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Talk Time: The Indian Face of Haiku

By Robert Hirschfield Email By Robert Hirschfield
May 2023
Talk Time: The Indian Face of Haiku

Kala Ramesh discovered haiku almost nine decades after Tagore brought the poetic form to India from Japan. No more than three short lines, this form is widely loved for its simplicity and compact beauty. When HarperCollins India published Ramesh’s The Forest I Know in 2021, it was a rare example of a major publisher’s interest in haiku and tanka, an even older Japanese poetic form.

Kala Ramesh’s memory of growing up in Chennai has the softness of flannel: her mother lighting the oil lamp for Devi, the family home echoing with Indian classical music and the poetry of Subramania Bharati, a great Tamil poet and an outspoken opponent of British rule in India. Ramesh’s mother was the poet of the family. Her father, a physician, gave his three young daughters the wheel of his car on road trips, teaching them all to drive in happy defiance of the law. Both were devout Hindus.

Devi temple . . .

along with the ants

I enter barefoot

“I always wanted to be a musician throughout my childhood,” said Kala Ramesh in an interview with American haiku poet Mike Rehling. “In Chennai, almost every road has a temple. Every time I passed (a temple) I prayed, ‘I should become a musician! I should become a musician!’ But it didn’t happen. Here I am, a haiku poet, and people know me more as a haiku poet than as a vocalist.”

The unrestrained wonder of his white-haired guest must have charmed Rehling. The haiku poets he normally interviews are sober as lawyers by comparison. Zooming Ramesh in Pune from my flat in New York is an exercise in haiku, which in addition to its extreme brevity (normally a poem in three lines, but flexible enough to accommodate one, two, or sometimes four lines), is most successful when illuminating contrast. It was my night and her morning when I came upon her in a blue gown and an orange shawl folded neatly over her right shoulder. Absorbed in her work, she looked up with a smile, graciously pressing palm to palm.

She discovered haiku on an Indian online poetry site (boloji.com) in 2005. Unlike her beginnings in music, where she began learning the veena with her first teacher, Chennai’s Vidwan Chitti Babu, at age ten, Ramesh dove into haiku without instruction. Her first batch of poems, sent to Simply Haiku magazine, were rejected immediately, with the comment: “Your haiku is all about music. Haiku is about nature.” Undeterred, she kept writing, making connections between haiku and the Hindustani music she knew. “In Hindustani music, we have only one or two lines of words to go along with spaces and silence,” Ramesh said.


It wasn’t long before Ramesh was publishing large numbers of her haiku, first in Simply Haiku, later in publications throughout the world. In 2021, HarperCollins India published her most recent collection, The Forest I Know. It includes haiku and tanka, a five-line pre-haiku form dating back to the Imperial Court of Japan in the seventh century. There are traces of regret in her voice over her failure to establish the singing career she wanted so badly. “Maybe something was lacking. Maybe I came too late. I did perform in several places: Chennai, Pune, Bombay, Delhi, but to be a success, one concert should give way to the next, and that never happened.”

morning raga

yesterday’s buds

in full bloom

In 2006, she began teaching haiku. Audaciously, she organized her first haiku utsav in Pune. Maybe just nine or ten people showed up. Ramesh was not discouraged. Now the festival is a high point of the haiku community year. Poets come together to read and talk about their work, to expand the possibilities of their work. In 2016, out of Ramesh’s ambitious weave of festival organizing, haiku teaching, and essay writing, Triveni Hakai, India’s first ever nationwide haiku organization, was born. “Triveni is the confluence of three rivers—the Ganga, the Yamuna, and the Saraswati,” she said. “In this case, the haiku rivers are India, Japan, and the rest of the world. What I have tried to do is create an atmosphere that brings people together around haiku and tanka. Thousands of people from everywhere send in haiku and comment back and forth on poems.”

Vandana Parashar, a former science teacher who’s now a haiku poet and host of the Triveni Haiku blog, elaborated: “Kala has nurtured poets by setting up platforms like the Triveni Facebook group and the Triveni Hakai Website, where they could learn and interact. I wouldn’t be exaggerating if I said there wouldn’t be a haiku movement in India had it not been for Kala.”

It is important to Ramesh that haiku not be confined to the utsav or outposts of scholarship, like the Symbiosis International University in Pune, where she has been lecturing on haiku and tanka since 2012. She wants it to flourish in everyday places like neighborhood and performance centers. Partnering with India’s Bookaroo Festival of Children’s Literature, whose mission is to reconnect children with literature in a “fun way,” she established HaikuWall. It's one of Ramesh’s focal points of outreach to children.

“I have given haiku workshops for children in Delhi, Bangalore, Pune, even Kashmir,” she said. “I did seven workshops for children in Kashmir. At the end, they will put their haikus up on walls. It’s their introduction to haiku.”

Their introduction to nature and self. Ramesh’s face took on a young light in the Indian morning. Talking about haiku and children, it was as if she’d become a child again. I smiled. Her student, Tejinder Sethi wrote, “She’s like an old Banyan in the Indian haiku fraternity.” But even her white hair looked young.

Robert Hirschfield, a widely published poet, lives in New York. His nonfiction has appeared in Outlook India, Sojourners, The Jerusalem Report, and The Writer, among other publications.



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