Girija and S.Viraraghavan is easily the country’s most celebrated rosarian couple leading a beautiful life in a heritage house in Kodaikanal where their garden dates back to 1980. Covered with thickets of rose blossoms in different hues and fragrance, shapes and sizes, there are several hundreds of varieties spread over two acres that they nurture with age-defying energy and passion.
You can sense it the moment you walk into their premises on what has been a bad day for them. “The transformer burst and 10 of our bulbs went kaput and then the motor switch fused!” -- Girija reels off her woes and my mind wonders if I should call off the interview. “We will take a stroll in the garden first, it is a mood elevator,” she says and we all take a deep breath. It feels so rich and full because when you are with the First Couple of rose lovers in their garden of labour and joy, the enjoyment of a rose can only get special.
“When you are fond of something, it is not hard work but relaxation,” they tell me as the next two hours turn into a lively and enjoyable learning beyond textbooks for me. “That is the Rosa Gigantea,” Viraraghavan points to a tree that forms a canopy over the roof of their house. “We got the seeds of a rose plant we saw on Manipur-Burma border and hybridised it here in 1990,” he informs. Light yellow in colour, I see a rose with just five petals for the first time!
Then on only cute unheard names of roses ring in my ears, each of them created, researched and named by the Viraraghavans over the past decades. The rhododendron hybrid Palani Princess here, the Vireyas (originally from Papua New Guinea) there along with many more from Thailand, New Zealand, Uruguay, Australia. This is the Kanyakumari Climber, Tipu’s Flame, the Rose Brush, Mist Maden, Golden Threshold…. they narrate the story behind the making of every rose with unbridled enthusiasm as we walk across a section dedicated to the North East. There is the Naga Bell, Manipur Magic, Tunkul Treasure in colours one hasn’t seen before. Then there are roses named after friends all over the world that go off as gifts and have even won prizes in rose shows in different countries. So if there is Faith Whittlesey in perfect bloom in the US, there is the Lanjique rose growing in France or the Liyiang rose in China.
For each ornamental plant, there is a different international registration authority. For distinct and different roses grown the world over, the approval has to come from the American Rose Society and the Viraraghavans have each of their creations registered. It takes seven to nine years to grow a hybrid rose and Viraraghavan has been doing it since 1965, when he was posted as the Nizamabad Collector. His is the curious case of an IAS Officer who took voluntary retirement at the age of 42 to grow roses!
“My father, who was also a civil servant, wanted me to study Chemistry and made me write the UPSC exam in 1959 whereas I was only interested in flowers!” says Viraraghavan. As an 11-year-old boy he fell in love with roses when his father was posted as Director Agriculture in Conoor and their house on the hill top overlooked a park covered in a riot of colourful roses.
Love for roses
As a young bureaucrat, he silently continued his research on roses even if his postings took him to dry belts such as Ramnad. “The first director –general of ICAR was my guru in hybridisation of roses and no matter where I lived for work, I planted them and observed for hours, weeks, months and years to see what was happening to them,” he says. If he was a researcher, his marriage to a history student from Miranda House in Delhi helped him later to document every rose he created.
“Ironically, I knew nothing about flowers and couldn’t tell a rose from a lily,” says Girija who grew up in Lutyen’s Delhi with her maternal grandfather, Dr.S.Radhakrishnan as the country’s first Vice President from 1952 to 1962. “I was more into reading books on history and politics, playing cricket with my grandfather in a pavadai, accompanying him to functions and meeting several important Indian and foreign dignitaries.”
She had moved out of Delhi when her grandfather became the President (1962-67) because, as she says, the inevitable happened one evening in 1960. Her father who was also a bureaucrat told her to dress up and meet his friend’s son. “I was told they are Tamilians and my spontaneous reaction was I don’t want to marry somebody with long names like Viraraghavan! So I wore an ordinary sari and removed my glasses to see only a blurred image of the prospective groom.”
And when really a young Mr.Viraraghavan walked in, Girija didn’t know how to react. “These 57 years with my husband has taught me every thing about roses,” she smiles and is in fact, more vivacious when it comes to talking plants and gardening now.
“We spend hours in the garden, pruning, watering and talking to our roses. That is what we have been doing ever since he took voluntary retirement in 1979 and we came and settled in Kodaikanal. His work is to collect pollens from different flowers, put them on another plant and then wait patiently for years to see if it cross-breeds,” says Vijaya. “After I do my botanical research on the plant’s nativity and climatic requirements and think of a suitable name, she flags it with post-scripts and interesting historical bits,” he adds.
And when both are not in their garden, they are travelling and talking at rose workshops and conferences, meeting rose lovers the world over. “People also request us to grow roses and name it after them,” says Girija, citing several interesting anecdotes. And Viraraghavan quickly adds, “I have grown a special rose for Girija and named it Priyatama because the layers of petals look as though they have been hand-painted in different shades. “Whenever I look at it, I feel it depicts her different moods,” he says.
A rose by any name
At the Sakura Rose Garden outside Tokyo in Japan, a section has been dedicated to Girija and Viraraghavan. It is called the Dreams of India where their hybrid roses are growing. The special Hybrid gigantea called the Twilight Secret is an attraction here.
The Gigantea Whittlesey grown by them has received the All American Heritage Award-2017, a first by an Asian.