Saturday, December 31, 2011

Saihate-no-oka by Saburo Kato

After my last year’s trip to Japan, I posted a blog entry titled “Forest planting by Saburo Kato?” ( This forest setting was superb (see photo above), it was located in Mansei-en nursery in Omiya and I suggested that it was probably done by Saburo Kato. I wasn’t sure, but not anymore.

After reading Saburo Kato’s book ‘Forest, rock planting and Ezo Spruce bonsai’ I know that my guess was correct. In fact, the photo of this forest setting taken in 1988 is featuring on the book cover itself (see photo below). I also learned that the setting is much more special than I thought. This bonsai is one of Saburo Kato’s most well-known masterpieces called Saihate no oka (The Remotest Hill). All trees are Ezo Spruce (Piciea glehnii) collected by Saburo Kato 70 years ago from Kunashir Island, which is not a part of Japan anymore. The main trunk is about 250 years old! Saburo Kato worked on this forest for three years. When I saw the setting I thought it is on the rock slab, but the book says it’s on a custom made ceramic slab made in Tokoname. I must admit though, this setting looked better in 1988.

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Plant choice for bonsai: Sentiment vs suitability

India is an ancient civilization and in the course of its long history many plants acquired deep cultural significance. Some of them are loved as food, some for their medicinal properties and some for their religious significance. In an individual this significance manifests as sentiments towards certain plants. To an Indian bonsai grower plant’s sentimental value often has a stronger appeal than its suitability for bonsai. A good outcome is possible only when sentiment and suitability coincide. Peepal Tree (Ficus religiosa) is a good example of that (top left picture). This tree is worshiped in temples, its seedlings grow on top of almost every builing in Chennai and it is a great tree for bonsai. In fact, bonsai trees which impressed me the most in Chennai were figs. Some of them are shown in photos above and below.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Bonsai soil for Chennai climate

The soil used for bonsai in Chennai is very different from what we use in Australia. It is a mixture of red clay, sand and cow manure. Some growers add broken low-fired red brick for better drainage. The sand used in the mix is rather small grain, like the one used for mixing concrete. While we in Australia make our soil mix for drainage, they in India make their soil for water retention. The climate in Chennai can be very hot and dry. Never the less, bonsai growers in Chennai complain that their trees grow too fast! Needless to say, clay and manure provide their plants with ample nutrients. High temperatures all year round don’t allow the soil to be saturated with water for too long, especially in a shallow container. I also think that native plants of Tamil Nadu are adapted to waterlogged soil during monsoon and very dry soil in summer. The soil is too sticky when wet and for repotting they use dry soil mix (see image below).

Bonsai containers in Chennai, India

It seems that in India there is only one ceramic artist who makes bonsai pots. His name is B.R. Pandit and his studio is at Bhayandar, Maharashtra. In the bonsai community his pots are referred to as ‘Pandit pots’. These pots demonstrate sound craftsmanship and mostly inspired by more ornate Chinese examples. Chinese aesthetics probably appeal to the artist and bonsai growers due to cultural proximity to China. Some examples of Pandit pots are shown in the image below.

Another type of containers I saw used for bonsai is Jaipur Blue Pottery (see pictures below). They are low-fired pots made of white clay and decorated predominantly with cobalt and copper oxides. If someone made them in stoneware and added feet, they would make a beautiful native style of bonsai pots.

Most commonly bonsai and bonsai material are grown in terracotta pots. They are hand-made, unglazed, low-fired flower pots, which sometimes come as shallow planters without feet. They are very unpretentious and sometimes slightly crooked. Old terracotta pots develop a patina of dirt and algae and can look quite wabi sabi (see image below).

Of course, I should mention that a lot of bonsai in Chennai are grown in containers imported from China. Chennai, however, doesn’t have a shop where you can buy them. Bonsai pots are ordered from Bombay or Kerala and buyers have to bear the cost of brakeage during transportation. Apparently, they are transported on the roofs of passenger buses and the brakeage is quite high. As a result of all this, bonsai growers in Chennai have a limited choice of containers.

Tuesday, December 06, 2011

A go at saikei

Yesterday was my last bonsai class for this year. The structure of the class was a surprise to all students. The class was divided into two teams and each team was given the same materials to create a saikei landscape. It was compulsory to use a ceramic mountain and nine small-leaved box plants and the rest was optional. The outcome of these efforts is shown below. Apparently, these two miniature landscapes will be auctioned later for charity.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Bonsai garden at Semmozhi Poonga park

Semmozhi Poonga is a paid entrance park in Chennai. It is run by the Tamil Nadu Directorate of Horticulture and Plantation Crops and it features a bonsai garden. Most of the trees are Ficus microcarpa imported from China. Among them there are trees in containers that are about five years old (see picture above) and trees planted in the ground which are about 40 years old (see picture below). The majority of the potted plants were in local unglazed terracotta containers without feet. I felt that this garden is that it’s bedraggled.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Bharani jars from Kerala

