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Thread: The Haiku Scene in Tamil (A. Thiagarajan)

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    The Haiku Scene in Tamil (A. Thiagarajan)

    The Haiku Scene in Tamil

    - A.Thiagarajan

    (Adapted from a paper presented at the 9th World Haiku Festival 2008, Bangalore.)

    In an essay at, Charles Turnbull writes: “Exploring verse forms in world literature during the early years of the twentieth century, Nobel Prize-winning poet Rabindranath Tagore translated some Haiku into Bengali in the 1920s (Dasgupta). There is an active haiku scene in India today, writing in Hindi and Tamil and other vernacular languages as well as in English”

    Here are a few initial facts about the Haiku scene in Tamil before we move on to look at some Haiku.

    In 1916, the great Subramanya Bharathi brought Haiku to the attention of the Tamil public through an article he wrote in Swadesamitran in its 16th October 1916 issue.

    K S Venkatramani in his book Paper Boats (first published in 1921) in its second edition in 1925 wrote as quoted below- perhaps the first ever Haiku written in Tamil, though Venkatramani himself does not claim so.

    the corners cut
    paper boat
    I float again

    * Over 220 Haiku collections
    * Over 100 poets
    * A haiku collection called “ Sky at the finger tip” sold 500 copies in a month says its author-poet Mu Murugesan
    * Haiku festivals and carnivals were being held in many towns and semi urban places
    * A television channel had a weekly programme introducing seven poets every week and presented over 100 poets writing Haiku.
    * A documentary on the Haiku of Murugesan, Udayakannan and Vaanavan filmed by Manimegalai Nagalingam.
    * Haiku stickers and a diary with a haiku on each date were also some initiatives.
    * Murugesan brought out a small magazine (bimonthly) called Iniya Haiku in Tamil. One notices with interest the number of poets; the fact that these are from the depth and breadth of TamilNadu is note worthy.
    * In June 2006, one of the telecom service providers in Pondicherry in South India announced a phone in a poem contest for anyone to call and read a poem within 3 minutes which were all recorded- included were Conventional Poetry, New Poetry and Haiku. The prizes were a trip to Singapore and some television sets.

    Going back to history, C Mani and Chandralekha translated some Haiku and published them in Naday and Kanaiyazhi- this is sixty years after the essay of Bharathi.

    According to Tamilnaadan, it is the college professors who introduced Haiku in Tamil: he refers to a 1973 conference held at Chennai where Haiku was discussed- (an interview published by Mu Murugesh in the magazine Iniya haiku (Sweet Haiku)). Poets such as Abdul Rahman, Sujatha, Tamilnadan and Leelavathi are credited to have further introduced Haiku to the Tamil readers. In 1974 by his publication “Paalveedhi”, Abdul Rahman brought out his Sindhar written in the 1970s. In 1984, Amudhabharathi brought his Haiku collection called Pullippookkal claiming it to be the first Haiku book in Tamil. I have some Haiku from him elsewhere in this article. One can not ignore the contribution of essays of Sujatah, Nellai Su Muthu, Abdul Rahman, Tamilanban, besides the early collections of Mithra and Arivumathi.

    The Tamil wikipedia haiku presents the following Haiku-

    Kannaadiyai thudaikka thudaikka
    En mugaththin azhukku
    Gets clearer


    Roughly translated,

    Wiping the mirror
    It gets clearer
    The dirt on my face

    I have simply made the third line of the poet, as second in my translation.

    This one from Kavibala.

    Vidhavai mugam paarkkiraal

    The widow looks at her face
    In the mirror
    The bindi stuck

    For those who do not know, widows do not wear the red dot of vermilion which you see in the south Indian women’s faces. Bindi is the common name of that red dot, though today it is so many colours and shapes. This convention no longer stays though everyone knows about it and the orthodox still follows it.

    The following one from Na. Muthukumar…

    Bimbangalatra thanimayil
    Ondril ondru mugam paarththana
    Saloon kannaadigal

    In imageless (reflection less) loneliness
    Seeing faces in each other
    The mirrors in the saloon (barbers).

    From Sujatha…

    Meen thullugirathu
    Salasalakkum megangal

    Fish jumping (swimming?)
    In water…
    Disturbing clouds

    ( the Tamil word salasalakkum is creating ripples/causing disturbance in an otherwise serene situation ).

