by Gautam Pemmaraju
A distinct advantage to my small rental in the once ‘leafy suburb’ of Bandra in western Bombay is its garden. Actually, not quite a ‘garden’ in the sense that it is arranged with great care or acuity, tended to diligently, or bedecked with decorative flowers and plants, it is rather, for the most part, an unkempt, somewhat derelict yard with several planted trees and a wide range of wild ferns, creepers, fruit, herb, and vegetable plants. The diversity of botanical life is pretty fascinating, not to mention the many song birds, from the White-Throated Fan Tail, the Oriental Magpie Robin to the Asian Koel, and lest I forget, the many worms, slugs, bees, butterflies, garden lizards, frogs, squirrels, snails that are to be found in residence – occasionally at my doorstep. Itinerant cats, the odd fatigued kite, noisy crows, sparrows and pigeons, barn owls, and bandicoots pass through, and I have often imagined an irascible rodent knocking at my door demanding a change of music.
The space around me is a wild urban garden.
Encircled by tall apartment blocks, the low-rise character of the structure allows for immediate contact with what is outside. Boundary walls enclose this very modest plot of land that supports an impressive range of plant life. When in season, there are guavas that may be picked from outside my window; some ripe ones, half eaten by parakeets, fall to ground and release a squishy, heady aroma. Two types of bananas – a large beveled plantain (possibly from Kerala) which can be used raw (in cooking) or eaten when ripe, and the small, squat and delicious local elchi (butter plantain). Cultivated coconut, including one variety brought from Singapore, and seasonal mangoes are in abundance. The lone lime tree, verdant and generously fertile at one time, which used to catch the fancy of telephone linesmen, postmen and other civic workers entering the premises, is in need of some help. Recently, the jackfruit tree bore fruit for the first time. Several others though – custard apple, tamarind, Java Plum or Jambul, fig, locally known as umber – are yet to be as productive as the others.
The many things that my surroundings provide – fruit, herbs, space for friendly gatherings, succour and psychological relief – lead me to consider it in more detail. What does the garden mean and how may it be imagined? In setting out to ‘appreciate’ the garden, how do I then examine its form, function, and its extended notion? How do gardens grow – physically, around us and in cities; metaphorically, in imagined ways through creative pursuits; and psychologically, in our individual minds and the collective consciousness of urban residents?
David Cooper, in A Philosophy Of Gardens, examines a complex range of thoughts on gardens – from “conceptual ones (‘What is a garden?’); ontological ones (‘Is a garden simply a complex philosophical object?’); normative ones (‘What makes a garden successful or great?’)”, which, he suggests at the outset to be immediate concerns entertained by philosophers of art. Pointing to a great variety of garden literature, from the empires of antiquity to the ‘Renaissance garden’, Cooper, invokes art historian Eugenio Batisti’s ‘…a place of pleasure…feasts, entertainment of friends…a restorative for both body and soul’ in beginning to inquire as to how gardens “more emphatically and intimately enter into our lives”. The experience of gardens, he informs us here, has been often alluded to as ‘pure’, ‘rewarding’ and ‘innocent’ – thoughts echoed by Epicurus and English writer/gardener John Evelyn. Garden experience, as Cooper discusses, is then a ‘morally and philosophically instructive’ one.
There is of course, the practical, utilitarian aspect of gardens. In my case, a distinct absence of garden aesthetics and the ‘enhancements of the processes of everyday life’ (Cooper quotes Dewey here) with no decorating or arranging whatsoever, renders it a sort of ‘marginal’ (see this) or ‘grey’ garden; not the kind, Cooper points out, “over the millennia that have inspired the appreciation and engagement of human beings”. Referring here to conceptual art, John Cage’s Silent Piece, jardin trouvé, and ‘matchbox sized Zen gardens’, Cooper offers that his explorations are not concerned with these kind of conceptualisations, although, such ideas, offer by way of contrast, how a garden is indeed classically defined. Cooper quotes here, Mara Miller’s definition:
Any purposeful arrangement of natural objects…with exposure to the sky or open air, in which the form is not fully accounted for by purely practical considerations such as convenience.
