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Haiku in India Today

WHR March 2019

Haiku in India Today


Susumu Takiguchi

Eleven years ago, I spoke to Indian haiku poets gathered in Bangalore about haiku in India and made some hopeful predictions. This year, I spoke to them assembled in Pune and congratulated them on making a remarkable progress. Indian haiku has arrived.

I have had a strong belief that world haiku will make a welcome change for the better out of the initiatives of such countries as India. In Pune, I was under the impression that my belief was being vindicated.

India is a country of one of the greatest ancient civilisations and is now in a new phase of a young nation in terms of population, economic and industrial prowess and geopolitical power. There is a surge of vigour, self-confidence, a strong sense of purpose, joie de vivre and optimism. Haiku seems to be riding the crest of the wave.

I wish to review this enviable win-win situation of haiku in India in two parts.

In Part One, appearing in this issue,I am presenting an overview by introducing part of my 2008 key-note address, which today is as relevant as, or perhaps even more relevant than, eleven years ago. In Part Two, I shall look at it more specifically and have it published in the next issue.



By Susumu Takiguchi

9th World Haiku Festival, on 23 February 2008, in Bangalore, India Key-note Speech



Pioneers and Latecomers

In any field of human activity pioneers are normallyadmired and given a special place in history. Followers, or latecomers, bycontrast, would not be given such a favourable treatment. This is half justifiable for obvious reasons but the other half is open to question, especially when the pioneers would be over-worshipped on the one hand and the latecomers would be unduly under-estimated on the other. Pioneers must be allowed to come down from the pedestal on which they have been forced to stand and find their right place in history. Latecomers must be allowed to be free from the pioneers’ mistakes.

It depends of course on what these pioneers are of.If they are pioneers of landing on the moon, or discovering the number zero, or penicillin, then they cannot be worshipped enough. However, if they are pioneers of discovering haiku and of introducing it outside Japan, it is a slightly different story.

Pioneers have the advantage in that nobody has known whatever they are pioneering. Latecomers have the advantage of hindsight and all the wisdom and knowledge which have been accumulated since the first discovery. Pioneers make mistakes as well as discoveries and in a sense they are allowed to make mistakes if the importance of what they discover far outweighs the ill effects of their mistakes. Latecomers on the other hand are not allowed to make such mistakes or any other mistakes which are made perfectly preventable by the wisdom and knowledge available to them. More importantly, it is the duty of the latecomers to correct the mistakes of the pioneers. This is not to belittle the latter but on the contrary to pay them proper respect rather than florid but meaningless adulation.

What, then, is the real situation in the haiku community? The answer is regrettably rather not very satisfactory, or mixed atbest. The main reason is our weakness as human beings not to learn from pioneers’ mistakes but to repeat them as no one around is saying they  are mistakes.

All too often pioneers get excessively hero-worshipped, overly admired and wholly
 idolised by those who would benefit from such extravagance. Namely, they tend to do it for self-aggrandisement.

This is not genuine homage to the pioneers but it does happen and happens once too often. There is no shortage of examples of this in haiku: Ezra Pound, Shiki Masaoka, R. H. Blyth and, yes, Basho himself to name but a few heavyweights. There is a serious need to review not only what Shiki achieved but also and even more importantly possible ill-effects of his reform or teaching. Blyth is at last widely admired now but this is precisely the dangerous time when we have to examine his bad influences in addition to his positive contributions togain a balanced view of him, all in our interest.

If this is the situation with such glittering figures as I have just mentioned, how much more so in the case of lesser figures in the haiku community who nonetheless wield enormous power over the vast number of other haiku poets across the world.

What is true with individuals is also true with countries. There are pioneering countries and “late-coming” countries. I do not know if there were pioneers in India who a hundred years, or fifty years ago practiced haiku and disseminated it across the country. There may well have been some such pioneers if we dig deeply into India’s modern history. After Tagore, the single important figure regarding haiku in India is Satya Bhushan Varma. However, as a country let us for the argument’s sake assume that India is a latecomer in haiku. Once again, let me hasten to add that this is not to insult India in any way. Far from it, it is in fact a grand celebration as you willsee soon enough from what follows.

