26 March 2013

Post Facto: Spring Fling, or how to join the Lutyens' Delhi garden party

My  Sunday Guardian column this fortnight:

The Delhi spring, short-lived as it is, brings into focus a feature of the city that seems to melt the heart of even the staunchest Delhi-hater: its flower-filled gardens. Though lovely at most times of year, Delhi's gardens in March are so gloriously green and so riotously colourful that only the stoniest soul can resist them. Of course, these particular urban pleasures — like uninterrupted electricity, or actually paved pavements — are almost exclusively the preserve of the city's most privileged core, the 43 sq km area usually referred to as Lutyens' Delhi.

Its architect Edwin Lutyens built his reputation by designing country homes in the Arts and Crafts style in collaboration with the English writer and designer Gertrude Jekylls, a woman said to have "affected the gardening habits of two generations", and his only urban planning commission before New Delhi was the Central Square of Hampstead Garden Suburb. So it was no surprise that the imperial capital he built was, at the most fundamental level, a garden city.

Seen from an aeroplane, New Delhi is still one of the greenest cities in the world. But most gardens in the British-built imperial capital remain strictly private, their rose beds (or cabbage patches—who knows?) guarded from curious eyes by high brick walls (and from the possibility of any more dangerous depredations by gun-toting security-men). The few gardens open to the public, interestingly, often surround buildings of one sort of another.

There is, for instance, the verdant expanse of lawn that surrounds the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library, lined by rows of flaming red salvias and many-coloured dahlias, complete with a bougainvillea-bedecked drive and the occasional peacock. The Teen Murti garden is a classic colonial bungalow garden, its neat flowerbeds, flowering shrubs and tidy rows of potted plants all really meant to set off "the lawn, that sine qua non of any proper English garden", as Eugenia Herbert writes in her recent book Flora's Empire: British Gardens in India. For "[w]ithout a lawn, the "centre of social life", how could one hold garden parties? Or play croquet or badminton or cricket?" As Mrs. Temple Wright's popular Flowers and Gardens in India: A Manual for Beginners urged her readers, even if they couldn't manage a garden, they must "make only a lawn, or grass plot, and this, with cleanly kept soorkee [brick dust] paths, and a few plants in pots, will be sufficient to keep up the degree of harmony you intend between the outside and inside appearance of your abode."

That injunction, of course, is recognisable as the inspiration for what a friend recently referred to as the "CPWD style of gardening", noting that the British had left the same legacy in other colonies, such as South Africa. Capetown, he wrote with all the astonishment of a Dilliwala betrayed, even has a PWD.

Quite different in effect from the "keep off the grass" lawn model is the landscaped space first brought into being as Lady Willingdon Park — now beloved of joggers, dog-walkers, baby-minders and picnickers as Lodi Garden. The avenues of palms that structure our vision of the Lodi tombs are both orderly and grand, but the garden itself — with an emphasis on winding walks, gentle slopes and picturesque perspectives — draws on a mixture of more "natural" styles. Narayani Gupta and Laura Sykes, in their annotations to Percival Spear's Delhi: its Monuments and History, inform us that the garden was "formed in 1936 on the site of the village of Khairpur; the villagers were given other sites, in nearby Kotla Mubarakpur and in Punjab". It was then re-landscaped in the 1950s by a Japanese team, and the greenhouse added by American architect Joseph Stein (who also designed the India International Centre, the Ford Foundation and various other things in that little nook of New Delhi, providing reason for it to be informally and affectionately referred to as 'Steinabad').

The grandest Delhi garden of them all, of course, is the 'Mughal Garden' that is the pride and joy of the Rashtrapati Bhavan (née Viceregal Palace). Lutyens was commissioned to make it by Lady Hardinge, who loved the Mughal gardens of Kashmir, with their stepped terraces, fruit trees and water channels. But she died early into the building process, and Lutyens' eventual design, though it incorporated a 'Purdah' garden with twelve-foot-high walls as well as water channels and fountains, was very much an English take on the 'Mughal'. The most give-away sign of this was the fact that where the water channels intersected in the Mughal garden, there would have been a stone platform with a pavilion, a place where you could sit to catch the breeze and fragrance. In Lutyens' version, the intersection was replaced by a lawn.

At the other end of the spectrum of possible publicness are the small but gloriously in-bloom gardens that make Delhi's interminable roundabouts a pleasure rather than a pain in this season. Non-Lutyensians, invariably lost as they circle past and miss their turns again and again, have something to feast their tired eyes on. Even the Rashtrapati Bhavan gardens are thrown open to the public in February and March. The visiting traveler Freya Stark once wrote of this practice, "It was extraordinary how alive and agreeable it made them. There is no point in having pomp unless there is a crowd to enjoy it." One wishes there were more who thought like her. Delhi's secret gardens might spring to life more often.

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