14 March 2013

Pruning at the Roots: a book on British gardens in India

Flora's Empire: British Gardens in India

By Eugenia W. Herbert
Penguin Books India
400pp, Rs. 799
Eugenia W. Herbert’s history of English gardens in India is a vast but well-trimmed account.

The garden is perhaps as universal a symbol of civilization as possible: nature reclaimed from the wilderness, its unruly splendours tamed – or at least re-ordered – by human hands. And yet, as Eugenia Herbert’s book makes clear, the idea of what a garden is differs completely from one culture to another. Flora’s Empire: British Gardens in India is an engrossing book, documenting in marvelous detail the British relationship with a landscape that seemed often recalcitrant, sometimes fascinating—but always unfamiliar. The book takes us felicitously across two centuries and a sprawling subcontinent: from 18th-century Madras and Calcutta to 19th-century Bangalore, from the various hill stations of the Raj to the 20th-century garden city of New Delhi. 

Herbert, an Emeritus professor of history at Mount Holyoke College, spent a quarter of a century studying African metallurgy before she switched to colonial Africa. She became interested in gardens about a decade ago “from reading colonial memoirs and advice books for wives going out to Africa”. When a chance to visit India arose, it struck her that Indian colonial gardens might prove interesting, “since Brits had a much longer history in India than in Africa, and in much greater numbers”. But she expected “variations on the theme of nostalgia”, and had no idea “how many other byways would surface.”

Most of the garden enthusiasts Herbert uncovered in the archives were indeed animated by a desire to recreate Englishness in an unfamiliar environment. Maintaining a proper English garden – one that was kept as free as possible of “lurid tropical flowers” and their ‘overpowering’ scent – was a way of establishing and reinforcing difference from the Indian world in which they lived, as well as deriving comfort from the sense of the long-lost and familiar. Edith Cuthell’s 1905 paean to her Lucknow violets is a classic of the emotional colonial writing about gardens that Herbert frequently uncovers: “You cannot think how one treasures out here the quiet little ‘home’ flower… Dear little English flower!”

But as with any neat model, there are all kinds of exceptions and qualifications to be made. First of all, British gardens in India did not remain static across time – they were influenced by changes in gardening fashions in England. The 18th-century garden houses of Madras or Calcutta (or Garden Reach and Barrackpore) were inspired by the British country estate, “with its sweeping park, copses of trees, and water,” while the bungalow “with its gravel paths, shrubs, flower beds and attempts at lawn” was a 19th- century creation.

Second, there were always individual Britishers who enthused over the new kinds of vegetation to be discovered in India. If James Forbes revelled in filling his Jardin a l’Angloise with Indian flowers and creeping vines, Lady Charlotte Canning thrilled more to the sight of the gorgeous foliage and tangled “curtains of great green leaves” in the Nilgiris than to the rose-covered cottages that her compatriots had created in Ooty. “The one cottage in Ooty that met with her approval,” writes Herbert, “was Woodcot… Mrs. Cotton, she noted… knows how to appreciate the things new to her instead of wanting what is not to be had, & her garden & collection of orchids show this.” There was also the polymath William Jones, who arrived in Calcutta as a judge in 1784 and immediately set about learning Sanskrit as well as cultivating his love of botany, bringing the two interests together by identifying his plant specimens by their Sanskrit names. Even those who did not have the dogged counter-intuitiveness of these examples were sometimes able to see the ridiculousness of the endeavour they had been engaged in. As one wife lamented: “We could have had the most marvelous gardens with orchids and all sorts of things, but, no, they must be English flowers.”

Finally, as Herbert concludes, even those colonials intent upon keeping India at bay did not quite succeed. “Like the mulligatawnies and curries that were not quite Indian and not quite English, colonial gardens, too, often ended up as creoles, their mix of familiar and exotic flowers growing under the shade of mangoes and palms and peepals in lieu of the stately elms and oaks of home.”

The reins of public gardens – whether the scientific botanical gardens established in Calcutta or Saharanpur, or the stately ones that emerged from British attempts at restoring’ Mughal gardens (the Taj) or creating imperial displays (Curzon’s Victoria Memorial or Lutyen’s Viceregal Palace) – remained in the hands of men. But a fascinating perspective the book throws up is how often it was the memsahib, not the sahib, who controlled the private garden. As Herbert told us over email, the garden had already become women’s domain in Victorian England, “so this is not surprising”. But it did bring British women into direct contact, and often conflict, with the mali. It probably didn’t help that colonial wisdom ordained that Indians and their knowledge systems counted for nothing. The influential Complete Indian Housekeeper and Cook, for instance, insisted that “native gardeners” had no real sympathy for flowers and that they must be trained to obey orders “and nothing more”. Linguistic and gender barriers were likely exacerbated by cultural differences, as Herbert says: “even the idea of picking [flowers] and putting them in a vase rather than making puja with them.” Reading this book, one can’t help being frequently accosted by the vision of an alternative history of colonial gardens—in the mali’s words. For however gently and humorously Herbert writes, the perspective of this book is entirely that of the colonial white person. “India was not for the fainthearted,” she writes, seemingly without irony. “...Flowers and people alike wilted after the first freshness of dawn.”           

Mostly, though, Herbert’s research is rich enough to suggest fresh and unsuspected angles even on familiar facts. Her account of Lord Curzon’s obsessive supervision of the Taj garden restoration, for instance, uses his complicated interplay between admiration and superiority as a window into the complexity of empire itself. Gardens may have been the most ephemeral things the British created in India, but the insights they offer are definitely not.

Published in Time Out Delhi.

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