Rani Bagh 150 Years – Veermata Jijabai Bhosale Udyan And Zoo
Rani Bagh 150 Years is so much more than a coffee table book. It is a historical record, natural history display book, citizens’ campaign dossier and loving tribute, all rolled into one. The thick-papered, glossy pages reveal a fascinating story of one garden’s journey through time, and its relationship with the city of Mumbai.
Edited by Hutokshi Rustomfram and Shubhada Nikharge, this collection of essays and photographs is part well-curated scrapbook, part biography of a green haven. The Veermata Jijabai Bhosale Udyan, previously known as Victoria Gardens and now popularly referred to as Rani Bagh, spreads across 53 acres in Byculla, in central Mumbai. As the city’s largest open green space and Mumbai’s only heritage botanical garden, it is enjoyed every day by thousands of ordinary citizens and predictably, also eyed greedily by officials, builders and developers so focussed on revenue that they can’t see the forest for the trees.
In fact, it is due to the municipal corporation’s outrageous plans to ‘redevelop’ Rani Bagh into an ‘international zoo’ that a strong, citizen-led campaign, of which this book is a product, was initiated. Shocked by a 2007 proposal to raze and reconstruct much of the area at a cost of Rs. 433 crores, a group of women banded together to form the ‘Save Rani Bagh Botanical Garden Committee’, co-publishers of the tome.
The book, published on the occasion of the 150th anniversary of Rani Bagh, has woven together chapters authored by a diverse set of individuals, each of whom is deeply involved with the subject. The editing is tight, the book well-structured, and the rhythm of the meticulously researched text doesn’t drop at any point. It might have fewer stunning, large format photographs than other coffee table books, but as is apparent once you start leafing through it, it is much more than a pretty face. Each author’s individual voice remains intact while sharing a common disdain for the plans that threaten the Bagh’s heritage architecture and ancient trees. The book is peppered with plain-speak, occasionally tinged with sarcasm and tenuously restrained anger. Officials are almost ridiculed, with a patina of respect for their grandiose ideas (that included a glass-walled fine dining area and an artificial Indian Ocean) and their outright denial of the existence of a botanical garden.
City historian Mariam Dossal, who paints a picture of the early days, emphatically states,“The archival documents… are more powerful than cannons in blowing away anti-historical statements, and clearly establish the importance to Mumbai of Rani Bagh as a Botanical Garden. It is imperative that those at the helm of affairs read their history – indeed they should be given no choice.”
Conservation architect Vikas Dilawari speaks of how “the founders consciously strove to blend the natural elements of a botanical and pleasure garden with the most inspired of built form. The success of this endeavour and grand plan is the synthesis we see today in a living and breathing arboreal Eden that has survived, and albeit with some hiccups, flourished for 150 years.”
Bittu Sahgal explores wild nature in this ‘arboreal Eden’ and shows deep appreciation for the garden as a space for experiential nature education, provided one can steer clear of the callously incarcerated animals in the zoo area. The primacy of the garden, which occupies two-thirds of the space, over the much smaller zoo area that was set up almost three decades later, is apparent through the book. Katie Bagli presents a fun documentation of the little creatures in the ecosystems that thrive here, and Pheroza Godrej reminisces about the ‘enchanted botanical garden’, her words sprinkled with paintings, photographs and maps that peel back the years to gently reveal a time gone by.
Sandwiched in the middle of the book is the largest chapter, the ‘meat’ of the tome – a lucid record of the garden’s botanical wealth. Authored by respected botanist Dr. Marselin Almedia, who ‘cut his botanical teeth in Rani Bagh’, the chapter provides a glimpse into this natural laboratory for botany students from 50 colleges in Mumbai. Almeida says, “The B.M.C. assigned the task of the floral survey to me and the final tally was impressive indeed – 853 plant species belonging to no less than 149 families, and as many as 3,213 trees (286 species) that make Rani Bagh the location with the largest number and widest species diversity of trees in the island city.”
Perhaps the most remarkable chapter is the one on the campaign itself. The coalescing of friends – ‘botany enthusiasts’ as they refer to themselves – into the serious activists of the Save Rani Bagh Botanical Garden Committee. Hutokshi Rustomfram, Shubhada Nikharge, Katie Bagli, Hutoxi Arethna, Sheila Tanna, Renee Vyas and Nilima Kalgi are inspirational and strong, determined and caring. Their story is an example of how perfectly ‘ordinary’ citizens (although it is somehow unbefitting to call these women ‘ordinary’) can make a real difference. Their efforts have stemmed the destructive plans, and for this they were honoured under the spotlight at the Sanctuary Wildlife Awards. They warn, “We are acutely conscious of the need to be vigilant. No future planner should ever have the scope to proclaim that Rani Bagh is ‘only’ a garden and not a heritage botanical garden.” Indeed, this book serves as a weapon of defence, a permanent record of the historical, social and ecological value of Rani Bagh.
Reading Rani Bagh 150 Years is akin to completing a walk through the garden, with many filters – botany, natural history, architecture and cultural history. Each chapter unveils a new reason why Rani Bagh must be preserved and celebrated. The multi-faceted nature of the book means that people may not be equally interested in every section. You may skim some history if it is nature that truly engages you, or vice versa.
At Rs. 1,800/- per copy, the book may not be as accessible as the park, but one hopes it finds its way into libraries and NGO offices across the country. It serves as an example to emulate – to document urban green spaces and solidify them in public memory when the inheritance of our grandchildren is threatened by the thinly veiled avarice of a few.
Rani Bagh is a jewel in Mumbai, and the book is a fitting tribute to this treasure. Like most books of its kind, you’re not going to want to read this cover to cover, but savour it and come back for bite-sized enjoyment. If you have a chance, buy a copy or borrow it for a delightful afternoon. It will be one of those rare moments when you will feel good about nature in urban India.
Reviewed by: Miel Sahgal
Published by: Bombay Natural History Society, National Society of the Friends of Trees and the Save Rani Bagh Botanical Garden Foundation
Hardcover, 158 pages
Price: Rs. 1,800
First appeared in: Sanctuary Asia, Vol. XXXIII, No. 2, April 2013.