A Song in the Air . . .

                       An Indian Musician's Path to Haiku and Tanka
— An Interview with Kala Ramesh by Amelia Fielden


Kala Ramesh, whose haigo is _kala, writes that “searching” is the one word that seems to say everything about her. She progressed along the path of Indian Classical Music, first instrumental then vocal, and from the South Indian Classical tradition crossed over into North Indian Classical music, performing in various cities throughout India. Then she plunged into yoga, Hindu philosophy and vipassana — which accidentally led her to haiku and tanka in 2005, and since that time it has been haiku, senryû, tanka, haibun and renku that she breathes.

AF:Your biography says that you "took a sudden liking to haiku in 2005". Does that mean you began writing poetry in Japanese forms only from 2005 and that the first of those forms with which you experimented was haiku?

KR: Very true! I come from a family of writers – my mother is a Tamil poet, my siblings - two sisters and one brother, are all such good writers that I totally kept away from any sort of writing. My father, a practicing doctor at the age of 86 years has written his life story with the help of my brother. My passion, from the time I can remember, was to become an Indian classical musician.

As late 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 19
98, 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 14th of January 2005. Down loaded 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.

AF: When and why did you start writing tanka? What do you like, and appreciate most, about tanka?

My first submission was to Robert Wilson of Simply Haiku. He patiently pointed out to me that haiku have to have seasonal references and suggested that I study this genre more.  I sent him a second batch, two days later, which was promptly rejected. And, by that time I had happened to read a tanka. I dashed off some 21 tanka to Michael McClintock of Simply Haiku on 31st January, all based on our visit to the Kashid beach on the Arabian sea and was truly surprised to receive an email from Michael. The one he had chosen was:

I look at the blue sea
and the blue sky
in wonder . . .
gently they turn
into night 

He said that if I could give him four more tanka as “strong” as this, then he would make a set for me in Simply Haiku. I was stupefied! This, according to me was my weakest, the rest of the tanka in my submission were ‘bejewelled’ with heavy words and complicated thoughts . . . In the end, nine of my tanka were chosen for the summer issue of Simply Haiku 05. I often wonder, if I’d changed my style of writing so Michael could accept my tanka.  If I had been around these genres for a longer time, read them, absorbed them, then I could have perhaps changed to suit the demands . . . . I personally feel, one thing for sure, it was a shot in the dark and it seemed to have  worked. A beginner’s luck, as they call it!

And then Stanford M. Forrester of Bottle Rockets published my first haiku in Fall 05, in the autumn issue of Simply Haiku, Robert Wilson showcased my work in “Haiku and Indian Music” and in Spring 06, I won The Heron’s Nest Award .  The Mainichi Daily News picked up several of my haiku, and my tanka began to be accepted by Ribbons, Modern English Tanka, and other journals.

I love those two extra lines that we have in tanka, where we can show the emotion, the rasa, as we call it in Indian arts. A good tanka often reminds me of our ‘jod ragas’ (joint melodies) where two different melodies combine to form a whole and to sing it well requires years of practice and perseverance — tanka is the same, in my opinion.

 AF: You state that you write “haiku, tanka, senryu, haibun and renku". That is a very broad spectrum of Japanese poetic forms. Do you have a preference for one of these forms? If so, please explain your preference.  My impression, from your involvement in the world haiku movement, and so on, is that you are more committed to haiku than to tanka, but I may be wrong. Please comment.

KR: I’m aware that in Japan, a haiku poet won’t come near a tanka and vice versa, but outside of Japan, we do see poets indulging in more than one genre of this art form. In Hindusthani Classical music, we have a variety of styles and forms, like khayal (pure classical), thumri (love songs), bhajans (songs of a devotional nature) dadra, kajri (light classical), and many more. A classical musician is expected to have a mastery over all these forms, if she is to hold her own on the concert circuit.

I never knew of the existence of haiku forums or work-shopping. It was a lonely struggle and I started off simultaneously with haiku, haibun, tanka, senryu, zip haiku, one-line haiku and renku, because everything was equally new to me. I personally think each genre feeds into the other, enriching the root source of one's creativity.

AF: Do you write haiku and tanka in parallel, more or less all the time? I am thinking about poet Beverley George, who has told us that, although she also writes both haiku and tanka, she does not feel comfortable doing so simultaneously; she apparently has periods of alternating concentration on the two forms.

