Ikebana is the practice of 'making flowers come alive'. It's not simply putting flowers together, but arranging them so as to evoke nature. The Delhi chapter of the Ohara School of Ikebana, Japan, recently turned 25. To celebrate the occasion, Hiroki Ohara, headmaster of the Ohara School and supreme adviser to Ikebana International, which promotes ikebana globally and is the umbrella organisation of all ikebana schools, was invited to perform a demonstration. Ohara, 26, is the youngest headmaster in the 120-year history of the school. Excerpts from an interview…
How did your journey with ikebana begin?
The Ohara School, founded in 1895, has been around for 120 years. It has had five headmasters from five generations of the same family. We become headmasters through family succession. So when my father died, I started practicing ikebana. I was just seven years old. When I was young, I did not know anything about the art or about the flowers of different kinds. I started out as a blank slate, and consequently I got to interact a lot more with the flowers, the art, and ikebana is a lot about the interaction between the maker and the flowers. I started enjoying the simplicity of it and that interaction made me very happy. Although I started practising the art early, I took over as the headmaster only in 2011. Before that my sister had been handling the affairs of the school.
You're the youngest-ever iemoto or headmaster of the Ohara School. What has that been like?
Usually, one becomes a headmaster after the age of 50. I got this opportunity at an early age because my father died when I was young. For me, being such a young headmaster was a rare chance, but also a golden opportunity. The fact that I'm young gives me more time to engage with the art, learn a lot from the elders, and use my own creativity. That makes me very happy.
What can you tell us about the practice of ikebana in Japan?
Ikebana is a tradition that has been around in Japan for 500 years. Earlier, the arrangements were made in tall vases with flowers that had longer stems. These flower arrangements were called Moribana. After the Meiji Restoration [that returned Japan to imperial rule in 1868, under emperor Meiji], more varieties of flowers started coming in from different countries and flat pots began to be used. This was mainly done because, for example, if a rose with a tall stem was used in an arrangement, it would be looking up. A viewer would not be able to enjoy its beauty. But if you were to bend the rose a little, you would be able to see it whole. Therefore, flat arrangement was devised using flat bowls. These flat bowls, known as suibam, give a landscape view of the arrangement and generally imprint a lasting image in the mind of the viewer.
Though the tradition got lost a few years ago, it is slowly catching on now. The youth also wants to know more about it.
The concept of space is integral to ikebana. What does it signify?
One of the finest cultural aspects of Japan is enjoying emptiness. For example, when you're drumming, you hit the drum, it plays, and then it slowly stops. Japanese culture believes in enjoying the absence of sound created when the drum stops playing. This emptiness or space is called ma. So in Ikebana as well, we believe in enjoying a certain level of ma, an emptiness. In other countries, people tend to use up everything in flower arrangements - all the flowers, all the branches and all the space. In our flower arrangements, we cut the unnecessary things. We believe in the beauty of minimalism. So by using fewer things, we enjoy the space in between.
You have also created a new style of ikebana called hanakanade. What can you tell us about it?
The fundamental concept of hanakanade is the intersection of lines, or the stems of the flowers. The beauty of this arrangement lies in the intersection. Also, most ikebana arrangements can only be viewed from one side. In hanakanade, you can enjoy a 360-degree view of the arrangement. There is no front to it, no one viewpoint. In this style, smaller containers or bowls or vases can be used. This is especially important because houses in Japan are getting smaller. People can't keep big pots in their houses anymore, simply because there is less space. By using smaller bowls, the hanakanade style will maintain the beauty of arrangement while keeping it small enough to be installed in any kind of house. This will also help continue the practice of the ikebana tradition.
Given how much interest there is internationally in ikebana, do you plan to start online tutorials?
(Laughs) I think this is a very Indian question. You all love technical stuff. But you know, I understand your question and I do realise that in countries where there are no ikebana schools, online tutorials can help. However, as of now, there are no plans, because I believe that for this art, the connection between the teacher and the student is very important.
I want to continue and maintain that personal relationship that this art requires and involves.
How would you describe your experience in India?
It's wonderful that after having more than 300 schools of ikebana in Japan alone, we also have international chapters. In India, there are four chapters [Mumbai, Delhi, Bengaluru and Hyderabad] and four study groups [Gurgaon, Gautam Buddha Nagar, Chennai and Coimbatore] and it gives me immense pleasure to see how enthusiastic the people of India are about nature and flowers. This is my first trip to India and the place startles me. I was surprised to see the number of people here and also the really small distance between cars on the road (laughs). The best thing about India is the wide variety of flowers available here, especially because some of these are not available in Japan.