Gillian Tindall, in City Of Gold – The Biography of Bombay, informs us that when the English took on the seven islands of Bombay in the mid 17th century, the intervening breaches between them, or Flats as they are known, were but swampy tracts of land upon which little else but samphire would grow, and coconut palms around the edges. The draining of these swamps led to the composite aggregation of the seven islands, and thus the formation of the modern city. The coconut palm Tindall informs us “helped form these salt swamps in the first place, and so raise Bombay out of the waters”. The shedding of their leaves formed rich organic matter over the centuries, as did one other kind of manure, she writes:
…Bombay can claim the eccentric distinction of being largely based on rotten fish and the leaves of the coconut palm.
This practice though, was eventually banned, as Tindall informs us, following a court letter from London to the Bombay government in 1708: “The buckshawing or dunging of the toddy trees with fish, occasions in a great measure the unwholesomeness of the Bombay air.”
Earlier still, in the mid 16th Century, Tindall writes of the Portuguese ‘Marrano’ botanist and honorary court physician Garcia da Orta, whose name, “whether by coincidence or in consequence, means ‘of the garden’”. In what is now a restricted area, Garcia da Orta was responsible we are informed, for the Manor House (behind the Town Hall), which subsequently housed British Governors. Tindall quotes the ‘only surviving description’ of the house, written in 1675 by a Company surgeon, John Fryer:
About the house was a delicate garden, voiced to be the pleasantest in India, intended rather for wanton dalliance, Love’s artillery, than to make resistence against an invading foe. This garden of Eden or place of terrestrial happiness would put the searchers upon as hard an inquest as the other has done in its posterity…The walks which before were covered with nature’s verdant awning, and lightly pressed by soft delights, are now open to the sun and loaded with harder cannon.
Critically, Tindall writes later of the changes in land use, and of how there is no specific, clearly defined moment, as is the case with European cities, where planted land transformed into housing land. She points out instead that this change perhaps took place in degrees and that,
Early accounts of the native town speak of ‘houses thickly clustered within a coconut wood’ which later and imperceptibly become ‘houses standing in gardens’. Indian land records are just that – they do not describe the building on the land.
Herbs and vegetables, plantains and coconuts are rarely seen in the populous areas of the city, Tindall observes, while quoting the account of a 19th century commentator Maria Graham, whose observations describes houses with ‘small gardens…containing a few herbs and vegetables, a plantain tree or a coconut or two’. Tindall’s biography was written three decades ago. The changes since then are dramatic.
Mahim Nature Park is a 37 acre redeveloped landfill, opposite Dharavi – unfailingly referred to as Asia’s largest slum. Avinash Kubal, the Deputy Director of the park, tells me that it was developed not just as a ‘green zone’, or ‘lung’; it was rather, a broader initiative to also impart ecological knowledge to the public at large in a tactile way. Conceived by WWF-India in the 70’s, the park now supports over 200 species of trees, 38 species of butterflies and 80 species of birds, and is described as a ‘mini-forest’. Speaking of the decline of indigenous tree species, the emphasis on display/decorative plants, he shows me survey statistics of trees in Mumbai Metropolitan region – about 60% of the trees are exotics, and they occupy nearly 80% of tree-covered land. Low impact, local climate and soil conditions, natural drainage, and supporting ecology of plants, insects, birds and other animals, are elemental ideas in envisioning more harmonious interventions in ‘greening’ the city, Kubal points out to me.
On a Sunday morning a few weeks ago, I went to meet Preeti Patil of Urban Leaves (see here and here) – an organisation that promotes urban agriculture practices and initiatives. She runs two urban farms, and the one at Mahim Nature Park is located on top of a concrete water tank. It’s a critical idea to what their practice represents for it practically demonstrates how terrace/roof gardens may be successful. With a focus on collective participation and community building, Patil runs informal classes every Sunday morning, imparting basic skills in composting, soil culture, planting, trimming and maintenance of plants, besides discussing ideas of sustainability, biodiversity and ‘green’ issues. General health, recipes and chitchat are part and parcel of these sessions. Deeply influenced by the natural farming methods of Masanobu Fukuoka and his broader ecological approach, Patil also practices and promotes Permaculture – Urban Leaves periodically conducts workshops. This December they will be hosting the 2nd National Seminar on Urban Agriculture in Bombay. The principle here is simple – concretization should not come in the way of finding ‘green’ solutions and growing your own produce in a low-impact, natural, chemical-free and sustainable way, is not very complicated but is instead very fulfilling. “No greater joy” in Patil’s words.
