Environment

International expert meets Chennai’s bonsai community

Chennai’s active, creative bonsai community often ropes in experts from other cities and countries, to learn, share and hone their art

Casuarina, pomegranate, cherry, bougainvillea, ficus. When you think of them, you think of trees, magnificently standing their ground, rooted deep in the earth. But all these and many more can be grown as bonsai.

Dr Yogesh Bhuvanashwar, President of Bodhi, The Chennai Bonsai Association, calls bonsai an ‘exercise in imagination’: “Bonsai is a wonderful mix of horticulture and creativity. You need to study your environment and the plant, to see how best to grow it. But once you have the basics right, the tree speaks to you,” he elaborates, as he imagines what a casual Casuarina could become, pruning its delicate leaves. His masterpiece will be inspected and improved by Moshe Emergui, a visiting Israeli bonsai artist, at a workshop organised by Bodhi.

The hall at the Green Meadows Farm on East Coast Road is enveloped by a salty breeze, as visitors admire bonsai of different ages, botanical families and in different styles.

“At Bodhi, we are constantly looking at new ways of growing healthy bonsai in our local environment. The Chennai climate is a big factor while choosing what kinds of plants to prune. While pines are popular in Japan, we have to look at tropical plants like casuarina and ficus, that seem to enjoy the warmth,” adds Yogesh.

Know your basics

Even as he says this, over 50 bonsai enthusiasts deftly snip branches, wrap wire, and bend them ever so gently, tinkering with Nature, with deep respect. “People often ask us, isn’t it cruel to wrap branches with wires? The wire is merely to shape the branches, we must be careful that they do not ever cut the plant,” states Suseela Vergis, who has painstakingly created over 300 bonsai over four decades. She enumerates simple tips to protect them, “In Chennai, we have a few common insects that disturb the peace. We see caterpillars, but let them munch on leaves like they would in Nature. The ones to watch out for, are the aphids and mealybugs. For the former, you introduce ladybugs into the space, while the latter can be sprayed with a natural fix-three Gs — green chilli, ginger and garlic, ground to a paste, strained and made into a solution with some neem oil.”

Yogesh, who has hundreds of bonsai in his home garden, spends at least three to four hours over the weekend, with his plant companions. “In Chennai, we find any tree that grows well in local conditions, can be grown in miniature form. The trick is to imitate the trees found in Nature, and soil conditions.”

The Chennai heat and salinity in the water, have to be factored in as well, when choosing bonsai. “Salt deposits in water cause browning of leaves. On ECR, the sandy soil helps filter the salt out, so the trees thrive there, while over OMR, we notice that we have to pour water in a bucket and let the dissolved salt settle. We also use aluminium compounds to neutralise its effect,” states Maria Vivish, who picked up her love for all things green while tending to her mother’s fruit trees in gardens at army postings, all over the country.

She elaborates, “Bonsai need sunlight but not the scorching heat we get in summer, so we use shaded nets to protect the bonsai. We also need to mist leaves, and water the plants twice a day during the hottest months. This lets roots absorb water, transferring nutrients to the branches.”

Suseela, who has a bonsai as old as her middle-aged son, shares some advice on manure, especially suited to the city. “When we conduct our monthly meetings at Bodhi, or even organise workshops like these, we answer questions, share successes and failures. Simple things, like using organic manure, which combines cow dung and other natural compounds, help the bonsai flourish.” Bodhi members seem to share one sentiment in common: bonsai is an art, and plants often become members of the family, when you spend time and energy watching them grow. They sometimes outlive you, a testimony to the craft and the sturdiness of the microcosm of life in a container.

Here and there

The community is a lively one, and often takes in expert advice from other cities like their recent workshop which featured Jyoti and Nikunj Parekh, veterans in the field and co-authors of Tropical Bonsai, that was published way back in 1977. The duo, who had shared expertise on ceramic rock making and arrangements in a miniature landscape, have plenty more to tell. “Earlier, we would procure materials from abroad, which is prohibitively expensive. Now, we create our own rock and pottery in Mumbai, and it enlivens the craft, giving it a local flavour,” says Jyoti.

“We like to create miniature forests. When we learn to love the micro environment, we learn to appreciate the macro milieu as well,” adds Nikunj, as he rhapsodizes on the parallels between botany and philosophy. “Strong roots, give you strong trees, much like the foundations of a good family.”

Dr Sujata Bhat, Director of Bonsai Clubs International, Mumbai adds, “Bonsai is about aesthetic temperament as well. The visible root system, the topiary, the canopy or crown on top or a cascade of branches, even the age of the tree is important. It’s all about asymmetry, trying to recreate what we observe in Nature, but with a deep mystery and magic. It’s meditative.”

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Printable version | Apr 3, 2020 1:55:35 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/sci-tech/energy-and-environment/international-expert-meets-chennais-bonsai-community/article31082360.ece

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