Tracing Narratives

The narrative of Indian Landscape Design is large, and fractured and any attempt to map it fully is fraught with problems; most that perhaps will take years to surmount. The exhibition, then does not aim at comprehensiveness, as much as it aims at incisiveness.

The exhibition attempts to create a lens; through which practitioners may care to evaluate the world of landscape design and its meanings today, and in the near future, or for the interested person who just wants to know about the world of landscape design, and certainly for the student, who may find the story of landscape design, enriching his or her thinking about design in general.

Another facet of this adventure is to make the idea of the garden, central to the discussion. The meaning or rather the many meanings of a garden are often forgotten, and the searching of these meanings will lead one to find the core of the profession; a place from where many forays not just in the world of design can well be launched.

The exhibition travels to a number of cities in India starting in January 2017. To allow further detailed reading the content of the exhibition has been presented in the form of an e-book that could also allow additions to the subject matter.

“On a day of turmoil, the only trace of the world you may find to learn from, are those hidden in the leaves of a book.”

The arts are the imagined reality of a time; sometimes embellished, at others wholly imagined, and yet at others faithful recordings of a phenomena. Through varied representational means they reflect, comment and record the times we live in; and then by their potency influence the times we live in.

“Imagine that you woke up one day and could not recognize anyone. Anyone at all. And nobody could tell you about who you were and who the people around you were. Nor about your ancestors. Nothing.”

The desire to maintain records of that which grew around us can be traced in prehistoric rock paintings such as Bhimbetka near Bhopal that date back to 30,000 BCE or  to rock-cut caves at Ajanta and Ellora, extending around  c.800 CE. The Vedic era (c.1500 – c.500 BCE) reveals meticulous records and much later around 15th – 18th CE Mughal courts commissioned recording of flora and fauna in a manner that captured the context and emotion of the plant and the life around it.
The most systemized records however commenced with the advent of Europeans in the 18th -19thCE, in the country. Individual and institutional efforts continue; now with different eyes and new narratives built around the recording, often allowing a fresh way of appreciating that which was recorded earlier.
The Botanical Gardens in the country, nearly 122 in number, continue to do an exemplary job and are a bodily expression of this enterprise; they store information that is seemingly infinite; with actual species planted on the grounds, or vast and written pictorial records, along with preserved species in the herbariums. Quite simply, these are the census keepers of the world of plant with, in some ways better records than available for humans. And in many cases they are also the Noah’s Ark. When all else fails, this is where we turn to.

“Think of them as eternal mirrors. Each age and each being can gaze in them; find meanings have dialogues - ever changing and always alive. Do we have anything else like this in our lives? Don’t we need them to preserve sanity?”

The choices are immense; from the Mughal gardens of the hills and plains, to those of temples and palaces, to parks, botanical and zoological gardens, to the humbler gardens of homes. Across a plethora of mental readings, these gardens have a voice, made unique by their location, or construct; but also by their changing but continuing relevance in any frame of viewing chronology. Allowing multiple readings, they are physical artifacts, that can engulf the body and senses and then in forms of gentle sedation, tranquil meditativeness, or more excitable states of the mind, in varying states of opacity and transparency, allow viewing and reading of themselves, and of the world that was, is and will be.
Do other physical arrangements have the same offering?
Natural landscapes do not have the hand of a willful human mind and hence the construction of conversations of our relation to the world is handicapped. The agenda that most buildings have overtaken and dominate the dialogue with self. Some religious spaces are profound because of the emptying of the mind they allow and demand; but then rather often draw one to a constructed idea of faith.
These gardens are seemingly without an agenda or political layering; they are egalitarian, receptacles of emotion and thought; revealing only that much of self as the occupier wants them to; allowing a casual discussion or a personal cathartic intense conversation.
The readings here are personal; and that is what makes gardens unique - that they allow any number and any kind of conversations to be constructed simultaneously; and yet there never is a din; no loud voices, only the warmth of a silent civilized discourse.

“If you see something often enough, it becomes embedded in your mind. If you don’t question it or examine it, it becomes the truth.”

No matter how fleeting or fragile, seeking patterns in phenomena is an innate ingrained ability. When relationships are recognized, the mind quickly layers it with meanings that embellish, substantiate and finally canonize that pattern.
Over time the pattern attains a hallowed status, and is repeated ad-nauseam; making it seem greater than truth itself.
At different times of its life cycle it means different things; but rarely is it questioned, slowly numbing and impoverishing the mind.

“Sometimes with great people, it’s not as important to know what they did, as it is to know why they did what they did.”

