Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Garden Restorations: Panjim’s Jardim Municipal, somewhere, beyond the green and the heritage, there lies a rainbow

The degraded state of the Panjim Municipal Garden, the Jardim Garcia d’Orta has been a sore point for some time now. However, on hearing news of the plans for the re-development of the park, my heart sank further. What new travesty would this latest venture bring? As if to prove these fears true, there was sometime last week, news of a confrontation with the powers vested with re-developing the Park. It appears that a number of the trees in the Jardim were slated to be cut, to make way for lawns and flower beds. Before the debate degenerates into an argument for the value of trees and a green lung, I would like to place the issue with a larger context.

Earlier columns have grumbled about the manner in which a Northern European understanding of the garden has colonized our mentality. In addition our understandings of the garden space have also been frozen within domestic frameworks, resulting in a narrowing of our garden-vocabulary. To place the Jardim in context therefore, we need to affirm that it was not just a ‘garden’ but a Public garden. Within the various types of public gardens one may find, the Jardim was an Alameda, a promenade garden meant for walking, and shaded by a variety of trees. Like Alamedas across the Iberian world, this garden too was (and continues to be) marked by commemorative monuments. The monument in this case being the column formerly dedicated to Vasco da Gama and now crowned by the Ashokan lions. The shading of the paths and the benches of this Alameda however were not randomly arranged, but followed, as is still visible if one looks closely, a formal symmetrical pattern. This feature of the Mediterranean garden drew from Islamicate sensibilities, that itself drew from the Roman. This formal arrangement however, was only the center of a much larger symmetry, represented by the buildings that enclosed the rectangle of the Jardim.

The Mediterranean public garden however, is not simply a space for relaxation; it is also a ritual political space. It is the symbolic representation of the public space, where the citizens gather, affirm their commitment to order in civil society and where the State affirms its commitment both to the citizens and to the notion of public order. This would be one way to think of the band-stand that stands at the centre of the Jardim. Every Sunday the Jardim hosted the band of the armed forces which played to the citizenry of Panjim who gathered there in their numbers, to see and be seen. In this ritual action, week after week, the notion of a civil society, and citizenship therein, would be reaffirmed, by State and citizen alike.

It is important to note this fact, a few days prior to the commemoration of the integration of Goa into the Indian Union. Very often forgotten in our celebration of the end of colonial rule, are the political specificities of the territory of Goa. Despite being a colonized space, Goa was nevertheless marked by citizenship. This status, peculiar to the Goan within a colonized sub-continent, emerged for the Catholic native elite from early colonial rule, and was open to all, regardless of religion from 1910. It is in this context that we should see and cherish this (and other Goan) public garden(s). We should also remember that this garden was a product not of some colonial mind, but of the local sons who were on the Camara Municipal. These local sons burned with the same zeal for independence, that Indian nationalists did, but owing to their political location as citizens, were able to articulate this desire within the confines of the Portuguese Empire.

Viewed in this manner, the Jardim Garcia d’Orta emerges as heritage garden with strong indigenous roots. These indigenous traditions of democracy and politics have however, largely been forgotten as they have been overlaid by the political traditions and understandings of the former British-India. This is perhaps nowhere as tellingly demonstrated as in the fate of the Jardim; first ravaged by the bureaucratic masturbation of the (British-Indian inspired) Forest Department’s tree plantation drives, and subsequently left to ruin as all wholesome notions of democracy have gone to mud.

The re-development of this garden and its structure, then, cannot simply be initiated de novo, nor can the debate be restricted to the need for a green space in the urban city. The re-development must necessarily be undertaken in the spirit of a Restoration. I capitalize the R here, for this Restoration is not to mean merely a physical restoration that one submits an edifice to, but a Restoration in the sense of a socio-political renewal as well. The Restoration must take the ritual space and history of the Municipal garden seriously, keeping the citizen once more at the centre of the development. If under the Portuguese regime the real (as opposed to the legal-theoretical) benefits of citizenship were restricted to the culturally equipped and bourgeois denizens of the city, then this Restored garden must ensure that those unfairly labeled ‘anti-social elements’ are not excluded. The garden as it did in the old days, must allow citizens to interact with each other, renewing both the use of the garden and civil society at large.

Incorporating this political dimension into our viewing of the garden as a heritage structure makes the word heritage bear more weight than it normally does. The formal stylistic arrangement of the park is no longer a mere aesthetic fetish, nor a fancy obsession with our past. It is a testament to a way in which we would like to see our democracy. It is also a testament to the fact that our colonial difference is worth embracing for it has something very valuable to contribute to the Indian democracy. In both these cases, the Alameda styling of the garden is critically tied to a definite kind of public and political culture. In addition, as opposed to the Northern European inspired garden of British-India, which stresses sun-kissed expanses that guzzle water, the Mediterranean inspired Alameda garden works with the local environment to provide the shade within which tropical life thrives.

If there is a debate around the development of the Municipal garden in Panjim, then that debate cannot and must not be restricted just to the issue of green cover and lung space. There is as I have laboured to point out, a much larger context within which it must necessarily be seen.

(Published in the Gomantak Times, 16 Dec 2009)

Image of the newly planted Jardim Municipal courtesy Dr. Paulo Varela Gomes

Image of scene in the Alameda Gibraltar Gardens from Wikipedia


Anonymous said...

I thoroughly enjoyed this article. What a wonderful perspective on the garden. There is one tiny piece I'm not entirely sure off. If memory serves me right, the Persian garden was not borrowed from the Romans. It traces back to Babylonian mythology, of the mythical garden which leads to God. It is perfectly symetrical with a water-body in the middle. Then again, they do say the memory is the first to go :-)


NadineisthatU said...

I am just getting to this wonderful blog tonight, yet I will have to finish it in the morning. I am a person who visits gardens, don't we all?