Bombay in Bloom: Urban Space, Territory and Colonial Gardening
By Lucy Jarman
In February 2014 Art Histories and Aesthetic Practices at the Forum Transregionale Studien, brought a group of art historians, anthropologists and scholars from neighboring disciplines to India under the auspices of a travelling seminar: “Spatial Orders: Aesthetics, Politics, Religion.”
In this report, Lucy Jarman discusses the origin of the “Flora Fountain” in the buzzing heart of Mumbai and its connection to a second sculptural ensemble, situated directly adjacent to the Flora Fountain, representing two nationalist heroes holding aloft a torch with joined hands. This sculpture serves as a memorial erected to commemorate those killed in a massacre in 1960 in which the police shot numerous members of the Samyukta Maharashtra Samiti (United Maharashtra Committee), a political group demanding the establishment of a Marathi-speaking State, formed out of the large-scale, bi-lingual State of Bombay.
How do the neo-classicist fountain and the politicized memorial enter into a dialogue? What connects the serene spring goddess to the nationalist heroes?
A highly diverse group of scholars coming from Germany, Poland, China, Taiwan, Cameroon, Benin, USA, Egypt, Portugal and India, the participants had the opportunity to discuss the locality from the perspectives of a pluralist art history, open to methodologies of other disciplines. With a focus on spatial phenomena and urban space interlinking the spheres of different religious, aesthetic and political practices, the necessity for an open-minded approach was evident. The multi-layered sites visited by the group often bore traces of several hundred years of history. A single site could carry a history marked by Hindu, Muslim, Jain, Buddhist or other religious practices; could have been built, used, abandoned, destroyed or exploited by princely state rulers, Mughal, British or other political forces. Referring to and reacting with each other they transformed these spaces into a complex historical fabric. The following ideas aim at taking a closer look onto one of the Mumbai sites: one of the city’s most famous landmarks, the splendorous Flora Fountain.
The statue of Flora, the Roman goddess of flowers and spring, is situated in a spatial disposition that has at a first glimpse little to do with her natural habitat. Best known as a blossom-bedecked figure from Botticelli’s famous renaissance painting La Primavera, or in marble representations, mostly situated on European historical garden grounds, Flora and her flower garland seem alien on the broad square that is a main traffic junction in India’s most populous city. Surrounded by several of the city’s main roads and showered in the symphony of honking, shouting, rumbling engines, and screeching tires, one might wonder how Flora found her way to this exact spot, to the buzzing heart of Mumbai.
The square commonly referred to as “Flora Fountain” and officially named “Hutatma Chowk” (Marathi for “Martyr’s square”) offers a second sculptural ensemble, situated directly adjacent to the Flora Fountain, representing two nationalist heroes holding aloft a torch with joined hands. This complex is in a way quite similar to the Flora fountain complex: both sculptural ensembles are set at the edge rather than center of a fenced enclosure. Both Flora and the martyrs stand on tall pedestals and both rise to about the same height. The mirrored setting seems at first quite curious, given the colonial origins of the former and the nationalist ones of the latter. Flora stands atop a pyramidal fountain structure with neo-classicist architectonical elements, mythological figures and creatures. The fountain’s circular basin is the marginal nucleus of a fenced oval which contains a well-groomed garden with trimmed bushes, lush lawn and a circular palm tree formation corresponding to the circular fountain. The Hutatma Chowk memorial complex is in contrast marked by its polygonal layout, its corners and edginess. The lawn compartments are structured by concrete contour lines varying in height which form the ground into a multi-leveled terrain reminiscent of maps, with indications of a system to mark hills and heights. Interestingly enough the highest plateau is not framed by the schematized contour line of a map, but by a squiggly, curvy line, reminding one of the real nature of landscape, which only somewhat resembles cartographical abstractions. The memorial itself with its two martyrs mounted on an elongated spiral plinth holding aloft a flame – is reminiscent of a political iconographic language, as found in sculptural ensembles of socialist realism, nationalism and fascism.
So what happened here on this shared square, one of Mumbai’s major landmarks? How do the neo-classicist fountain and the politicized memorial enter into a dialogue? What connects the serene spring goddess to the nationalist heroes?
The erection of Flora Fountain is closely linked to major city planning activities in the mid-nineteenth century after the Sepoy Mutiny in 1857 and the transfer of power to the British crown in 1858. The then governor of Bombay, Sir Henry Bartle Frere (1862-1867) was redesigning the whole area surrounding the Flora Fountain. Tearing down the ramparts of the old Fort, the walled-in district built by the British East India Company between 1686 and 1743, he improved local sanitary conditions. Frere also commissioned several public buildings in neo-classical and gothic revival styles around the area. By widening the streets, he answered the spatial demands of the rapidly growing city, booming subsequent to the American cotton crisis after the civil war, which was transforming Bombay into a major industrial, trade and port city. The Flora Fountain is located on the site of the former Churchgate, one of the three gates of the old Fort. This historical setting between inside and outside might explain the significant infrastructural importance of the square until today. The fountain erected in 1869 with funds from the Agri-Horticultural Society of West India was originally meant for the Victoria Gardens in Byculla, Bombay, yet these luxuriant gardens might have served as a more appropriate location for the flower goddess.