The list is exhaustive. Any recording of people who have influenced, the discipline of landscape design will have to include botanists, horticulturists, ecologists, landscape architects to begin with; but in reality this circle will have to be widen to include architects, artists, film makers, writers, anthropologists, hydrologists, foresters and planners. A profession that looks too
inwards for inspiration can be limited in its thought; but one that only looks outward, can perhaps never notice the state of its innards.

“It is only in actions will we find traces of the past and the hope of future.”

Mostly graduating from these colleges (with some exceptions where students have graduated from universities outside the country), there are around 500-600 professionals in our country that spans 3,287,263, has a population of 131 Crores, and has all the climatic variations as are possible in the world. That is one professional for about 5,400 and one for 21 Lac people.
Identifying works is made difficult in the absence of good documenting processes, but also by the general absence of discourse in the meaning and value of contemporary works. A small sample here is by no means absolute and there are many more that are waiting to be mapped; but the ones here allows discussion on ecology, conservation, symbolism, and poetics; key values that must guide the discourse on landscape design.

“There is something to be said about oral narratives. With scrolls, or paintings, or objects to represent something else, a tradition is passed on. In each telling, embellished a bit, enriched a bit – but made alive so you could feel it with all your senses.”

Soon after the first garden was planted just a bit later there must have been someone stocking and selling plants. Books are repositories of recorded knowledge, and botanical gardens and herbariums the hallowed vaults. Nurseries on the other hand allow a sensorial understanding of the world of plants; often stocking the same species to be seen as a young sapling and also a slightly mature one; or often acting as windows to the way plants are sought after and used at a particular time and age. In a way they are the fashion houses of the profession. But even more valuable is the knowledge that the Nurserymen have accumulated over the years; always conveyed orally, never written, it consists of anecdotes, and tales of the world of flora that is always fascinating. Much like the narrator of a play, a Nurseryman carries the script of the story of every plant that he has around him, for he has witnessed its life cycle all along. They are skilled and have inherited knowledge from mentors or through the family lineage.

“And finally with all the ingredients in hand, what use are they if someone does not teach you what to do with them?”

Slowly we are losing without doubt the real knowledge of working the soil, and growing plants. A fact amplified whenever one chooses to see; trees on roads that are not planted well; soil that has not been suitably modified to receive certain kind of plants; practical knowledge of repotting plants or techniques of air layering missing from the repertoire of the practitioners. The list is vast. And yet we have a large legacy of books that painstakingly described and recorded each technique in ways that could be easily understood. So exhaustive are they, that an interested reader may well find answers to any garden puzzle.

So fierce is the gaze of those with passion in their heart, that the worldly avert their eyes lest they betray self.

The world of the amateur gardener belongs to a different galaxy. It may seem that the amateur gardener works with the same tools and elements- soil, water, seasons, and plants; and hence there is a lot in common with the professional. Nothing is further from the truth.
The amateur gardener is a person with a passion and love for plants that is hard to match, and at times even comprehend. In their world, plants wake in the morning and stretch themselves, look sad when the sun is harsh, and talk to them throughout their lives. This is not an imagined world. It is as unreal as real is real.
And from their passion, are born many lessons of life, but also the world of landscape. About an order that is difficult to see, about a balance that can’t be measured, about completeness and incompleteness, about rebirth, and about a rare love that must suffuse us all.
More than history books and the works of professionals, sometimes these are the gardens that we must see to remind us, rejuvenate ourselves and hold us firmly, so that we don’t forget why we are.

Snehal Nagarsheth

Associate Professor
Faculty of Design, CEPT University, Ahmedabad

The exhibition is not seen as a finished text, but has brought together the many ideas and relationships that has built the notions of landscape architecture. This exhibition is an exhaustive and all-encompassing in its attempt to bring the various different concerns and realities that define the field of landscape design. The many narratives here are seen as material texts brought together under one umbrella defining the girth and depth of the field across time and across scale.

It was touching to see the stories of individual gardeners develop the nursery that have supported the Indian gardens on one end, while bringing to light the gardens built by kings that have captured the Indian imagination for generations. The celestial gardens of Vrindavan and Vraj are beautifully rendered in the exhibition and have also brought to light the tale of everyday plant bougainvillea with painstaking research. Thus the exhibition not only brings to light the ordinary and every day but captures the splendours and imaginations which define the spirit of India.

Rajeev Khatpalia

VastuShilpa Consultants, Ahmedabad

It is indeed remarkable that a practice that is exceedingly busy producing new work finds the time to reflect research and document some of the treasures of Indian architecture.

The pleasure gardens of Srinagar, the various palaces, lakes and pavilions of Mandu are often referred to in our discourse on Indian architecture but rarely put together as comprehensive drawings encompassing their entire context and setting or zooming in to the individual parts within that context. This exhibition does that most evocatively. The romance of the place is conveyed by these beautiful drawings. For that alone the exhibition is worth seeing.

