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Cultural Baggage of Colonialism

Malavika Karlekar

By Eugenia W. Herbert
Allen Lane/Penguin Books, 2013, pp. xii 382, Rs. 799.00


A book written about the British influence on the Indian garden is bound to elicit curiosity in the minds of botanical aficionados and students of imperial history: an American historian who has so far worked on African history, Eugenia Herbert became interested in Indian gardens when a gleaning of colonial writings in Northern Rhodesia brought to her notice the importance of gardens (and of Worcestershire sauce) to the various authors. Her reasoning that botanical adventures, big and small, would be of much greater significance in India was not wrong—as is evident from the prodigious research and information in Flora’s Empire.   Herbert’s basic premise is that for the British, their idea of what gardens should look like was part of the ‘cultural baggage’ of colonialism. In the opening pages of her book, Herbert engagingly notes that when the British first came to India, their ‘first encounters with alien lands tend to focus on nature, what is reassuringly familiar and what is unfamiliar and even repellent’ (p. 1). And of course, as with most other things Indian, nature was rarely left alone. The author observes that the years—or decades —that the British spent in metamorphosing themselves from traders and compradors into rulers and imperialists was also the time when they were confidently moving into new garden and indeed architectural styles.   If the British were overwhelmed by the perfumes and colours of the flowers, shrubs and trees of India, it took them some time to realize that many were not natives—but the import of the great gardeners who had preceded them like the Mughal emperors and their dedicated cohorts. By the nineteenth century, the Mughal-style garden with its strict geometrical design took root in many parts of India north of the Deccan. It epitomized high culture in the vocabulary of horticulture, aspired to by the nobility and social hopefuls alike. The Mughal garden was a functional space, where significant meetings could be held as also many a soiree of perfumed evenings spangled with moonlight—and maybe assignations and deceptions as well.   In the chapter evocatively titled ‘From Garden House to Bungalow, Nabobs to Heaven-Born’, Herbert looks at the emergence of specialized living spaces. For the rulers, it was clear that while interaction with ‘natives’ either as collaborators, informants, servants or in rare cases near-equals was inevitable, the Englishman-in-his-castle syndrome could not be ignored; to carve out a private space ...

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