Blessed are the latecomers: for theirs is the kingdom of haiku heaven. They have all the advantages which the pioneers were not endowed with and none of the disadvantages which were more or less all that the pioneers possessed. Latecomers have no heavy and unwanted baggage. Latecomers are like an artist's blank white canvas before the first 
brush stroke is placed on it. Latecomers can bring fresh views and different insight to the table. So much more so if the latecomers were countries of long and rich history of culture and civilisation such as India.

If you have a living legacy as old as Vedas and modern men as great as Tagore, India cannot be an ordinary latecomer in haiku. India is one of the countries I have a special expectation in terms of how haiku would develop in a profound way. China is another such country.

The circumstances under which haiku would or would not start to be practiced in a country other than Japan can be complex. They also can be and are different from one country to another, though there has been a common pattern whereby the same influence would penetrate into late-coming country from a dominant haiku force.

Since haiku poetry began to fly out of Japan across national, linguistic and cultural frontiers, it has been bestowed with a new potential of expanding its scope, enriching its content and celebrating its varieties to an unprecedented degree. This potential would be severely curtailed if the influence of a single dominating force would pervade all or most of the countries in the world.

This makes it so much more important for a country like India to develop its own haiku on the basis of its own study of Japanese tradition, of its own literary and aesthetic tradition and of its own perception and sensibility concerning haiku, quite independent of, but not divorced from, the dominant force. Developing haiku is not an arms race or economic competition. Smallest haiku nations should rank on a par with most powerful haiku nations. There is no hierarchy in haiku. Only quality is the ju.

If India is a latecomer in haiku, it is in fact an unbelievably fortunate gift not only for Indian haiku poets but for haiku itself. This is because Indian haiku poets can set out on a new and different journey of the way of haiku on the one hand and on the other haiku can have a chance to benefit from how it develops in India. The other side of the coin is that Indian haiku poets have some kind of a special responsibility for developing their haiku in the way they think best. For if they would develop haiku in the wrong way it would mean a great opportunity lost not only for you but also for the rest of the haiku poets in the world.

How that can be achieved would of course be up to the Indian haiku poets but some of the basic points common in all countries may be of some use. Let me hasten to add that I have not come all the way to India to preach or pontificate. However, if I say nothing but diplomatic niceties, I would be wasting everybody's time. The following recommendations are presented, shall we say, as a friendly advice, or my honest opinion based on painful observation of the experiences elsewhere in the world.

Freedom is probably the most important point. By this I do not mean political ‘freedom’ which is bandied about nowadays with guns and explosives. As I have already said, it is freedom of poetic expression and creation in a narrow sense and also freedom of spirit in a broad sense. However, like any other kinds of freedom it is not limitless or without some constraints or responsibility. The most crucial constraint is of course the framework within which poems should remain as haiku. Outside this framework it would become meaningless to call anything haiku. How far one would expand or limit the framework is a difficult question but is basically a practical and relative consideration and would vary according to different schools of thought.

Within the framework there is a tangible element (form, kigo etc.) and intangible element (haiku spirit, subject matter, etc.). I shall not go into details, as they can be read in the WHC archives and publications. There are other kinds of freedom, including freedom from undue influence from other haiku movements, especially dominant ones.

The second point I believe to be important is the critical faculty of the Indian poet. It is a kind of creative doubt or scepticism and a capability of creative criticism, which should go along with his/her ability to keep an open mind. If some pioneers preach and pontificate, the first thing this poet should do is not to accept it uncritically. Similarlyhe/she should doubt any received theories, rules, dos and don’ts before truly digesting them, especially if they are no more than dogmas. The poet should also use his/her critical power to be able to tell good haiku from bad notaccording to the received wisdom but according to his/her own inner insight as a poet.

