Valeria brings the Japanese art of Ikebana to Auroville.
“You do Ikebana to touch the heart of the flower,” says Valeria softly, “and to do Ikebana you have to listen to the voice of the flower.” Her recent two-day exhibition in Auroville was commissioned for the Integral Psychology Conference, but she knew nothing about it. “When Aloka passed on the request from Aster Patel to me, I accepted. And it felt very nice to do this at Transition School where the children can also visit.” The show was in the school gymnasium, a spacious and airy room with a high ceiling. Converted into a pristine gallery space complete with white linen curtains covering the windows, it was the perfect setting for Valeria's Ikebana exhibits.
This is Valeria's second showing in Auroville. “Last year I did an exhibition with Michel and Kenji, my husband, at the Tibetan Pavilion.” She shares her experience of the artistic collaboration. “For me it was very good working with them. It is not easy for three artists to work together, but there was not even a second of tension. People who came to the show said they could feel the harmony in our work.”
Valeria is originally Italian, but professes a deeper identification with the Japanese and Japanese culture. She is married to Kenji, a Japanese, who works artistically with wood in Auroville. She shares her and their story of coming to Auroville. “My first visit to India was over 27 years ago. I was very young, and at that moment decided that I wanted to come and live in India .” She went back to Italy to finish her studies in psychology. “After I finished university, I started to work in a hospital and saved up some money. I decided I wanted to come to India by yacht so I bought myself one and I travelled in it for 8 years.” However her dreams of sailing to India were constantly thwarted. “Always some obstacle or the other came up – war, sickness – and I never reached the Indian shores.” It was then that she met her husband Kenji. “He was also going around the world by yacht like me. We got together and sailed back to Japan . We settled in the south part in Okinawa , small semi-tropical island. It is a very beautiful place.” It was there that her desire to revisit India came up. “Kenji had never been to India either. The closest he had been was to Sri Lanka . At that time, I didn't want to come to Auroville, because the guidebooks often wrote bad things about it! But a very strange situation happened and we landed up here – this was 14 years ago, when I had just started to learn Ikebana in Japan , and it was only the second month of my learning. I was near the Eucalyptus grove. At that moment I felt something inside me say, ‘You have to come to Auroville and teach Ikebana.' And it is not easy to get a diploma in Ikebana … also I didn't speak Japanese!” Valeria and Kenji went back to Japan . She studied Ikebana for 10 years. And three years ago, Valeria and Kenji, along with their 6-year old daughter, arrived in Auroville.
Joining Auroville and offering her skills in Ikebana to the community was not easy. “One member of The Entry group told me that Auroville does not need more artists, it needed people to do practical work.” But she stood firm and determined. “I was quite stubborn. I came here to do Ikebana, and I wanted to do Ikebana.” Now she looks back on the experience with humour. “Even though it was a little hard at the time, now some of these same people have even asked to learn Ikebana!” Valeria offers regular classes to Aurovilians and newcomers, and workshops to guests, but keeps the enrolment limited. She explains, “You need a lot of preparation and material for Ikebana arrangements and especially for teaching. Fresh flowers, other plant elements, vases, bases…” Over the last three years in Auroville, her collection of raw material has grown, which has brought up the issue of storage. “Right now they are all in my house, and I am already running out of space.”
This is one of the many reasons why she nurtures the dream of a Japanese pavilion in Auroville. “It will be so nice, but Kenji and I are not so good at fund-raising,” she says apologetically. “It can be the centre for many of the beautiful things that Japan has to offer – Ikebana, shiatsu, the tea ceremony, zazen, Aikido, yukiye (woodblock prints), a zen garden…” She feels that though there are only three Aurovilians of Japanese origin, there are many in Auroville who are in some way connected to Japan . Valeria herself identifies strongly with the Japanese and Japanese culture. “I don't see myself as Italian,” she explains. “When I speak about Japan , I always say ‘we in Japan ', or ‘we Japanese' and I didn't realize it until people pointed it out to me.”
She confesses that she loves Japan and does miss it in Auroville. “Especially the strong sense of respect that the Japanese have. Respect not only for people but for everything – for each flower, for each material thing.” She shares a distressing experience of witnessing one of her Ikebana arrangements being dismantled by a child at a recent art exhibition in Auroville. “And this happened right in front of the mother's and many other people's eyes and they did not do anything!” With such experiences, Valeria believes strongly that the children in Auroville and Aurovilians themselves need to develop a greater respect for material things, and her way to help to do it is through Ikebana.
Valeria's approach to teaching Ikebana in Auroville is through silence. “It needs a lot of patience, concentration, and quietness. If one does Ikebana in an agitated state or with a competitive attitude, it shows. Ikebana looks simple to do – just a few branches put together. But when you try it you realize how difficult it is. I stood behind my beloved teacher in Japan for ten years, always feeling gratitude towards her for having the opportunity to learn. I never felt offended or frustrated when she rearranged my Ikebana: I was only there to learn. But in Auroville I feel that sometimes the student finds it difficult to be taught.”
Valeria shares the experience of one of her students, Tom from Dana. “When he signed up for the classes, I did not expect him to continue. But one day he said to me, ‘For the first time in my life, I see plants.' Many practitioners of Ikebana feel that the Zen aspect is very important: it helps you to ‘live in the moment' and to appreciate things in nature that previously had seemed insignificant. In Ikebana there is no hierarchy; a simple grass is as important as an orchid because it is not the beauty of the flower that will make a nice arrangement, it is the harmony you try to create. So once your eyes open for Ikebana, you can open your eyes for something else, and so on…”
Valeria's connections to flowers have influenced Auroville. She shares, “When I arrived here, Pour Tous had no separate flower section – just a big bucket in the vegetable counter where all the flowers were crowded together. And I had to tell them how the flowers should be treated with respect; that each flower needed its own type of container; that the water had to be fresh; that the stems needed to be trimmed in a certain way… Now all is changed. I once even caught Sid at Pour Tous using a water mister to keep the flowers fresher!”
Silence pervades the space. It seems as if the visitors are floating gently from piece to piece, thought processes at a standstill, perception operating from a higher level. There is an overwhelming sense of absolute perfection – a collection of miniature arrangements of single flowers in the middle of the room is exquisite in detail. ‘Divine Love governing the world'; ‘Remain only with him who offers it to the Divine', ‘Mental goodwill'; ‘Power to reject adverse suggestions'. It appears as if the spiritual significance of the flowers as expressed by the Mother has best been revealed through Valeria's Ikebana in Auroville.