I guess haiku goes on all the time in my mind and tanka happens on and off, and I’ve never really analyzed when one comes in and the other goes out, but the magic happens...! Since 2008, I’ve been one of the editors of Take Five: Best Contemporary Tanka – and we get to read a lot of tanka all the time.  So now I can say, I’m into tanka as much as any other form!

But one thing I’ve noticed in my writing methodology. I used to hurriedly jot down haiku or type out a rough three / five line verse onto my cell phone, then come home and transfer it on to my computer. I don’t do that anymore! Instead, I watch the scene more minutely and try to visualize the scene in my mind and leave. The picture is what I recollect when I try to transfer it into a poem.  I find this gets me closer to truth than the other method.

 AF: You have explained that you always write tanka in English, though your native tongue is Tamil. That is an amazing accomplishment. So you are completely bilingual? You say that when you write in English, you think in English. Certainly that way is essential for producing a natural fluency in second language poems, as I find when I write tanka in Japanese

I can’t say much about being completely bilingual, for we all have our limitations . . . But one thing I can vouch for is that we grew up in a traditional Brahmin home, in a democratic and culturally rich environment. My parents were very insistent that their kids studied in good schools and I remember my father used to take us to bookstores often and we could pick up any English novel or story book that we wanted. I still vividly remember the excitement of owning so many good books. My mother, being artistically inclined, exposed us to Indian music, dance, art, poetry, good films and literature, so appreciating or writing poetry in English came naturally to me, I think.

AF: How widely is tanka known in India? Is it written in Tamil, English, Urdu, or...?

KR: India has a long tradition of short verses, right from the Vedic times. I’ve just edited a feature on short verses for Muse India, Nov/ Dec issue 2009, which covers verses from the Veda, Saint Kabir, Urdu ghazals to tanka, haiku and senryu!  In Marathi, we have what is called the ‘Charoli’ which consists of four lines.

I wish to quote Rabindranath Tagore’s short tanka-like poem, translated from Bangla by the author himself:

Sorrow is hushed into peace in my heart
like the evening among the silent trees.

Stray birds of summer come to my window to sing and fly away.
And yellow leaves of autumn, which have no songs, flutter and fall with a sigh.

We do have a few poets who write very effectively in this genre, like K. Ramesh,  A. Thiagarajan, Gautam Nadkarni, Vidur Jyoti, Shernaz Wadia, Aju Mukhopadhyay and R. K. Singh. I’m positive the tanka magic will entice more of our poets in the near future.

AF: Have your tanka been published in India; if so, in what journals/anthologies?

KR: Muse India and Kritya, online poetry sites, both doing exceptionally well in India, have published my tanka poems.

AF: Another, extremely interesting feature about Kala Ramesh, the poet, is that you are also a performance vocalist in classical Indian music. Has this experience with vocal music had an influence on how you write your haiku and tanka? Have you ever performed your tanka as a musician?

KR: I’ve had the good fortune of learning both Carnatic and Hindustani classical music from great Gurus. Actually, I quit live performances in 2006, exactly a year after haiku and tanka came into my life. I do sing but do not practice for a concert the way I used to before. But, music has played and will play a dominant role in whatever I do. 

Here, I would like to talk a little about the rasa element. India is credited with the creation of the rasa theory. Rasa means the aesthetic emotion — a flavor, the distilled essence of the mood created in the listener’s mind . . . the residue left in our minds after we appreciate a piece of art. What is that something that gives sugar its sweetness?  That quintessential, characteristic 'something' that is of sugar, and which cannot be separated from sugar, for in this sweetness of sugar does sugar remain as sugar. That is what rasa—the aesthetic emotion— is to a work of art. Just like the wave is part of the ocean but still rises repeatedly from the ocean to fall at your feet, for your enjoyment, so is 'rasa' an intrinsic part of any work of art, but arises constantly out of that art to touch your being. Rasa is not raw emotion but emotion depersonalized, so naturally it becomes emotion re-presented, distilled by art. And even though it is personalized and touched by human real life-experiences, rasa or the aesthetic emotion only gives 'joy’. That is the reason that human beings once having tasted 'rasa' in any art form, hunger for more!