The third important point is Indian poets’ readiness and humility with which he/she always remains willing to refer back to Japanese haiku and its tradition rather than deluding him/herself at any given time into thinking that Indian haiku has now been so well established that there is no longer any need for or point of learning anything from Japan. Such thought would be very tempting and has been witnessed in many countries as everybody wishes to celebrate the establishment of his or her motherland's own haiku. It has happened on an individual basis as well, and rather widely. However, the temptation must be resisted for the good of Indian haiku, if you can.

The fourth point is the importance of the local soil. In addition to originality and individuality which are so vital for haiku of interest and distinction, what comes naturally and spontaneously from the local culture makes the haiku more distinctly Indian. This is the most interesting aspect from the point of view of the world haiku movement. Here lies the rich soil out of which many haiku poems can be expected to flourish which are distinct from those written in other parts of the world, especially in the West.

The fifth point is closely related to the fourth, namely indigenous languages in India. A lot of good things can be expected from the development of haiku in Hindi, Tamil, Bengali, Marathi or Urdu, if not all 500 local languages. In the worst case, these languages and their literary tradition may be totally unsuitable for, or even incompatible with, the style and spirit of haiku. Even then, experiment of writing haiku in these languages will be worth trying and we may well have some pleasant surprises. A much greater possibility is that the poetic tradition in these languages will help create a new haiku trend in India which will add to the merit of haiku as well as to the Indian poetry itself.

The old anthologies such as Ettutogaiad or Pattuppattu in classical Tamil may be too ancient to be adapted to haiku (not to mention the classical Sanskrit) but modern Tamil may have a good prospect, I have been told. Unlike the classical Sanskrit, Prakrit is a vernacular language and may be more suitable for haiku-writing. The Rajasthani bards in Hindi of some 600 years ago may be an example to which Indian poetic tradition can trace its origin back and can work as references for guiding haiku in India. There is also such legacy as the Kesav Das which is erotic literature in later Hindi which can give inspiration to erotic haiku. Satirical poets such as the 18 century Saudi would help injecting a sense  of humour to haiku, a possibility denied in the West, or inspiring Indian senryu. There is a well-establishedshort form of poetry in Urdu called rubai which has a comparable rhythm, style and pathos as haiku. There was also a talk today about an Indian short verse
called vachana.

Even if English is an official language in India, writing haiku only in English would be far from sufficient not least becausethere are 17 other official languages. I have been told that already many haiku poems are written in these languages including Tamil, Hindi and Marathi. There seems to be no need in this country to remind people that haiku in English is not everything. Tagore would have written haiku in the Bengali language.

The sixth point I wish to mention is the importance of avoiding any internal division or conflict within Indian haiku community. Such division or conflict is caused by negative haiku politics which any country could do without. The reality is that many countries suffer from this disease. In a country like India with such enormous linguistic, regional, social and racial differences and varieties, there is an increased likelihood of negative haiku politics leading to division and conflict. Special vigilance is therefore necessary against it. This point cannot be stressed enough as such division and conflict would sap the energy of healthy development of haiku in India, distorting it and bringing inconvenience and unpleasantness to those involved. It is hoped that this World Haiku Festival 2008 would be the first to provide a common platform for all haiku poets in India who would flourish side by side but keeping their differences and individuality intact.

At the moment relatively small number of poets are practicing haiku independently in India. Some estimate that there are over one thousand haiku poets in India. This may look a large number but compared with India’s population it is still a very small number. It is therefore important for them to communicate and help each other as much as they can in order to make the most of the limited available resources and to avoid wasteful rivalry and harmful conflict. Soon there will be a desire toform different national haiku organisations in India. However, keep it to be a single united organisation only for as long as possible and avoid any temptation to create the second national haiku organisation which is bound to be in conflict with the first. You do not need two national haiku organisations in India at least for the foreseeable future. Also, keep this single national haiku organisation asopen, transparent and inclusive as possible.

