28 February 2011

On visiting the Mughal Garden

A visit to the Mughal Garden is instructive in very many ways. There is, first of all, the…but wait. What is the Mughal Garden?

Well, for the uninitiated, the Mughal Garden is, um, a garden in India’s Rashtrapati’s Presidential Estate. It’s Mughal not because the Mughals built it, of course not, but because it’s structured on the archetype of the gardens they used to. Why? Well, first, because those gardens them Mughals built were really pretty and exquisite, just the place you’d want in your blooming big estate and second because, well, the British being British, they couldn’t resist the charm of incorporating something of their predecessors in Hindustan into their own topos of power and so they built a garden to suit English tastes in the Mughal style. You know, just like the empire’s here to stay, the sun never sets and so on? Well, exactly like that: the Mughals thought they were here to stay, but oh no, we are going to stay and look, we can even build better and bigger than them, so a hearty hurrah to us and the crown!

Ah well, didn’t exactly turn out that way and in less than two decades of its being built the British were out and, well, let’s say, the Indians were in, but that being that, back now to the Garden. More properly, a visit to the Garden. Instructive, in very many ways. Here’s how.

First, if you visit on a Sunday, you can put yourself off for a dumb mutt. No, seriously, I think Sunday’s the worst possible day to go to the place. The entrance is from Gate 35 of the Presidential Estate and the line extended half a kilometre or so to Gate 38 on one side and around four hundred metres up North Avenue on the other. This for starters, for a hundred metres or so from the gate the drive in had been enclosed and barricaded with stalls for depositing your stuff on one side and narrow aisles for entrance on the other. Announcements repeatedly asked visitors to deposit all their belongings before stepping up to the entrance and extolled every now and then so and so from such and such unheard of town from this and that part of the subcontinent to please, please come in through the metal detectors because their family had been frantically waiting for them the past half an hour and now they were all getting hysterical.

Yes, quite the mela. We’re all quite capable of that, anywhere, anytime.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I’ve nothing against melas and crowds – I mean, isn’t the exotic Indian experience all about that? No, no, I’m all for them and stuff of this sort, oh yes I am. However, sometimes, it’s just that it gets a wee bit too much, and some places perhaps are meant to be without the milling, maddening crowd.

The Mughal Garden is such a one.

Oh yes, very bad; very, very bad. But one really can’t help it. Democracy’s so bad for beauty.

Think about it. How many monuments or cultural artefacts adjudged beautiful or worth preservation have been the result of fair and equitable systems of labour and economic production? I, well, I for one can’t really think of any right now, not as much because democracies all around haven’t erected monuments to their glory but because there really hasn’t been a system of labour and blah-blah-blah which has been really, seriously fair to all possible stakeholders. I suppose it’s a bit like that old dialectic our sociologists and cultural critics so used to love, of there always being someone who gets the hard end of a bargain, of beauty being so not because of itself but because of it’s polar extreme, ugliness, which makes a comparison possible. Those who enjoy are beautiful, those who labour ugly…

And it there, in that garden, it was pretty ugly.

Not, of course, that there was no enjoyment, no, but whatever there was was of that closely supervised, guarded type which allots you only as much time for a glimpse or so after which you needs must move on because logistics demand so. The crowd management was pretty good, but a crowd it was nonetheless and for the life of me I can’t imagine how one enjoys a garden in, as a crowd.

Aren’t gardens supposed to be taken in? Aren’t you supposed to stand there, sit, look in the distance, admire the myriad hues of spring, ruminate on the might of the fallen empire, walk barefoot on the lush green grass and run your hand through the water channels?

Not if you’re common citizenry of India.

No siree, if you’re common citizenry of India, you needs must stay off the grass, keep walking, never stop and sit, not cross any barricade and never ever touch as much as half a tiny rose petal. No, I don’t blame anyone, I seriously don’t; these measures are necessary, they’re just what I would’ve done if I had a big, beautiful garden and allowed visitors in the time of the year when it was the loveliest. The management, I say, was very competent and Madam’s Men deserve all possible accolades.

But what, I wonder, of Madam herself? It is her garden after all – or at least hers as long as the other Madam wills it so; to what good use, I wonder, does she put it to?

Certainly not to have sherbets and then make out, I suppose. I mean, the website says she has her At Homes a certain number of times a year in the front lawn and I suppose she goes out for a walk with hubby dear every now and then, but, with all due respect to age, you can’t really imagine a wizened old dear like our Rashtrapati making merry in the garden. Leave aside making merry, you can’t imagine her with her pallu down. Very prim and propah, I agree, and very Rashtrapati like too I believe, but not, well, not what you’d imagine the owner of a blooming big house with a blooming big garden to be like.

Come to think of it, not only is democracy not good for beauty, it’s also not good for glamour.

Well, at least in India. We have a thing for ji-huzoori and as a result tend to ritualise almost everything into codified institutions. It’s alright mostly, but you feel it the most when it comes to pleasure. A well maintained and landscaped garden’s your bit of the earth, your version of jannat. If we are to have national symbols, then let them be impressive: for a house as big and a garden as beautiful, we need a figure who would complement them both. Not youth necessarily, no, but then also not genial grand-dames, or erratic, eccentric rocket scientists, or bespectacled diplomats…these are, were, all good folk in themselves and undoubtedly did good to their office, but then that was it. Whatever intelligence, cunning, wit and malice they had hardly came out, the President’s office being sacrosanct in a way in which even monarchies are not today. All said and done, India’s more a throned republic than a true blue democracy.

Not that I have too many problems with that, not here at least; but then if we are to be so and not what we profess ourselves to be, then we could at least make sure our figureheads look worthy to wear a crown. It doesn’t have to be someone with a particular build and colour, just anybody who’d look impressive walking down the steps of the world’s largest presidential manor, who’d inspire a certain awe taking the salute from one of the world’s only surviving mounted regiment, who’d hush audiences into attentive silence, not by the dint of his/her office but by his/her mere presence…

Ah well, ah well, well, well…democracy! We all owe much to it; I owe the ability to say this to it. Ingratitude? Somewhat, yes. Can’t really help it, can one? When you have symbols pregnant with a certain unsaid but pervasive sense of power, you cannot but be so. Humanity, I suppose, craves a light to follow…yet, uneasy the head that wears a crown. So, I believe, the rituals which balm the constant prick of thorns, the institutions which temper awe from and for the mob…a beautiful garden, after all, is not just a bit of land done up nicely to please. Not just, for to please though it is, it is also to remind, to reassert hierarchies and power, to put in mind the might of the gardener to and for whom we are all bound.

That, I suppose, is what this one was ultimately all about.


Nirbhay Bhogal said...

You went to the President's garden with Kriti?

Dave King said...

To do this justice, I shall need to come back when I've more time.

AP said...

Nirbhay: yes, I did.

Dave: Please do, pleasure would be all mine.

Anonymous said...

The water channels are sorely tempting, especially on a warm spring day.

AP said...

Ay, so there are!

Creation said...

Remove that idiotic sonnet of yours. Makes no sense to put it up anymore. :D