Speaking stones - Suiseki

Hobby Suiseki is the art of viewing stone. It can be as beautiful as music or poetry, says M. Ponnuswami as he shows his collection to K. Jeshi
In the book “The Japanese Art of Stone Appreciation” , authors Covello and Yoshimuro describe how during the reign of the Japanese Empress Regent Suiko (AD 592-628), Chinese emissaries presented the Empress with a landscape stone. The Chinese, during their travels to Korea and Japan, are credited to have introduced the art of stone appreciation or Suiseki (Sui meaning water and seki meaning stone). A stone worthy of enjoyment, very similar to a painting, songs or poems. “A viewing stone invites you to introspect,” says M. Ponnuswami.


A person, who admires and appreciates bonsai (a life member of Bonsai Club International, he is recognised as an international consultant by the World Bonsai Friendship Federation, U.S.), he also collects unique stones. “Suiseki was introduced as a complementary art to Bonsai. Now, it’s recognised as a separate art. Even as a small boy I was fascinated by the unique shapes and figures ofgonthu (gum) you find on the trunks of trees,” says Ponnuswami, who is Advisor (Soya) of Sakthi Sugars Limited.
His soon-to-be published coffee table book “Suiseki- The art of Stone Viewing” features images of 200 stones from his collection, all hand picked from streams, deserts, river beds, rocky mountains, sea shores and crater sites. The stones are usually displayed on carved wooden bases or on trays of sand. Ponnuswami’s collection of more than 500 stones have come from places as far as Jaipur, Udaipur and from the banks of the Yamuna, and the Cauvery. He also has a collection from the mountainous sites in Erode, Coimbatore, Karur, and Vavipalayam, a crater site near Palladam. Some of his semi-precious and crystal stones have come from quarries in Kangeyam.
Awareness in Suiseki is picking up in India, he says. The Bonsai clubs in Mysore and Bangalore give demos on how to collect stones. In 1998, Ponnuswami travelled all the way to China to show his collection. “I had to travel business class, because the stones alone weighed around 20 kgs! It’s an expensive hobby,” he jokes.

Magical shapes
The stones that lie on river beds and ocean shores are eroded into interesting shapes with holes and hollows. The surface of these stones suggest great age and evoke the grandeur of nature. You find rhythm and harmony in the patterns on these stones, he says. Pointing to a ‘Colorado Rock, intact with a multitude of layers, Ponnuswami explains, “It takes thousands of years for a single layer to form. So, imagine how old the stone is. It is possible to determine the age of stones from the marks on them.” The process of imagination is akin to meditation. When you start looking at it deeply the stone begins to reflect an image, he says. Some times the rocks represent mountains and natural wonders of the world; and at other times they may evoke ancient people, animals, and mythical creatures. He calls a green and white marble stone from Rajasthan a ‘Scenic Mountain’, with the white miniature lines on it representing waterfalls. “I came up with the names after a lot of contemplation,” he says.
While a rugged stone depicts ‘two friends in deep conversation’, a shiny yellow stone looks like a shoe. Most stones from his collection fall somewhere between fully explicit and totally abstract. Some are subtle, quiet, elegant and sedate while others are uncertain, vague and often puzzling.
He has a pre-sunset collection made up of beautiful stones in flaming yellows and oranges. He got them from Rajasthan. “You should have an eye for the stone, spot its unique structure, and formation, and appreciate its beauty, in order to be a collector,” he says. Some stones throw up interesting shapes when viewed from different angles. The shiny black stone that stares out of the cover of his book is shaped like an otter. There are also formations that look like the sphinx, a penguin, a loon bird of the U.S., and even bulls!

A ‘saint’ rock in green and white is meditative. There is a stunning cheetah (a sea coral) that he found at Rameswaram. Another semi-precious yellow stone was picked up at Vavipalayam. An ‘Island stone’ is reminiscent of a chunk of cake. ‘Mountain full of streams’ is artistic and depicts the vastness of a mountain range. There is even a stone that looks like an old lady with wrinkled lines.
Suiseki is open to interpretation. A bright purple semi-precious stone looks like a flower in bloom to me, but Ponnuswami explains how to him it looks more like a mother and baby. Another stone in hues of pastel pink, violet and white represents the face of an eternal beauty (Elizabeth Taylor?). Turn the same stone around and it looks like a person with a haystack on his back. Ponnuswami believes every stone is priceless and awakens your soul. He says, “that is the beauty of Suiseki.”

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