Sub-haiku organisations are a different story. They can be regional organisations on a geographical basis. Organisations can be established on a language basis. The distinctions can be made according to different categories of haiku, e.g. neo-classical, new-style and vanguard (avant garde). No doubt these will evolve in India during the coming years. However, I cannot recommend strongly enough that you should continue to try hard to have only one national haiku organisation. Japan has three national haiku organisations, apart from numerous gigantic private organisations, duplicating, wasting, confusing and conflicting each other. In this respect, America could be a very good model for India with a single national organisation and many regional and state bodies, somewhat similar to their political structure.

I have celebrated the position for India of being a latecomer in haiku. Being such Indian haiku poets can enjoy the best of both worlds. Namely, they can take good things from the pioneering countries while rejecting their mistakes or things inappropriate for India. They can also benefit from the knowledge and experience which have been accumulated mainly for the last 50 years or so.

One last thing I wish to point out is something fundamental but probably seldom mentioned. I for one have never heard it said. Like so many other things in Japanese art and culture, haiku is a product which originally emanated from the socio-economic condition which we call poverty. Japan was a poor country. Everything, of course, is relative and there were, for instance, rich merchants among Basho’s disciples. However, from how she was in the past, today’s Japan is a miracle, an impossibility! Even until recently, say, before the Japanese economic progress in 1960s, poverty was everywhere to be seen, again relatively speaking. Japanese aesthetic terms such as wabi, sabi and  hosomi and many paintings, artefact, crafts, furniture and ceramics, and generally taste for colours and interior decoration are all sophistication and refinement out of the condition of poverty. When Japan became rich such as theAzuchi-Momoyama period, or the Meiji Era, the Japanese taste became garish andcrass. In rich Japan of the last fifty years, the colour and motifs of women’s kimono, for example, have progressively lost the traditional elegance, subtlety and modest beauty.

What is so wonderful about human culture is that artistic inspirations or poetic sensibilities are never killed by poverty. On the contrary, there have been fine arts and literature created out of, or even because of, poverty. What is really miraculous here is that haiku was born out of poverty. The fact that Santoka, having been born into a rich family, ended up in utter poverty having only his haiku flourishing has a lot to do with this fundamental characteristic of haiku. Also, there is an inner and deep contradiction in  rich and decadent countries of today indulging in haiku. Pursuit of material wealth and individual ambition do not sit well with true haiku spirit.

India is now enjoying incredible and unprecedented economic growth and industrial progress. India is quickly becoming rich. However, try to remember that materialism, worship of Mammon and decadence are antithesis to the essence of haiku.

You may have expected from me a kind of flowery language of greetings and diplomatic niceties which are often used in a speech like this. Instead, I have chosen to mention some hard realities and cautionary tales in order not to insult your intelligence by such empty words of flattery,and to make it quite clear from the outset that there is an incredibly promising scope for haiku in India which should be made the most of without wasting time for frivolity, rivalry or imitation.

I hope you will all enjoy the next three days to the full and come away with an optimistic feeling that haiku will flourish in India and will do so in the right way, namely, Indian way! I wish to express my gratitude to H H Sri Sri Ravi Shankarji for providing us with shelter, food,serene atmosphere and friendship and to Sri Ratan Tata Trust for sponsorship. I would like to pay tribute to those who have worked so hard to make this event possible, especially to Mrs. Kala Ramesh, Director of World Haiku Festival in India.

I wish to close this speech by reading a poem from GITANJALI by Tagore. Its message seems even more needed now than when it was first delivered.


"Song Offerings"
Translations made by the author from the original Bengali.

Mind Without Fear

Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high;
Where knowledge is free;
Where the world has not been broken up
into fragments by narrow domestic walls;
Where words come out from the depth of truth;
Where tireless striving stretches its arms towards perfection;
Where the clear stream of reason
has not lost its way into the dreary desert sand of dead habit;
Where the mind is led forward by thee into ever-widening thought and action---
Into that heaven of freedom, my Father, let my country awake.