 14
When it comes to our regional languages, each language needs to dictate the number of
sounds and one cannot have it as a general ‘rule’. For example:
What are sounds? Let’s take a look:
Akai – in Japanese means red
But how is it pronounced in Japan?
a/ ka/ ee – 3 sounds
As against English – red – which is just 1 sound
Now let’s take Tamil
Red – akai in Tamil is shivapu – shi/va/pu – 3 sounds
In Hindi – it is lal – 1 sound Kigo - the seasonal reference: In ELH we place a lot of importance to seasonal reference, which is widely known as kigo in Japanese parlance. The flow, ‘a sketch from nature’ and simple language are given great importance in ELH. But a new development in the haiku scene is emerging—which is, going back to hokku and thus to Bashō, who gave more importance to the creative force of nature, the ever-moving and the ever-transient. If you take this angle into consideration, then our regional language haiku is just there, closer to the spirit of Japanese haiku than English-language haiku! Kire - the cut: The most crucial limb in a haiku is the ‘cut,’ what is known as kire in Japanese terminology. In almost all our regional languages, I see this ‘cut’ being employed most effectively. The kire aids the juxtaposition of two images and creates an in-built tension, which is what gives a haiku that high!
Kireji - the cut marker and punctuation: Another very distinctive difference I saw was that most haiku poets kept away from punctuation—what we call kireji—the cut marker in English-language haiku.
The Punjabi haiku that Arvinder Kaur sent me were strangely very much like the
English-language haiku we read in international journals. When I enquired, Arvinder said
there are no Punjabi haiku journals and some of the writers write both in Punjabi and in
English. Maybe that is the reason that we see punctuation like ellipsis and em-dash to
show the fragment-and-phrase structure clearly in the Punjabi examples shown here. Rhyme: I do not know where the convention of rhyming has been picked up by our
regional language haiku. As far as I know Japanese haiku don’t rhyme nor does ELH.
Marathi takes the cake when it comes to rhyming!
The use of English words! A very interesting phenomenon was the use of English words in haiku—just as ELH poets in India use Indian words in English haiku!
Haiku is an ocean. One can keep talking, discussing, and arguing endlessly about these
subtle differences and similarities. All these so-called conventions and “rules” are one end of
the spectrum, the other end is balanced beautifully with haiku—for a good haiku is a good
I would like to showcase five haiku from each language. The ones chosen were those
that lent themselves well to English translation, thus enabling haiku lovers from outside India
to get a taste of what Indian haiku is all about. So here are haiku in Bangla, Hindi, Odia, Malayalam, Marathi, Punjabi, Sanskrit, Tamizh and Telugu, steeped in their rasas and fragrances. In a short write-up prefacing the haiku, the editors have given a concise and neat summary of haiku as practiced in the regional languages today. I have intentionally posted each language as a separate poet in this section called: learning. Enjoy!