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Small is beautiful

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D Ravindran invites Catherine Gilon into the exclusive and beautiful world of bonsai

Stepping into the C P Ramasamy building in Chennai is like walking into a secret world of wizardry. Students varying in age from 25 to 70 are in rapt attention as the teacher deftly creates a masterpiece before their eyes.

He takes a bushy, wild bougainvillea plant with its paper-like pretty pink flowers and then reveals how he imagines his final work to be. With his canvas—the plant—ready, he begins trimming and pruning the branches slowly. He carefully binds them by bending and twisting wires, and shapes the plant into his dream piece. And just like that, before our very eyes, a wild plant is transformed into a living work of art!

“The idea is to create an illusion of a big tree in a pot,” smiles D Ravindran. A nationally noted horticulturist and bonsai expert, the 68 year-old is most content when pottering around Nikki Bonsai, his 2-acre garden located near Padmanabhapuram Palace in Tamil Nadu’s Kanyakumari district. Named after his son, the property boasts 350 completed bonsais and thousands of pre-bonsai materials (i.e. plants that lend themselves to bonsai).

Ravindran is keen to popularise the craft and after he opened his garden to the public in 2013, he started teaching students with hands-on demonstrations on his prebonsai materials. To this day, his collection of banyans, adeniums, tamarinds, bougainvillea, casuarina, ficus and other trees have awed both hobbyists and the public alike.

Amazingly, Ravindran is a self-taught bonsai expert, who has been fascinated by plants since he was a child. “Initially, I was enamoured of roses,” he recalls. “Sometime in the 1970s, I met horticulturist Prof K P Madhavan Nair at Vellayani Agricultural College in Trivandrum to learn about grafting roses. That was the first time I saw a few bonsai plants at the college.”

It was love at first sight for the 20 year-old budding lawyer. Even as he practised law for eight years and then took over the family business of running a wedding hall, his passion for bonsai grew by leaps and bounds.

With no master to turn to in his hometown Nagercoil, in southern Tamil Nadu, Ravindran learnt from the Japanese masters through books such as Bonsai Miniature Potted Trees by Kuzo Murata and Bonsai Master Class by Peter Chan. Inspired, he would walk through the wilderness and hunt through old buildings and bridges to find those elusive bonsai materials—trees that have a naturally miniature form, like the ones we see growing out of holes in rocks or walls. It was in the wilderness near his home that he chanced upon his first bonsai, a 50 year-old banyan tree, which holds pride of place in his collection.

“Initially, I made a lot of mistakes,” he shares. “So, for instance, I would work on plants that were not suitable, like mango trees, jackfruit, teakwood and so on. Ideally, a bonsai plant must survive for several decades and should tolerate root pruning and changing of soil. Trees like mango and jackfruit cannot withstand root pruning. As bonsai trees need to be aesthetic, it is best to choose species with smaller leaves. If a tree has to adapt and survive in a container, there is no use for long roots. So every four to five years, we remove the plant, check for thick roots and cut them.”

It was only in the late 1980s that Ravindran first showcased his work in public, at a flower show in Kanyakumari. “At that point, I was still trying to comprehend the concept of bonsai.” In 1993, he received his first-ever recognition, the first prize, for his collection of 75 bonsai plants at a flower show in Thiruvananthapuram.

By 1994, Ravindran knew bonsai was more than a hobby for him. He attended his first workshop in Mumbai and learnt from global experts Susumu Nakamura and Karuva Nakamura. Soon enough, he was blessed with an opportunity to learn directly from the legendary Peter Chan. “He was so impressed with pictures of my work that he took time to visit my garden. Never in my wildest dreams did I think that Mr Chan would one day visit my own garden.” Indeed, his work has not gone unrecognised; he is the recipient of the prestigious Iwasaki Award chosen by the legendary Japanese master Daizo Iwasaki, vice-president of the World Bonsai Friends Federation. Like his masters, Ravindran finds utmost joy in sharing his knowledge with those interested in the art of bonsai. He has taught over 2,000 students around the country for a nominal fee, and sustains his garden by selling a few of his bonsai plants—the 20 to 30 year-olds sell for a few lakhs.

While there’s widespread appreciation for his work, there’s been criticism for bonsai too. Critics say this art form is against nature as it doesn’t let the tree grow to its true size. “This is not true,” contends Ravindran. “Bonsai only brings nature closer to you as you can appreciate it in your hands. The plant is just trained to adapt to the plate in which it is grown. Contrary to popular belief, the tree is neither starved nor stunted. When you leave it unattended, the bonsai will go back into a full-fledged tree. In fact, it has been proved that bonsai plants tend to live much longer than when left in the wild.”

Photo courtesy: D Ravindran
Featured in Harmony — Celebrate Age Magazine
July 2018