Dakshinachitra is an open air museum of traditional South Indian architecture. Traditional houses displayed there also feature traditional household items. In a traditional Hindu house from the South Indian state of Kerala I saw interesting earthenware jars. Unlike the unglazed Indian terracotta ware used for cooking, these jars were glazed earthenware (see the picture). Later, I learned that in Kerala these jars are called Cheena Bharani because they were originally made in China for transporting preserved foods. Bharani jars would regularly end up in Kerala through maritime trade, where they were used for preparation and storage of Indian style pickles. To me, these jars emanate what Japanese call wabi. It was interesting to see three different traditional glazes and a very unintentional partial glazing used on the leftmost jar.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Cholamandal Artists' Village

Yesterday, I visited Cholamandal Artists' Village. Fifteen years ago, I met some of the village’s artists and visited their studios through my work. This time, I am just a tourist visiting their art gallery. Some of the art displayed there was of outstanding quality. One artist’s work caught my eye because it had a striking resemblance to suiseki or bonkei. They were ink drawings by K. R. Harie produced in 2009 (see pictures above and below).


Yesterday, visited the town of Mahabalipuram about 60 km from Chennai. It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site because of the monolithic monuments built in the 7-9th centuries. Stone carving has been a traditional craft in this area for two thousand years. This time, I spent some time observing the work of the stone carvers. Everything except the finishing touches with a pointed chisel (picture “A” above) is done by power tools. First they shape a block of granite for a particular sculpture, by making parallel cuts (picture “B” above) with a diamond blade on an angled grinder. After that all major carving is done by the angled grinders (marked 3 in the picture below) and each artist goes through one or two blades per day. All finer carving is done with diamond bids marked 1 and 2 in the picture below. The bid marked 2 lasts only for 2-3 days, while the bid marked 3 may last for up to two weeks.

Despite of the use of power tools each sculpture takes an amazingly long time to make. For example, picture “A” below shows a sculpture which has been worked on for one and a half months. And those people work long hours. Picture “B” below shows a stature that’s been worked on for at least three months and there is still a lot of finishing work to be done.


Friday, November 04, 2011

Bonsai pots made in October

The oval pot shown above was made with a plaster mold and then was wood-fired. The iron in the clay completely consumed the glaze and the visible pattern is created by molten ash.
The oval pot shown below was formed on the wheel. No glaze, just iron oxide rubbed into the cracks.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Presentation by Bill Valavanis

 Earlier this month, I attended a presentation and a critique session by Bill Valavanis from the US. He is a well-known figure on the international bonsai scene. He has been doing bonsai for 50 years and has a long list of achievements. His presentation was informative and thought provoking, but not in a big way. There was a bit of self-advertising, but to me, when someone is presenting their bonsai credentials, it always comes down to five words: “show me your best tree”. He probably has some amazing bonsai in his collection, but he hadn't to showcased them well in his presentation. I think his presentation barely scratched the surface of his bonsai knowledge and I would definitely want to learn more from him. He studied bonsai in Japan and for me, the most interesting aspect of his presentation were occasional insights into Japanese mentality and values pertaining to bonsai.

Saturday, October 08, 2011

Sydney Bonsai Spectacular

Last weekend, I saw an exhibition called Sydney Bonsai Spectacular held at Merrylands RSL. This was a joint effort of Sydney’s ten bonsai clubs. It was an interesting show. My favorite tree is shown below. In the past its trunk had no taper. Its owner split the trunk from the bottom and created a shari around the split area. It was a risky move, but it really paid off. It produced desired taper and added a lot of interest to the trunk.

There were quite a few trees with superb potential, which could have been turned from ‘good’ to ‘great’ by a simple change of balance in the branches or just by a greater amount of regular bonsai care. The exhibition also featured a few suiseki some of which are shown below.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Vintage Chinese pot

I bought a vintage Chinese bonsai pot. The previous owner Dorothy Koreshoff had it for a long time. According to her it is an imitation of Kanton green ware produced somewhere in northern China. It was certainly a mass-produced flower pot of its day. However, this pot tells a story. I instantly fell for the wonderful dragons-and-clouds decoration and beautiful running glaze forming tears all around the base (arrow 1, picture below). In fact, the glaze ran so much that the pot’s feet got completely stuck to the kiln shelf and had to be broken off (arrow 2), which probably was a normal practice. I know that the pot is old because it is wood-fired and mass-produced pottery in China is not wood-fired for many decades. The gloss on the inside surface of the pot (arrow 3) is molten wood ash. Also, only wood-firing produces flashes on unglazed surfaces. The flashing shown at (arrow 4) actually happened because another smaller pot was fired inside this pot. The weight of this smaller pot made the bottom of the big pot sag and it slightly distorted its whole form. All this makes this pot very unpretentious and reminds me of Yanagi Soetsu’s unknown craftsmen and the Mingei movement. The pot has no artist's mark. I also know how this pot was actually formed. The creases on the bottom of the pot shown at (5) indicate that the pot was formed by pressing a slab of clay into a mold. If the pot is old enough the mold could have been made of wood and not plaster. Now, you know what I mean when I say this pot tells a story.