Several such urban initiatives are gathering momentum across India. There are many challenges and obstacles of course – individual, community and systemic alike. The APMC (Agricultural Produce Market Committees) act is in dire need of reform, Ravi Venkat says to me. Venkat quit his corporate job 8 years ago and is today a full time farmer with a 4 acre plot in Dahanu, around 150 KM north of the city. He is also a part of the Hari Bhari Tokri collective – a group of like-minded farmers, who grow organic produce in farms close to the city and who provide the harvest to a small group of registered city-dwellers. Various states and union territories of India have adopted the APMC act to establish and regulate agricultural produce markets but it is seen by many to be ridden with problems – promoting monopolistic practices, cartelization, price manipulation, shortchanging famers, etc. How many processes/people exist before the produce reaches urban consumers? What are the monetary and social costs involved? These questions weigh heavy here.
Julius Rego, an independent botanical expert who also conducts nature trails, very kindly consented to have a walk-about in my garden. He points out to me a Red Bead Tree, locally known as gunj, on account of the fact that the seeds were traditionally used as weight measures. In raw form they are toxic, but can be eaten cooked. He spots also Canna, a water filtering plant; Stinging Nettles, a soup of which is good for anemia apparently (amongst other folk remedies); Diascorea, named after the Greek botanist Dioscorides; Cleome, a wild herbaceous plant growing as a weed, popularly known as Spiderflower or Wild Mustard; Euphorbia, a medicinal spurge with succulent branches; a Country Almond tree that draws bats (as do the Banana trees for their flower nectar Julius tells me on my inquiry); Maidenhair ferns; an Indian Mast Tree also known as a False Ashoka or a Buddha Tree and whose wood is used for ship’s masts; and the curiously named Mahatma or Dracaena. We spot a Common Tailorbird near the almond tree as Julius points out Bucida, the few Fishtail Palms (the sap is used to make jaggery and also a palm wine), a couple of Fig trees, the large Asian Rubber Tree (the canopy of which extends into my balcony when overgrown) and the commonly found Subabul. Civic authorities have aggressively planted Subabul while environmentalists point to its invasive and harmful character.
Pointing to how the garden world is also populated with creative designers, craftsmen, critics, connoisseurs, much like the ‘art’ world and with similar institutional features such as competitions and shows, David Cooper suggests that the two main models for garden appreciation are that of ‘art’ and of ‘nature’. Both are insufficient he argues. While gardens may certainly be ‘artistic’ (and even conceptualist), the idea of the constancy of physical change through practice, seasonal changes, phenomenal changes (such as light altering perception) in a garden separates it from a painting or a sculpture or even ‘avant-garde’ work designed for change (such as Duchamp’s Large Glass). As ‘human artefacts imbued with purpose’, gardens are ‘walked through’ and there are no privileged viewpoints and no framing, Cooper further argues. And nature appreciation imposes no constraints, he writes, but instead offers that there is a ‘relative freedom from human artifice’ and a ‘freedom integral to the aesthetic appreciation of nature’. Both models fail ‘for symmetrical reasons’ Cooper says.
The art model insufficiently heeds the fact that gardens are transformations of natural places, containing natural things and subject to natural processes, while the nature model insufficiently heeds the fact that gardens are the products of human artifice.
Fusing the two is also not entirely satisfactory Cooper says and points to Eastern models of aesthetic appreciation where such distinctions do not exist, particularly in Japanese models, which, citing Allen Carlson, he argues further ‘presupposes a unity of the artificial and the natural’.
(My friend Fumiya Sawa, an independent curator/essayist, points to ritualistic tea ceremonies and traditional garden practice here. See Katsura Rikyu. He mentions also ‘Borrowed Scenery’ or Shakkei – a sophisticated practice of ‘incorporating background landscape into the composition of a garden’. Tangentially, my thoughts go to wax fruit and window food displays. Surely utilitarian, purely aesthetic functions and the numerous in-betweens, commute freely with post-modern dexterity? Friend and artist Sudarshan Shetty points me to the fact that utilitarian elements and concepts are freely integrated into conceptual formulations, blurring any and all boundaries. He says also that temporal, environmental, phenomenal factors are relevant insofar as their integration into discourse – the time of day, the lighting, sounds and smells, etc. You do not necessarily need to ‘be’ in a gallery space to appreciate, or even ‘experience’ the artwork).