    Another of Sujatha

    Kaaril adipattu nasiththa pin
    Naayin vaal mattum

    After getting injured at the car
    The dog’s tail alone

    Asaigirathu is a gentle mild feeble physical movement- like those of the leaves in a gentle breeze.

    This one caught the attention of many

    Kuttayil siruneer kazhikum siruvan
    Vanaththai asaikkiran

    This boy
    Pissing in a puddle
    Shakes the sky

    There are a few sites in Tamil which talk about the history of Haiku and associated forms, the structure and proceed to explain as to how one can write. One of the popular books referred to in the Tamil Haiku world seems to be The Haiku Handbook by William J.Higginson. Writing without rules is like playing tennis without a net – Tamil writers mention this statement of Frost; they also believe that that like Basho that one must learn rules and forget them; it is better to follow your favorite poet –but if you find on reading what you have written, that they all look the same, you should lift your bat higher.

    Basically they all talk of the following 13 or some of them-

    * Seventeen words in a single line or three lines, or 5-7-5 in three lines.
    * Without the count of 17, simply in three lines with the second line being longer
    * structured one below the other
    * capable of being read in one breath
    * all the three lines, when read together not making a single complete sentence
    * a pause at the end of the first or second line but not at both
    * always in the present tense
    * not using metaphors or similies
    * using clear pictures
    * understanding Zen and showing pictures without explaining
    * showing realistic worldly pictures as they are
    * only nature, not men ( though not followed by many)
    * neither rhyming nor alliteration


    Tamil writers say that since it is sometimes difficult to follow some of these conventions, non-Japanese writers are not particular about following the 5-7-5 rule on account of the language peculiarities.

    Here are some from AmudhaBharathi-

    A huge naked figure
    The sky

    Class room
    A child in rapt attention
    A cloud through the window

    The poems have not been
    Completely done
    Some remain in creepers

    A long talk

    Prabhakara Babu published a book “Sara Vilakkugal 560” containing 560 Haiku and he says that to date no one has broken that record.

    Thisaigal an ezine sponsored a Tamil Haiku blog; some haiku from there..

    Mugam paarkkum nilavai
    Muththamittu udaikkum
    Karaiyora thavalaigal

    The frogs at the banks
    break ( disintegrate) the moon
    seeing its face


    viragu samaikkum
    aduppu pugaiyil
    vendha amma

    Here firewood is cooking food- in the smoke his mom is cooked ( boiled is the word used by the poet).


    Unakkum Kedkirathaa
    Sannal thirai kizhindhu vittathu
    Mukkalil munagom alamaari


    Do you also hear
    The window curtain is torn
    The almirah murmurs

    The Tamil word munagum also connotes the small undecipherable sound produced by a person in pain.

    Here is one by Rama

    Pachcahi Naatrugalin
    Paniththuli kannadigalil
    Viyarvai bimbangal

    In the droplets on the leaves of the ….., the sweat reflections. The poet refers to the reflections of the workers in the fields

    Puduvai Yugabharathi writes

    Mazhaiyil nanaiyum
    Ottai kudaigal

    Getting drenched in rain
    The umbrellas with holes very many
    These trees

    Vijay from Kumbakonam writes

    Baalya snegithanai
    Vazhiyil sandhiththen
    Athu avanillai

    a friend of my youth
    meeting on the way
    it is not he (him).

    From Kulaththil Midhakkum Deepangal by Aarisan (an 80 page book of Haiku)-

    Vaanaththil Minnal
    Mazhaiyaai haiku

    Lightning in the sky
    Before thinking
    Haiku rain

    NilaaMuththam- by Mu Murugesh

    Poottiya veedu
    Saavi dhvaraththil
    Oru kulavikkoodu

    Locked house

    In the keyhole
    A wasp's nest
    Another… is it the poet’s feeling for life?

    Kadikkum kosu
    Adikka manasillay
    Vellai aadai

    Mosquito sting
    No mind to squash it
    White dress

    Thavali gudhiththathu
    Thaamarai ilayil
    Urulum nakshatrangal

    Frog jumped
    The stars roll
    On the lotus leaf

    Social concern, poet’s explanation, similies, etc which were considered as non-haiku were often the ingredients of Tamil Haiku- on the justification that even the great Japanese masters did the same.

    leather factory-
    the moon struggles to breathe
    effluent water


    The pond
    Where cranes flew-
    Now the guard’s whistle sound

    ( Tiruchy Kaviththuvan)

    through the dark villages
    go heartlessly to the cities
    the power cables

    (Navamma Murugan)

    Some may ask the poet to cutout the word “heartlessly” – that too rather questionably.