For example:

mutely facing
the word ‘sorry’
so much between us
all we need to do is look
into each other’s eyes

Now, reading this, one wouldn’t begin to moan that this incident could be a page torn from her life story, but rather, she nods in appreciation that a poet could put into words what she has experienced in real life.

Our texts talk of nine rasas or sentiments, they are as follows: love, heroism, disgust, anger, mirth, terror, pity, wonder and tranquility.  Once during our email exchanges, Kirsty Karkow spoke of writing tanka with rasa, when I showed surprise that she had used the term rasa, she replied saying that it plays a very vital role in tanka. I need to explore all this much more, within the framework of tanka. Having said that, harmony (, wa), respect (, kei), purity (, sei), and tranquility (, jaku) are what we seek in our arts too, for all arts come from the same melting pot of human creative spirit, don't they?

Another very interesting correlation between waka and Indian music is the rhythmic cycles of 5 beats, 7 beats and 9 beats. No other music system in the world lays so much stress on these rhythmic patterns, which are called as Taal. Students of music, are taught how to keep these beats intact when they sing a song or delineate a raga, and it takes years to understand and internalize these rhythmic cycles!

As regards my background in music, I would love to sing/ perform my tanka, of course! That would be lovely and challenging! I hope to do it one day . . .

AF: Writing from a background of South Indian culture imbues many of your tanka with a charming exoticism. A particular favorite of mine is this one:

sugarcane sticks out
from bullock carts
I sense its sweetening
my baby, feeling you
through my stomach wall

Your locale is a virtual character in that, as it is too in the very moving tanka :

the weight
of the monsoon river
tumbling down ...
the blind girl's smile
as she sees with her ears

The Indian words and references which you sprinkle through your tanka add much to the originality, authenticity, and power. However, sometimes they obscure the meaning for readers from a different culture. I for one feel I would be able to appreciate the following two tanka more if you had provided short footnotes on the significance of Ganga, and the meanings of dhyaan and maya.

even Ganga
needs to carry the burden
of her past
still a longing in me
to disown mine

the oneness
of consciousness
in dhyaan
joining as light as ever
a cuckoo's song

truth lies
embedded in maya
and beneath the veil
once lifted
truth lies

How do you feel about adding footnotes in such cases?

KR: Thanks Amelia for those words of appreciation. They were sheer music to my ears!

Now coming to the second half of your question. To a Hindu, a bath in the holy river – Ganga means that s/he is washed pure of all the sins, having said that, the Ganga over the years has become so polluted that a massive campaign is going on to ‘purify’ Ganga  To a reader who is unaware of this, the above tanka has no significance— how can a tiny footnote help? Maya – means illusion, but that word leaves so much to be desired. Hindu philosophy revolves around Maya, huge thesis are written on it— how would a footnote help?

For that matter, there are so many tanka and haiku rooted in Western religion and thought that fly above my head! And I find that there are two ways of going about it, either I leave it and move on or I go to the net and find out, which would be much more satisfying than a footnote, perhaps?

AF: Have you ever been to Japan? Any plans to go there?

KR: I would surely love to visit Japan. Let’s see if I’m destined to view the cherry blossoms, soon. It’s my passion to see places, and the East holds a great fascination for me.

AF: Please tell us in detail about your forthcoming book, which I understand is your first such publication.

Even though the manuscript for my book was sent to the publishers, it is yet to surface. But in the meantime I’ve edited an ebook, with immense help from Johannes Manjrekar and Vidur Jyoti, which should be online by February, 2010. It has 35 Indian haijin, a few names well known, but the majority  new to haiku and other Japanese genres.. We have haiku, tanka, senryu, haibun, and haiga in this e-book, which is truly exciting for me. It is being brought out by a renowned publishing house: Katha, New Delhi. 

I would like to say a small thank you to my son and daughter, Bharat and Bhavani, without whose encouragement, I couldn’t have come this far. For every poem that got accepted, for every award that came my way, I heard their “Awesome amma!” even before they voiced it . . . 

And a big thank you to the editors of tanka online, for giving me this opportunity to talk about my being here as a poet! Special thanks to Amelia for her thoughtful questions in this interview

My signature tanka as of now:

 the red dot
on my forehead
binds me
to a man
who’s in his own orbit 

she wears
silk saris with grace
bound into a cocoon
should the silk worm be burnt
alive for that?

Kala Ramesh
Pune, India


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