Cooper argues that a factorized model of nature and art appreciation does not account for ‘atmosphere’, which he explores as being alongside ‘mood’, ‘feeling’, ‘tone’ and fuzei (see this page where it is described further) a term used in Japanese garden practice, which can be understood as elegance and ‘may refer to the enjoyable sense of melancholic pathos’, or even to, quoting Mary Keen, ‘that elusive feeling’.
CM Villiers-Stuart, in the Great Gardens of the Mughals (1913), writes early on, unsurprisingly I might add, that Indian gardens are linked very closely to social and religious life, and that general design apart, the choice of every flower, tree and plant had specific symbolic meaning and a manner of arrangement. Framing Indian garden design and practice largely in ‘art’ terms, the colonial writer says that the ‘essentially religious outlook’ that Indian art practice was predicated upon is far removed from the ‘self-conscious art of present day Europe’. It is in this literary/artistic vein that he epigrammatically invokes the medieval Persian poet Sadi,
I saw some handfuls of the rose in bloom,
With bands of grass, suspended from a dome.
I said, “ What means this worthless grass that it
Should in the rose's fairy circle sit? “
Then wept the grass and said, “ Be still! and know
The kind their old associates ne'er forgo.
Mine is no beauty here or fragrance true,
The role of gardens, the flowers and fruit they bear, and loss/decay, is resplendent in religious writing. Paradise gardens, celestial fruit and flowers, mythical plants with miraculous medicinal properties – its an incredibly vast area and beyond the scope of this essay (as is erotic writing – there is a great deal of relevant sringara literature). The loss of a garden, the fall from a state of grace, is a fascinating theme though. It provokes in my mind dystopian images – those of war, conflict and carnage. The binary oppositions of green, verdant and life-affirming versus charred landscapes, brutalized gardens, and ugliness of human artifice is captured in a single image by WG Sebald in The Alps In The Sea, an essay in the posthumously published collection Campo Santo:
…I saw rows of little green plastic trees hardly an inch high surrounding cuts of meat and offal displayed in the shop windows of ‘Family Butchers’. The obvious fact that these evergreen plastic ornaments must be mass-produced somewhere for the sole purpose of alleviating our sense of guilt about the bloodshed seemed to me, in its very absurdity, to show how strongly we desire absolution and how cheap we have always bought it.
If in a harmonious conception of natural versus built-up and green versus concrete in urban cities we consider a diverse range of thoughts and applications, then small backyards, terrace/balcony gardens perhaps present themselves as microtonal features – adaptive responses to complex composite growth. In striving to meet ideals, utopian constructs offer both fine detail and impossible dreams. In Ebenezer Howard’s Garden Cities Of Tomorrow, the fusing of the town and the countryside, radiating away from a circular central park with houses and gardens located on relative concentric positions, there are then peripheral fruit farms, large farms, convalescent homes, cow pastures, and new forests. It is no mere fusing for Howard, but is instead a marriage: “…and out of this joyous union will spring a new hope, a new life, a new civilization”. The ‘two magnets’ of town and country in Howard’s imagination must be collapsed into one for individually, they do not form the ‘full plan of purpose of nature’. Town symbolises society, culture, art, religion, whereas the country “is a symbol of God’s love and care for man. All that we are and all that we have comes from it”.
David Cooper invokes Thoreau and walking through gardens as ‘walking through history’ in discussing ideas of relationships with others in garden practice – there are ‘cumulative meanings’. Interestingly, the last chapter of his book is titled ‘Garden As Epiphany’. In his ‘modest proposal’ he points to a chain of co-dependencies between nature and man where one relationship further embodies another,
The Garden exemplifies a co-dependence between human endeavour and the natural world…The Garden, to put it portentously, is an epiphany of man’s relationship to mystery. This relationship is its meaning.
Julius Rego shows me a Bimbli fruit tree on which there is a single fruit. Meant to be sour and tart, it is commonly used by the local East Indian community. Pickles and preserves are made out of it. I’ve never eaten it before.