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Fingers that give shape to flowers

“The longest stem in the vase is called shin, the middle one soe and the smallest tai. The height of the soe should be two-third of the shin,” said the slit-eyed professor, turning to the students after a flurry with chalk and duster on the blackboard.

The participants of the workshop at Indo-Japan Welfare and Culture Association on Wednesday were scribbling it all down, for it is not every day that the city hosts a teacher from Ikenobo Ikebana Society, the oldest school of the flower decoration art in Japan. Though some of them could follow the pointers in busy Japanese, others soldiered on with the help of the translator.

Shinobu Akino has brought 30 years of experience with pots and plants to the city. “I have travelled across the world, from Taiwan and Korea to the US and Germany, taking ikebana classes. They take more interest in the art in the West these days than in Asia,” he said, while cutting gladiolus sticks to size for the issuike shoka (single-material) arrangement.

In Japan itself, the popularity of the art is waning. “The young generation is too occupied with other interests — aerobics, computers…The work pressure is also too much for them to have time for hobbies,” he explained. His classes draw students mostly from the forties age bracket. People learn the floral arrangement to do up their homes, especially on occasions like the Japanese new year. “It is hardly a professional calling,” added the economics graduate from the Kyoto University of Foreign Languages, who speaks “a little Portuguese”. Doesn’t that mean a next generation of ikebana teachers is not being trained' “The government is taking steps for that. The subject has been made compulsory in both primary and high schools. Plus there are more than 1,000 ikebana schools around Japan. The floral art is not exactly in risk of extinction,” he smiled reassuringly.

On Wednesday, Akino took up the more intricate styles as the participants were teachers themselves or were associated with the flower trade. “Participation in such workshops gives us new ideas as ikebana is becoming a favoured style of flower arrangement in hotels and restaurants,” said Anasuya Basu of Pushpalata, who does the décor at a number of hotels. The class progressed from the 17th century rikka (standing style) to the 19th century shoka to the more modern moribana (for flat vases).

Most of the students were going about arranging the roses, ferns and arika palms with adequate deftness. After all, the city is no stranger to ikebana. The Calcutta chapter of Ikenobo Society has been around since 1980.

“The origin of the art lies in the practice of offering flowers before the statue of Buddha. The birthplace is considered to be Kukkakudo temple in Kyoto,” explained Arati Mukherjee, teacher at the city ikebana school.

“There has been a dent in the number of students here. Earlier, we used to get a minimum of 30-35 students for every six-month batch,” added D.N. Bakshi, general secretary of Indo-Japan Welfare and Culture Association, under which the Calcutta Ikenobo chapter runs.

Akino will take a class for beginners on Thursday at the Ballygunge Circular Road address of the Association, which will be followed by an exhibition at Swabhumi on Friday. “After the class, I will be off all day collecting flowers for the show,” he signed off.

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