She was just over 4 feet tall but her voice boomed across the workshop as if it was arising from a big Bose speaker. She spoke, taught, lived, breathed Ikenobo, the oldest discipline in Japanese flower arranging, broadly known as Ikebana. 1400 years, to be precise. It was her life, her passion and she generously gave it to us, her students.
Initially I couldn’t figure out what I should call her. In India, I would have called her ‘Aunty’, but it didn’t seem right. Some called her by name but I couldn’t do that. I tried it but it felt wrong. She was nearly my mum’s age. I dug out the word ‘Ma’am’ from my college days, a term used to address female teachers. It felt right to me and seemed fine by her.
She drew schematic diagrams of arrangements on a white board in front of the class, explaining the name, function, quality and significance of each component. She emphasised the relationship between different parts of an arrangement but mostly, she spoke of the importance of spaces between them.
Wood symbolized mountains while grasses and flowers suggested water. A natural landscape, in a single vase. It was a meditation of sorts, exploring the relationship between the sky, humans and earth, between the outdoors and indoors. It had philosophical representations of the past, present and future. It was about harmony and the laws of nature, a welcome break from the cacophony of London.
After Saagar passed away, she gently encouraged me to join her classes. She knew this art form would help. Mondays became exciting because they were the day of the lessons. Couldn’t believe how little they cost. It definitely was not about money. I joined this community of aspiring flower-arrangers who like me, were constantly baffled by how minor changes made by her, transformed our arrangements into spectacular creations.
Ma’am was a walking-talking Encyclopaedia on all things garden. She had looked after award winning gardens for most of her life. She knew wholesale flower markets intimately and could predict and cherish the floral offerings of every month, every season accurately. But last week, an unfortunate accident suddenly took her away from us, from this earth.
“Not only beautiful flowers but also buds and withered flowers have life, and each has its own beauty. By arranging flowers with reverence, one refines oneself”, she would say.
We will miss you and your finesse, Ma’am. My head bows to the space left by you. Thank you for helping me see beauty in everything.
Cycling again, I feel happy. Alive.
Every few hundred yards, hordes of pristine white conical lilies smile at me. The first time I saw a black and white picture of one such lily was 18 years ago. For the next 5 years it was the largest picture in our house. It filled our space and me with a sense of peace and beauty. I remember being mesmerised by it the first time I saw it. The fact that one single petal could shape itself into this exotic flower, stupefied me. The contrast with that particularly deep shade of green never fails to capture my eyes. Its elegance leaves me speechless.
It has many names – trumpet-lily, arum-lily and calla-lily. Botanically speaking, it’s not a lily at all. It derives its name from ‘calla’, the Greek word for beauty. In the 19th century, there was a flower-language boom that meant certain flowers were associated with expressing particular feelings. There was no need for words. No surprise that it was the theme of many artistic works.
The calla-lily came to play a role in the Christian Easter service as a symbol of Jesus’ resurrection. In art throughout history, the calla-lily has been depicted with the Virgin Mary or Angel of Annunciation. It is associated with purity. As it blossoms in spring, it is also a symbol of youth and rebirth. It’s appropriate for weddings and funerals. It symbolises love, devotion and grief.
While mostly white, they are also found in other colours, each one carrying a different meaning. Pink has a connotation of admiration, purple denotes passion and yellow is typically associated with gratitude. Black ones are truly enigmatic and carry a certain mystery.
“The modest Rose puts forth a thorn,
The humble sheep a threat’ning horn:
While the Lily white shall in love delight,
Nor a thorn nor a threat stain her beauty bright.” – By William Blake
Georgia O Keeffe’s most famous painting – Keeffe Calla Lily