Sir Bartle Frere, a progressive politician, changed the infrastructure and façade of Bombay radically in a very short time, and became a figure popular for giving the city a modern face. During Frere’s office, the curator Dr. George Birdwood promoted the construction of the Victoria Gardens which later included the Victoria and Albert Museum (today called the Dr. Bhau Daji Lad Museum) for the promotion of industry, agriculture and arts in India. The botanical gardens held plants, flowers and trees from more than sixty countries, mainly for research purposes. Worldwide there were few botanical collections as broad as Bombay’s. The in 1864 added zoological garden, one of the oldest zoos in India, complemented Dr. Birdwood’s vision . As Christopher V. Hill (2013, Colonial Gardens and the Validation of Empire in Imperial India, Journal of South Asian Studies, Vol. 1, No. 2) points out, the Victoria Gardens complex functioned as more than a mere pastime facility, but was a product of epistemological and political practices rather than aesthetic or leisurely ones. Classifying, studying and cultivating nature symbolically met with studying, understanding and civilizing the “savages”; with forming and cultivating the “untamed land”. The ideas of the influential Swedish botanist Carl von Linné, who classified the natural world by applying a binominal nomenclature, created a hierarchical pyramid system with mankind at its top. Descending from these ideas, notions of enlightenment, reason, progress and claims of superiority was the foundation of the Victoria Gardens. The British “Imperial gardens” as Eugenia W. Herbert (2011, Flora’s Empire. British Gardens in India, Penn Press) observes are places of beauty, science and order representing the legitimacy of British rule. Frere was deeply rooted in this universe, being in constant exchange with Birdwood, which is confirmed by the presence of memorial statues commemorating him and his wife alongside a statue of Queen Victoria in the Victoria Gardens.
The Agri-Horticultural Society of West India, colleagues of Dr. Birdwood, also benefitted from Frere’s politics, which stimulated economics and agriculture, introducing new cotton and sugar cane seeds from oversea. In this context the founding of the fountain is hardly surprising. Birdwood’s garden planning and Frere’s urban planning are comparable insofar, that they were both striving for an orderly organization of the Other, driven by notions of reason and progress. By transforming the soil, the landscape, the space – one puts a stamp on the land, marking a territory. Apart from indicating the essential kinship of colonial gardening and city planning, there is a second reading for Flora: Even though afar from gardens, woods and meadows, the Roman goddess of flowers and fertility is situated in another type of blooming, flourishing landscape that is the thriving mid-nineteenth century city of Bombay, upheaved by the fruits of the cotton trade. Flora becomes here the patroness of the prosperous cityscape, symbolizing wealth and economic growth.
The design of the Hutama Chowk memorial is marked by a parallel, though contrasting layout. The memorial was erected to commemorate those killed in a massacre in 1960 in which the police shot numerous members of the Samyukta Maharashtra Samiti (United Maharashtra Committee), a political group demanding the establishment of a Marathi-speaking State, formed out of the large-scale, bi-lingual State of Bombay. The demonstration, taking place on Flora Fountain square, served as a catalyst for the later in 1960 achieved partition of Bombay State into the Marathi-speaking State of Maharashtra and the Gujarati-speaking State of Gujarat. It seems like the memorial is not only memorializing the victims of the 1960’s peaceful demonstration, but also symbolizing a re-appropriation of land, the establishment of territory. Here as well space is claimed – not by transforming it, but rather by studying and measuring it, making it visible by using cartographical techniques through contour lines. The similar aim, differently motivated by colonial and nationalist forces, may have led to this curious mirroring but contrasting spatial constellation. By positioning the massacre’s memorial alongside the Flora Fountain rather than on top of it, an acceptance for the space’s history and multiple identity is articulated, an identity in which serene Flora might embody, as the Gujarati poet Niranjan Bhagat wrote, “a dream of spring” amidst “a glass and concrete jungle”, a subsequent and unintended notion of reclaiming her land, a faint and subversive act of guerilla gardening.
Lucy Jarman is studying European art history, East Asian art history and Korean studies at the Freie Universität Berlin. She is Student Assistant of the research program Art Histories and Aesthetic Practices.
This text was produced in the context of the Art Histories and Aesthetic Practices Travelling Seminar 2014: “Spatial Orders: Aesthetics, Politics, Religion”
Citation: Lucy Jarman, Bombay in Bloom: Urban Space, Territory and Colonial Gardening, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 10.09.2014 https://trafo.hypotheses.org/1202