    In the milk vendor’s
    Cycle bell
    The calf’s voice

    (K C Sivakumar)

    A dead tree’s
    sprouting branches
    Show the way

    ( Thi Raa Namasivayam- Punnagai Issue 49)

    Udaikkum varai
    Kuzhanthaiyin man bommai

    (Mu Murugesh)

    Until broken
    It had life
    The kid’s doll

    Iruttil amarndhu
    Mounaththai thinnum
    Anaindha mezuguvaththi

    sitting in darkness
    munching silence
    extinguished candle

    (Mu Murugesh)

    Veedugal izhandha

    Full moon
    The crabs


    Pinaththin meethu malai
    Thenukku varum
    Veetu erumbugal

    garland on the corpse
    for the honey
    the house-ants come


    ( It is customary to adorn the dead body with a garland of flowers; house-ants is a Tamil usage to refer to the ants which you find in houses- as opposed to the jungle variety)

    iravu neram
    thalattum minvisiri
    ettipparkkum nila

    electric fan’s lullaby
    peeping moonlight


    Dhideer mazhai
    Kulm nedugha
    Aachcharya kurigal

    Sudden rain
    All along the pond
    Exclamation marks


    closing the book in a jerk
    the ant stuck inside


    moving music
    the bullock cart


    (I have removed the bellsound originally attached by the poet to the word bullock cart)

    There are some features which are common amongst most of the poets writing in Tamil today -

    * attributing the poet’s own feelings to the animals or the inanimate objects,
    * stating a feeling with cause- the kiss you gave kindles sleeping desires
    * attributing a mood and giving his own reason (the flowers are happy since nobody plucks them),
    * stating a desire or an objective ( let us make dress out of the flags of the parties (political)- let us banish the poverty of nakedness)
    * express anger – the gods with begging bowls at the gates, in the temple a special worship .. the stone idols of gods are bathed in ghee and butter and honey while a hungry child is at the temple gate..
    * clever twist of words or mere wordplay

    Even now, most of the popular large selling magazines magazines use Haiku as they would use a filler. There are many poets who wrote three line poetry who transformed into Haiku writers after exposure to the Japanese masters and literature on Haiku.

    There could be debates and more as to whether these features are acceptable in Haiku - examples may perhaps be found from the Japanese masters for their use and non-use. The sacred rule of 5-7-5 being given a go by could be sited as another example. The trend of the haiku outside Japan breaking slowly out of hitherto accepted conventions is evidenced further by the absence of a season word by many

    One of the writers while countering the criticism that there is no worthwhile Haiku in Tamil challenges the critics to read at least two books before passing any judgment – the two books cited are Mithra’s “ The conversation heard in the Umbrella “ and Arivumathi’s Last Raindrop”. As said by Mu Murugesan, as one who has been writing and compiling Haiku for over two decades- there are over one hundred poets writing Haiku; if we are to put together those which have been written with poetic and subtle insight, they would be over one thousand.

    The two mind sets i.e. of Tamil/Indian and the Eastern are grounded in the fundamental belief system- both believe in “wholeness” “allness” and not in “nothingness”. The Tamils believed in “Muzhumai” (integral totality). Verumai (i.e. nothingness or emptiness) is not being. The logic of the mind is considered to be an imperfect tool to realize the essence of things and life. Swami Vivekananda asked – What is in the intellect or reason? It goes a few steps and there it stops”. The basic approach to life is “intuition”. It is no wonder that we took to Haiku so naturally and spontaneously. The only difference is in the symbols- which acquire meaning by those who use them; though, however, they are such powerful media of communication even to ourselves many times, to see oneself at our deepest and best.

    Water and its myriad avatars – thunder, lightning, clouds, ponds, rivers, sea, thirst, and drop- these are the basic terms of reference for seeing, experiencing and living, for the haiku poets traditionally because of the origins. But for Indians, it is fire – agni. Our literature, life, culture, mythologies… in short we, have fire which is our reference.

    After reading the Japanese masters and embarking upon writing Haiku, it looks normal that the influence of such strong a reference as water finds its place in our writers too ; in time, while we sit and pause and settle in the deepest, more of fire may perhaps be seen in our haiku.`

    Indianising and harmonizing with Tamil culture and ethos can Tamil haiku stand the test of time on its own. Typical examples would be the difference in the seasonal-cycles, flora and the fauna, myths, festivals and customs.

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