Of course the exhibition extends well beyond the drawings. It succinctly binds the rich past with an emerging present through the discipline of landscape design but I believe the view is through a multifaceted prism and therein lies its strength.

Building, the space within it and most importantly the space that structures create between them, with the horizon, with the setting within which they are located extending to the space in history and culture are all necessary to be brought into the conversation, transcending disciplines. This is what I believe the exhibition intends.

I suspect this exhibition started in a fit of passion, it was sustained by that all consuming passion but has been tempered by a very sharp, precise and cool mind.

Deepa Maheshwari

Department of Landscape Architecture, CEPT University, Ahmedabad

The monograph on landscape narratives is a fantastic compilation of the history of Landscape in India.

India is a vast country with diverse agro climatic zones, diverse cultures and a very rich historical lineage. But in terms of Landscape history of India, we don't have a comprehensive documentation. What we have are the references of natural elements and Landscape settings in our scriptures and epics that date back to a few thousand years B.C. We also have many references and examples in the form of gardens, parks, step Wells, spaces associated with historical monuments, paintings etc. There is too much of scattered information and there has been a pressing need felt in the landscape fraternity to document them. This book is an attempt to weave all the threads together.

The monograph is aptly titled as landscape narratives. As conveyed in the document, it has laid the foundation and has a potential for further additions in the years to come. The eight sections of the book are well structured in a format that allows information to be added later. When one reads the complete monograph, one gets an overall picture of Landscape history of India. As an Indian, and a Landscape Architect, it makes us feel proud to know our lineage.

It is indeed a great document with commendable efforts of Aniket and his team.

Samira Rathod

Samira Rathod Design Associates, Mumbai

Learning to Oscillate :
Dennis Dutton in his ted talk " A Darwinian Theory of Beauty" describes the " beautiful " as that which is done well.

Tracing Narratives, an exhibition on landscape design in India; is beautiful. Not because it offers to display its contents in clever installations which are art in themsleves (as most exhibition strive to do today) but because it does not; and then does much more.

The simplicity and the directness with which it communicates, leads the interested to read on and engage as it unfolds the many marvels of a garden's zeitgeist, that in our daily humdrum of life so easily escapes us.

How often do we stop to look at a tree and feel the sheer joy of wonderment in its mottled bark , or the choreography of the dappled light below , when the wind rushes through its many leaves ?

How often do we find connections between the blues of the skies to that of the seas? How often do we find our way to a garden , and stay inside it? What is really a garden ?

The exhibition could have looked at almost everything and anything under the larger purview of landscape design and created a tome that could not be discerned in ones entire lifetime.

It abstains from such an exhaustive banal account and instead chooses to delve in the world of a garden, which is described as a "room outside" .

The exhibition explores this "room"s many facets , from its early genesis , its various historicities to its various 'avatars' in the chain of its evolution till date; not in any chronological order but as narratives traced from back in time; some found from the lost, some unearthed from the buried , and some resurrected from the dead.

This is a book of short stories that one can randomly read at will, and in each penetrating story find a meaning , a better understanding of the world of landscape, trees, plants, gardens and its loving keepers.

The contents are broadly categorized as chapters. At the macro level it covers the vast expanse of all that is is in the purview of landscape design : geo technical surveys and data, tree covers , forests and lakes, a data bank that informs design; the good, the bad and the undesired, and then shifts its attentions to the smaller nuances of garden making, as if it were a craft of precision and the gardener a craftsman.

The definition, then is broadened to include the various typologies beyond the conventional. Culled out from across the country, the typologies include a graveyard in Pune, ancient Indian stepped wells, the luscious garden of Vrindavan, camouflaged behind the dilapidated city, once where the lord Krishna bonhomied with the village damsels, or the botanical gardens in Kolkutta , that have carefully preserved dried pods, leaves and little pieces of the many trees in small boxes and bottles, like in an apothecary. A museum of sorts forgotten to the fog of modernity, all of this and more resurrected in beautiful drawings , paintings and photographs that but only make a place in the heart .

But more importantly, the exhibition is not just this . All these stories ;of the 1000 different roses, flower markets and the the marigold trade, the nursery owners and their tales of the past, stay as memories indelibly etched in the mind. These are stories of the common folk, their caring and commitment, their sense of passion and selflessness in their drive to fulfill a promise to themselves , and thereafter a whole life's work dedicated to it, without a desire to be famed .

These are the narratives that had to be traced; eked out from in between the lines, a whorled world of the ordinary, that needed celebration so that they may never be forgotten.

One can go through tracing narratives, like a child in a permanent state of bewilderment. Once there; then simply oscillate, as time passes by.

Supported By

The LEAF Fellowship

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