Book Review

Book Review: 'Bangalore's Lalbagh' by Suresh Jayaram pays homage to the Garden City

Print edition : December 31, 2021
The story of Lalbagh is intertwined with the story of Bengaluru, and the book makes this connect wonderfully.

Suresh Jayaram, the author of the book under review, is an artist, art historian and curator who was the principal of the College of Fine Arts, which is a part of the Karnataka Chitrakala Parishath located in Bengaluru. He is also the founder of the art gallery “1 Shanthi Road” and has been a valuable member of the city’s vibrant community of artists over the years. In the brief biography on the jacket of the book, Jayaram is additionally described as a “garden enthusiast”. This unusual appellation makes sense when one begins to peruse the book—which is essentially a homage to Lalbagh, the premier public garden of Bengaluru—as Jayaram’s rich interest in the world of gardens becomes clear.

Jayaram’s book follows the publication of Vijay Thiruvady’s book (Lalbagh: Sultans’ Garden to Public Park) on the botanical garden published last year (“Rediscovering Lalbagh”, Frontline, April 23, 2021) and adds to the corpus of literature on the wider history of Bengaluru. Lalbagh’s misty origins can be traced to a flower garden, or thota (in Kannada), Kempegowda I set up in the 16th century. Lalbagh was given a far more coherent form during the reigns of Hyder Ali and Tipu Sultan in the second half of the 18th century as the duo was keenly interested in the development of gardens. During the colonial period, gardeners trained at the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew in London such as John Cameron, G.H. Krumbiegel and H.C. Javaraya transformed Lalbagh into one of India’s leading public gardens with diverse plant species. Some of the magnificent trees at Lalbagh include the gigantic Java figs, the fragrant Magnolia Champaca, the soaring Araucaria columnaris (or Christmas tree), lofty eucalyptuses and blooming cannonball trees.

The Lalbagh of today sprawls across 240 acres and is located bang in the middle of the booming city of Bengaluru and is a haven for throngs of early morning walkers and multitudes of visitors during the remainder of the day who saunter in seeking respite from the frenzy of the city. Lalbagh continues to be a significant botanical site in India: Apart from its valuable and ancient trees and flowering plants, it also houses a few historical structures. We learn from Jayaram’s book that Lalbagh once even housed a zoo and an aquarium.

Growing up close to Lalbagh, Jayaram has had an enduring tryst with the garden as this is where he “could feel the fecundity and diversity of nature”, which opened his “sensibilities” and taught him to “slow down, pause and look”. In his poetic way, Jayaram calls Lalbagh his “garden of earthly delights”. Like many in the city who came of age before the turn of this century, Jayaram too has fond childhood memories of afternoons spent in Lalbagh and describes it as his “childhood haunt”. In fact, the book is partly a memoir as the author shares experiences of his time growing up in Lalbagh.

Jayaram writes that his deep interest in Lalbagh was enhanced because he was a Thigala by caste. This was the community of gardeners whom Hyder Ali brought to the region of modern Bengaluru in the 18th century from the Carnatic area of what is now Tamil Nadu. Jayaram refers to the Thigalas as the “gardeners of Lalbagh” but their expertise extended well beyond the public garden, and they had a hand in the greening of Bengaluru itself as snippets in the book from Jayaram’s family’s history attest to.

Reading the book is akin to entering the atelier of an artist who has made Lalbagh his muse. The book has detailed archival maps and paintings; portraits of some of the important personages in the early history of Lalbagh; rich photographs (both historical and contemporary); images of picture postcards from the colonial era; pen and ink drawings; and vivid botanical illustrations. Photographs from the author’s personal collection add a sensitive touch to the curation of the book’s contents. The story of Lalbagh is intertwined with the story of Bengaluru itself and the book makes this connect wonderfully.

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