I miss the elegant cherrywood hairpin shaped like a meditating saurus crane that I hid in a mug of woody-stemmed fake flowers in my room at work (it disappeared last year). The crane was the same pale straw colour as the flower stems; you could only see it if you really looked. I kept it as a tiny surprise and visual reward for visitors who really looked and obviously someone did more than that. I’d bought it in Kyoto from a little old shop where geishas still buy their charming hair ornaments.
The arrangement was my gesture towards the late Rukmini Parasuraman, my aunt’s mother-in-law, who was majorly into mah-jongg (Chinese solitaire) and ikebana, like many Indian ladies...
“Why do you always make triangles?” I asked as a curious pre-teen one day in her Bombay home. “Heaven, earth, man,” muttered Mrs P, trying to shuffle some corn stalks around fake silk poppies on a large ‘pin-holder’ or ‘frog’. “Sun, moon and earth,” she added as an afterthought through amouthful of almost invisible silk thread. And as a clout on the ear for disturbing her at work, she suddenly threw me a googly: “Which triangle?” Oops. “Scalene?” I asked hopefully, not really sure. Thank God it was. It’s the ikebana principle of balance and harmony, as I learned later. It is also a meditation, to be practiced in silent concentration, not quite the snip that sticking a dozen glads in a vase is.
Basically, ikebana means ‘arranged flower’ in Japanese, which they also call kado, the ‘way of flowers’. As with many other Japanese refinements, ikebana too began in Kyoto. And as many beautiful arts were, it was religious in origin.
It began at the ‘Purple Cloud Temple’ (Shiun-ji) as an altar offering. A particular priest was so gifted at making those
that others asked him to teach them. (There really is such a temple! A sixth century prince was told in a dream by the Buddha to build a cedarwood temple under the purple cloud that hung over a lake in his kingdom).
So what’s in ikebana for the practitioner? Deep relaxation, with something beautiful to show for it afterwards. As you arrange, you’re supposed to properly notice the various colours, shapes and textures that nature has for you to play with.
The container is just as important. Themes and patterns have developed over time, so there are ‘classical’ arrangements, like rikka (a tall, standing flower flanked by two shorter stems) and various schools of ikebana. It seems it was not just an elite art but popular with all classes and a big part of public festivals.
The 20th century brought in ‘free style with moribana (in a shallow container) and nagaire (in a long, narrow) vase. Both styles had ‘slanting’ and ‘cascading’ variations. Just last weekend, Delhi Ikebana International held a homegrown exhibition in a big mall. Google ‘Ikebana International’ if you'd like to find out more. The NGO was founded in 1956 by Ellen Gorden Allen to promote friendship through flowers. Guess that crane flew off to spread happiness.