Blooming in mythology!

Ramayana through Ikebana was released on the occasion of celebrating 70 years of diplomatic ties between India and Japan in 2022. A quick tete-a-tete with the authors Meena Iyer and Simran Sadana with Janani Rajeswari. S

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Flowers can tell stories. Imagine Lord Rama represented as a pink bougainvillea or as a yellow chrysanthemum flower. Or Sita devi being represented using lotus or a pink gladiola.These flowers represent their roles in different scenes of the Ramayana. The guru-shishya author duo Meena Iyer and Simran Sadana, narrate select verses from the extensive Ramayana by Sage Valmiki through Ikebana, the age-old form of Japanese flower arrangement. Their book ‘Ramayana through Ikebana’ was released on the occasion of celebrating 70 years of diplomatic ties between India and Japan in 2022.

Acquaintance with Ikebana

What connects a seasoned First Master Ikebana artist Meena Iyer and a multi-faceted Simran who is into consulting and analytics, singing, languages, swimming and so on? The answer is The Ohara School of Ikebana in Tokyo. The two graduated from the same school,but three decades apart. The latter has been associated with Ikebana for nearly a decade now. When Simran (Second Assistant in Ikebana) wanted to specialise in Ikebana in New Delhi, she found her teacher in Meena Iyer. Thus began the journey of the teacher-student duo.

Ikebana and why Ramayana

Meena Iyer has been into Ikebana for over four decades now. So, is it the same as the flower arrangement as done in the other parts of the world? Simran and Meena Iyer reveal: “Nope. The core of Ikebana is minimalization. So, this would only require sometimes one or even three flowers and explore the different styles of flower arrangement. It’s about cutting and placing flowers and creating an artistic sense in a shape or a container and enjoy the beauty of nature,” says Simran.

The inspiration to depict Ramayana came from the former headmaster of the Ohara School of Ikebana, reveals Meena. “He depicted paintings from China through Ikebana,” she adds. Simran says that Ramayana has already been depicted in the form of sculptures, paintings and so on.

“I thought why not try to combine Ramayana and Ikebana,” she adds. It’s the first time that someone has attempted to depict the mythology through Ikebana. “The idea was to bring the cultures of the two countries together. This would also help the masses understand the epic,” says Simran. The duo organised an Ikebana exhibition of the scenes from Ramayana in October 2019 in New Delhi.

The exhibition received immense response from mainstream audience, who were not from the field of art. “These included those who either don’t know about Ramayana or about Ikebana. So, it reached out to a global audience,” says Meena Iyer. This encouraged them to adapt it to print form.

Exhibition to the book

“Close to 15-20 pieces on this theme pushed our limits on creativity and logistics of demonstrating this live to numerous visitors through the exhibition. However,the idea of writing a book made it more exciting and enriching,” says Meena.

“Never has an artist brought out this amalgamation of Ikebana and storytelling either in an exhibition or a book format. This was indeed a drive which made the concept exciting as well as a new learning for both of us,” says Simran.

To choose the final 34 arrangements for the book, the duo read the entire original version of the Valmiki Ramayana constituting of 24,000 verses to identify crucial scenes which could be designed using an Ikebana arrangement.The second phase was the inspiration that involved collecting the necessary items to create the arrangement.

“We ideated on what natural materials, design styles we could possibly use to represent each of the scenes. We started with over 50-60 scenes as concepts to explore for Ikebana arrangements,” says Meena. These included materials vases, dried leaves, mushrooms and so on to put the ideation into form.Interestingly, even palm sheets, panels, barks, and numerous other materials are part of the depictions. Each evokes an important emotion, according to the duo.

Thirdly, the duo decided the narration style of this book. “After brainstorming about our target audience and different field experts, we decided to break the story down into different chapters where we narrated Valmiki’s Ramayana and then ended each chapter with one of our arrangements,” explains Simran.

This also included explaining in detail the thought behind the design of the display and symbolism of each element. “This is was important, as unlike the exhibition, readers must cohesively understand and absorb the depth of the artistic displays,” she adds.

Exploring freestyle Ikebana

Meena recalls how as a wife to a Foreign services officer, she had the chance to collect various needle pins, vases and so on over the years. “Flowers are extremely expensive and some of them are seasonal. So, Ikebana is also about using what is available. What is important is in which direction you show it,” quickly summarising the artform.

So, have the duo stuck to all the rules of the traditional form of Ikebana? “In traditional styles of Ikebana, plant materials are part of the core design. However, we do use other materials while making free style arrangements. Most of the arrangements are free style in the book as we focused on different materials essaying different characters or structures,” explains Simran.

The book begins with a scene that inspired Sage Valmiki to write the Ramayana. “The sage is saddened by the sight of two birds being shot by a hunter. This inspired him to write the first verse,” explains Meena Iyer.

So, let’s see how freestyle Ikebana arrangements have adorned the book. For instance, while depicting the quarrel between Queen Kaikeyi and King Dasharatha, the latter is represented through a white feather (purity at heart and also growing old). Or the once beautiful Shoorpanaka’s true ugly form is depicted through dried mushrooms. Or when Hanuman meets Sita, Ashoka Vatika (forest) is shown through a combination of wooden bark and the Chandani leaves.

Celebrating 70 years of diplomatic ties between India and Japan

The exhibition took place before the COVID-19 period. Then it was completely a no-contact situation. Following this, Meena and Simran started work on the book early last year. “The year 2022 also marked the 70th year of diplomatic relations between India and Japan. So, we thought it was the right time to bring out the book,” says Meena Iyer. So, they decided to approach the Consulate of Japan who agreed to sponsor the publication of the book.

“We received great appreciation from senior officials such as Dr. S. Jaishankar, Minister of External Affairs, G20 Sherpa Amitabh Kant, included as part of the foreword and reviews of the book,” says Simran.

Challenges and memories

Simran talks how they did multiple sessions of playing with different materials to arrive at each scene. We browsed through our materials, walked through different landscapes, browsed various styles to take inspirations. “It was only when the final design brought a soft smile of joy, we knew we had landed the concept aptly,” she adds.

Meena recalls how depicting the scene of Hanuman burning down Lanka was particularly challenging as it meant bringing together various things. “Creating such a large arrangement was exciting and inspiring as we used various materials such as large palm sheaths, dried Tulsi, branches of Arjuna pods, Red berry sticks and chrysanthemums. It took us various iterations before to come up with a structured cohesive theme, which was visually impressive and also symbolic of the story,” adds Simran.

It’s raining accolades

The book has received a wonderful response from people from diverse backgrounds and culture: holding a common thread of appreciating innovation and pushing the frontiers of expression in art. “Even our Ikebana friends globally were very impressed with the artwork and uniqueness of this art form,” says Simran.

Above all, ‘Ramayana through Ikebana’ received a global acknowledgment by being awarded ‘Literary Titan Gold’ award, ‘Golden Book award’ and Suenos award for Non-Fiction book of the year.

What lies ahead?

Simran and Meena reply in unison that the whole experience has been surreal. “It has pushed our vision of Ikebana beyond imagination. Throughout the journey of writing the book and making the Ikebana designs, our appreciation for the art, the nuances and the complexity of writing a book was indeed enriching,” says Meena.

They hope that the book creates awareness about Ikebana and that the readers appreciate it coupled with visual representation of Ramayana. “It’s also a means of appreciating the fact that there is tremendous untapped opportunity in fusion across different traditional artistic styles & culture,” says Meena Iyer.

The duo wishes to attempt further concepts on similar lines and raising awareness about this unique art from in novel experimental ways.

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