Updated: May 3
a piece of sky
~ teji sethi
(published in the Haiku Foundation, Oct 2020)
I had read somewhere that Noble laureate Guru Rabindranath Tagore in 1916 during his Japan visit was captivated by the beauty of a poetic form that was succinct and profound. He then translated some of those Japanese poems into Bengali and experimented with the art form.
Haiku is believed to have travelled to India around that time, but this short form of poetry traces its roots in ancient Japan. This more than 400-year-old art form is considered the shortest non-rhyming poetry form. It came to be known as ‘haiku’ somewhere around the eighteenth century. Earlier known as ‘hokku’, it was the opening verse of long collaborative poetry written in those days.
Haiku is written in three lines, in 5-7-5 format, with a total of 17 syllables (sound units). English Language Haiku does not strictly follow the syllable count and it is generally written as
short/long/short lines in lowercase.
Japanese poets who casted their spell by writing this form of poetry were, Matsuo Basho (1644 1694), Yosa Busan (1716-1783), Kobayashi Issa (1763-1827) and, Mosaoka Shiki (1867-1902) They are known as the Masters of Haiku literature. While Matsuo Basho is considered the pioneer in writing hokku the credit for christening goes to Masaoka Shiki.
The soul of haiku lies in capturing an image of nature in a simplistic manner. What makes this form unique is its expression. Unlike other genres of poetry, haiku does not dwell on poetic devices. Haikai is not cerebral, it is spiritual. The austerity of speech in haikai is palpable.
the sea darkens
a wild duck's call
~ Matsua Basho
ah, if I turn around
that one who passes by
is nothing but mist
~ Masaoka Shiki
Haiku has been seen from various perspectives–to convey an aesthetic image, to appreciate nature and transience, and to accept death in ourselves and everything around us. Haiku brings us the birth and death of each moment. Everything is stripped away to its naked state. In Japanese aesthetics, imperfection, impermanence and incompleteness (wabi-sabi) are defined to express the beauty of art.
What I call the seven tatvas of Haiku, are the elements that make haiku an experiential poem. The poise and grace of a dancer lie in the movements, similarly, the essence of haiku lies in these tatvas. kigo – a seasonal reference, kireji – a pause, ma – space, makoto – truth, karumi – lightness, zoka – the creative force in nature, yugen – mysterious grace.
as it goes with
the wind this cherry petal
so shall I
~ teji sethi, India
(Honourable Mention, Fifth International Cherry Blossom Haiku Contest, May 2021, organised by Bulgarian Haiku Union)
his last trip
on the waters of the Ganges
a floating urn
~ teji sethi
(published in Under the Basho, Aug 2020)
These poems in just three lines carry the weight of a poet’s moment of truth. Being born in a family that migrated from the other side of the fence, readers usually find remnants of separation and partition in my haikai pieces.
I carry the weight
of a throbbing silence
(published in haikuKATHA Issue 4)
Shared below are two haibun (prose with haiku) from my book ‘Moss Laden Walls”
Every day braiding my hair, she narrates tales of her hometown. My thick black hair wrapped around her long bony fingers, she takes me into the katrahs and lanes of Lahore. Her eyes lit up as she speaks of bazaars, her favourite jalebis and dahi bhallas, the kind of salwars she wore, and the mattha patti that adorned her broad forehead on her wedding day. She gets lost in the echoes of the past, and our daily ritual ends in a sigh — ‘puttar jis Lahore nahi vekhaya o jamya hi nahi’
weaver bird ...
picking up the strands
of unwritten stories
Her pashmina drapes were my favourites. She often said — the finest of weaves is weightless. With them around her shoulders, my eyes could never appreciate their intricate patterns. There were finer things that caught my sight — the lines on her face interlaced with cross-border tales and her deep eyes that welled up at the mention of ‘Chenab’
buried memories ...
scent of dampness
seeps through the walls
To a reader, a haiku may convey diverse meanings and that is the beauty of this form. When you read a poem, you attach a personal experience to its interpretation creating a new image. A single poem may have myriad elucidations. The commentary by the editor, Kelly Sauvage Angel on one of my haiku opens the layers of this eight-word poem.
an aged banyan
roots as deep
~ teji sethi, India
(published in the Haiku Foundation,
connection with the natural world, dec
This haiku by Sethi humbles me. Not only does it offer an extremely resonant juxtaposition, but its depth and complexity continue to unfold in a manner that propels one into the most expansive of realms, the spiritual while remaining utterly free of the tethers of religious dogma. Indeed, the history and mythology of the banyan are rich, allowing our understanding to manifest in whatever guise is most meaningful to us; at the same time, one can hardly glance over the banyan’s unique anatomy with its elongated aerial roots which, while expansive, extend underground to an extent that would prove insufficient for support as a single-root system. While the more obvious metaphorical interpretation may leave us chuckling or nodding in agreement, we would be remiss to disregard the tree’s cultural and religious significance, whether as the site of the sermon of the Bhagavad Gita or within the context of the “world tree,” with its roots stretching to heaven.
And, to whom is this piece referring? Perhaps the “aged banyan” is an older member of the poet’s community or an allusion to the depth of our collective failings—or our mythic potential.
The mystery of haiku eludes me. The more I delve into this poetic form, the more it enchants. What came across as serendipity on one odd winter morning at the Katha National Writer’s Workshop, IIC, Delhi has become a quest now.
on an endless quest of self musk deer
(one-line haiku published in the Haiku Foundation, March 2022)