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Updated: September 23, 2013 22:06 IST

Gardens that are greener on the other side

Nirupama Subramanian
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Flora’s Empire
Flora’s Empire

British Gardens in India: Eugenia W. Herbert; Allen Lane/ Penguin Books India Pvt. Ltd., 11, Community Centre, Panchsheel Park, New Delhi-110017. Rs. 799.

If your idea of the perfect garden is a neat little lawn trimmed with borders full of seasonal flowers, you have more of a colonial hangover than you imagined. This is the kind of garden that hundreds of sahebs and their wives longed for as they pined for England during those sweltering, disease filled summers in the hot Gangetic plains, and sought to create with mixed success in a land that was green but not in the way they wanted it.

Much has been written about colonial architecture in India; Flora’s Empire – British Gardens in India by Eugenia W. Herbert, focuses on the little documented but fascinating aspect integral to the ‘residences’, homes, cities, towns, and hill-stations that the British went about building in the two centuries and more that they established themselves in this country.

Herbert is Professor Emeritus of History at Mount Holyoke College in the U.S., and her book is a view of British imperialism from a unique and engaging perspective. As she observes: “And everywhere [the British] created gardens, large and small, private and public, that embodies not only aesthetic ideals but also philosophical understandings of the good life, of civilization, and the social and political order.”

In this way, the British rulers of India had more in common than they cared to acknowledge with their Mughal predecessors, who had very definite views about landscaping and left their own green stamp on India, from the terraced gardens of Kashmir and Lahore to the Red Fort and the Taj Mahal.

Suburbs

When Edward Clive became governor of Madras in 1798, he and his wife, both enthusiastic botanists, set about improving Government House and its gardens set in 75 acres in what was then known as Triplicane (where now stands the abandoned secretariat built by the previous DMK government). Clive was recalled by the Company for his extravagance, just about the same time as Lord Wellesley, whose spending on building a palatial Government House in Calcutta similarly found few sympathisers back at the head office. But both were only reflecting the growing fortunes of the East India Company by projecting power and opulence on a grand scale. In Calcutta, as in Madras, the British found their initial settlements too suffocating, and expanded out into the suburbs that they segregated exclusively for their use.

In Calcutta, Garden Reach rose like “a fairy isle” on the banks of the Hooghly, with its mansions surrounded by gardens that extended up to the water. In Madras, gentlemen of means broke out of Fort St. George to build “garden houses” farther afield, with trees lining the avenues from the fort to the new settlements. In addition to Government House, an official country retreat in Guindy Forest (now Raj Bhavan) came up.

Though some like Clive, Wellesley and much later Lord Curzon were personally involved in planning the open spaces around their official residences, gardening was in the main the domain of the memsahibs, who found in it a way of expressing themselves, and spending the time that hung heavy on their hands, with hordes of servants doing all the chores, the husbands away and the children left behind at schools in England.

Gardens were also a way for rulers to separate themselves from the ruled. “Manicured gardens with neat lawns and flowerbeds were a means of distancing oneself from the smells and dirt of India,” Herbert notes.

The many differences of a British garden from a typical Indian bageecha underlined the separateness, which too grew with the passage of time. During Company rule, the gardens were a more relaxed mix of East and West than in the post-1857 period, but too much Indianness in a garden was always seen as an early warning of “going native”.

On the whole, British gardens tended to reflect the nostalgia for English annuals — sweet peas, dahlias, chrysanthemums, geraniums, hollyhocks, and the like. Flowers such as jasmine, whose fragrance was too overwhelming for delicate British noses, did not find place in most of these gardens.

Reams of manuals were printed on how to grow a garden, with detailed instructions about soils, temperatures, watering, seeds, manure, insects and designs. The lawn, that enduring symbol of an English garden, remained the main challenge.

Though Herbert does not quite accept a theory that the social class of individuals back home in England was reflected in their gardens in India – the lower you were on the ladder, the more open you were to Indian influences in your garden – she argues that this nevertheless showed that the garden was something more than met the eye; “[a] synecdoche, the part standing for the whole of one’s response to an alien culture and the life that exile imposed, especially on women”.

Proving that the grass is ever greener on the other side, those who returned took back with them exotic Indian plants, to create a little corner of India in their English gardens, not always successfully.

Simla

Written with all the enthusiasm of an avid gardener and botanist as much as a historian, the book has a richly detailed portion on the creation of Simla as the summer capital of the Raj, where rhododendrons grew wild, as “forest trees, not shrubs as you have them in England”, covering the hills with a deep red in April. Growing English flowers in Simla was a walk in the park, the only problem being the non-availability of enough level ground. Only the Viceregal Lodge built by Henry Irwin in the late 19 century boasted sprawling huge lawns, improved upon by later Viceroys and Vicerines. Lord Curzon was to remark that the grounds were the only thing that made the Lodge bearable.

The combination of British architecture and gardens was perhaps nowhere better demonstrated than in the creation of New Delhi. Lutyens had little regard for Mughal architecture, but took more readily to their gardens, sharing as he did the same fondness for symmetry, order and geometry. Urged by Lady Hardinge, he took from the Mughal gardens in Kashmir as he planned the 15-acre space around the new house of the Viceroy on top of Raisina Hill. The plan, he wrote to his wife was all “too Alice in Wonderlandish for worlds. However, it will come in time”.

But as Herbert observes, the Mughal Garden at what is now Rashtrapati Bhavan was all too English: instead of a zenana, Lutyens put in tennis courts; and, instead of the central chabutra at the intersection of the water channels, a lawn. Herbert quotes Jane Brown — she wrote on the long professional partnership between Lutyens and Gertrude Jekyll, the English designer with whom he worked on many projects back in England — as describing that lawn as “a symbolic triumph of the English way of gardening”.

Written with wit, humour and style, this exhaustively researched book — the references at the end run to nearly 50 pages — hooks the reader with both its details and its sweep, not to speak of the little surprises that spring up now and then. The one that threw me was that the marigold, regarded as the quintessential Indian flower, came from Europe.

(Nirupama Subramanian is an Associate Editor with The Hindu)

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