The art of small things

Manoj Kumar has created a precious bonsai garden on the banks of the Yamuna

Written by Priyanka Kotamraju | Published: August 26, 2012 1:16:52 am

Manoj Kumar has created a precious bonsai garden on the banks of the Yamuna

The Yamuna floodplains are a cursed land. Caught between a burgeoning city and a toxic river,the wetland is a fragile ecosystem with disasters,natural and man-made,abound. It is also home to many farms and nurseries where green thumbs have left their prints.

One such man is Manoj Kumar,who owns what is perhaps Delhi’s only bonsai farm. Born into a family of nursery-men,Manoj Kumar,the youngest of four brothers,disliked the family occupation. Their nursery in Khan Market,Janta,was a popular place for avid gardeners,but tending to regular plants held little appeal for Manoj. Photography was where his interest lay. At a flower show organised by Delhi Tourism 25 years ago,Manoj first saw bonsai art,a juniper tree creation. Intrigued,he sought out the artist Leila Dhanda’s works,and since then he has carved a path for himself,bringing his natural gift for gardening and love for art together.

The Tropical Heritage Bonsai and Landscape farm currently houses 5,000 plants,a rest house,six workers and one dog. A pair of shears firmly lodged in his fingers,Manoj takes a turn in the one-acre plot,surveying his bonsai plants,trimming a plant here,pruning a tree there. “Bonsai art,” he claims,“originated in India in the Buddhist tradition,which then travelled far east and took its current avatar there,” much like the religion. “This art is dependent wholly on practice. You can read texts but only if you pick up the tools will you learn anything,” he says. A self-taught artist,Manoj spent time working with his guru Renu Vaish,a prominent bonsai artist,on her farm.

In 1995,he set up his farm on the banks of Yamuna where he continues to create and experiment with bonsai art. His farm houses bonsai plants in all stages of their peculiar evolution. Fully-grown trees are situated around young saplings; five-year-old bonsais,hitting their puberty,mingle with ready-to-exhibit mature tree clumps. “Tree saplings,whose roots are packed with moss,are planted in the soil and left there for a year or two and then the plant is shifted into pots for the next two years. This is when the plant grows furiously,and is pruned,trimmed,and wired regularly to train it to grow in a particular style. Then the bonsai is shifted into trays of decreasing depth. There are 12-13 basic bonsai styles,but many interpretations of them. The most important things in bonsai art are plant selection,bonsai style and soil,” Manoj says,punctuating his lesson with numerous nuggets — visibility of tree trunk line is most important,wiring is the heart of the art,trees with smaller leaves are better and good old practice makes you perfect!

The farm spills over with slanted trees with curving trunk lines,almost uprooted in their appearance. This is the ‘informal’ bonsai style,the most popular one. “It is from nature we draw inspiration from,trees felled in the jungle,struck by lightning,wind-swept,fully blown canopies,all captured in miniature,” he says. Manoj’s favourite style is the ‘formal upright’,a style difficult to attain and proud in its character. He has five ‘formal upright’ bonsais and among them is a prize-winning Kalpavriksha which has been in training for over 16 years.

Manoj recounts tales from 2001,how his bonsais won all competitions that year and how the comments are “still ringing in his ears”. 2010,on the other hand,was a difficult year,he says. Floods ravaged his farm and he lost prized bonsai plants worth lakhs of rupees. “I can recover the money easily,but how do I recover the years spent in creating them,” he says. Now,it’s a double-decker farm,with a raised level constructed to protect his possessions. Business,he says,is thriving. Social media has made it possible for young and old to see,sample and buy bonsais. The most exciting bonsai art is emerging from smaller cities like Ranchi and Hisar,he says. “It was an expensive hobby,but people start with the raw materials now. They want to grow it themselves. Traditional gardeners fail to even water these plants,” he scoffs.

Penjing,a landscaping art from China,is the latest trend in bonsai art,Manoj says. Particularly fond of it,he is creating penjings for people in Delhi,Hisar and Jim Corbett National Park. One penjing sits in a large tray at the farm — porous river rocks piled up to look like mountains,occasional bonsais taking root in the rock soil,and tiny cranes peeking from crevices into the water. In the foothills sit figurines of monks catching fish. A model that captures depth and vastness in the same tray,says Manoj.

Like every other artist,Manoj too has his hallmark. His bonsais are recognised for their health,with no branch out of its place. He demonstrates on a young bonsai,chopping off branches unhesitatingly. “The more you cut,the more it grows. If you want the branch in the right place,you have to cut,” he says.

Cho-Cho,his youngest son,runs amok with Tiger,an old resident with one “formal upright” ear and other “informal wind-swept” ear,in tow. Manoj expertly trims a few leaves off a juniper and collects dead bonsais leaves. “He is the one who will look after my farm,” Manoj foretells,“he has the eye.”

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