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IMPERIAL WHIMS

- How a viceroy altered the landscape around the Taj Mahal

In this 1890s steel plate engraving of the much-painted and photographed Taj Mahal, F. Frith and Co is acknowledged as its photographic source. Francis Frith was a pre-eminent travel photographer of the time when it was not unusual for lithographs to be based on photographs; it was more unusual, though, for the photographer to be named. However, this clearly was not likely in the case of Francis Frith, by then a well-known name in the world of travel and photography. He was originally a successful grocery shop owner whose fascination for photography coupled with a sharp business acumen soon saw the setting up of F. Frith and Co in 1859, a photographic views publishing company in Reigate, Surrey. In no time, it was producing photographs and stereographs for albums and, soon enough, the picture postcard. Frith made his way to the Holy Land and beyond, producing a copious number of images for the armchair traveller back home. By the end of the 19th century, on a rough estimate, his postcards of distant lands were being sold in as many as 2,000 shops throughout Britain.

Little surprise then that Frith sent photographers from his company to take images of the Taj. The present print (artist and engraver unknown), based on a well-composed photograph taken from the edge of the river bank that makes the monument tower and people in the foreground appear strangely dwarfed, was a useful addition to the growing body of visual and textual information available on the Taj. While in 1783, William Hodges was the first British artist of repute to paint the Taj, over a century before, Francois Bernier had written about its expansive walkways. Thomas Daniell and his nephew, William, had not only painted the Taj but also produced a small book of their prints entitled Views of the Taje Mahal at the City of Agra in Hindoostan, Taken in 1789.

Thus, when George Nathaniel Curzon visited the Taj for the first time in 1887, he had plenty to help him reflect about “the entrancing spectacle, the singular loveliness of it pouring in waves over my soul and flooding my inner consciousness”. In her book on British gardens in India, Flora’s Empire, historian Eugenia Herbert writes at some length on the controversial viceroy’s intervention in the landscaping of the Taj. Interestingly, though Curzon bombarded the Archaeological Survey of India and a whole posse of horticultural experts with views on how the re-designed gardens should look, his diktats did not seem to reflect the views of Capability Brown, the pre-eminent landscape designer of the 18th century, or even those of his own contemporary, landscape diva, Gertrude Jekyll. Like much else in his ‘reign’, Curzon, apparently, relied a lot on his own views of what the Taj gardens should look like. He had, of course, been to India three times before he became its viceroy in 1898, visiting monuments and gardens each time. Though he observed that the Taj was in “perfect condition”, he felt that the gardens needed considerable attention while keeping in mind “to restore nothing that had not already existed, and to put up nothing new”. Herbert observes that though the mausoleum itself escaped Curzon’s designing eye, the gardens were another matter.

The various images of the Taj gardens are most useful in their historical reconstruction and that by the brilliant 19th-century botanical artist, Marianne North, shows dense foliage of trees and flowering shrubs. Curzon wanted none of that and as Herbert observes, “set out to turn the Mughal gardens into an English park” with an orderly line of cypresses and low shrubs; the mausoleum, the pristine jewel in white marble, was to dominate and not be obscured by excessive vegetation. This was clearly a move away from the original landscape and as Herbert perceptively reminds us that for the Mughals “the garden setting was as important a statement as the tomb itself”. She added that historically the gardens were important spaces that often preceded the monuments. At a more formal level, important State visitors were received and entertained in them, poets recited their verses to an appreciative audience seated in comfort amidst perfumed bowers and, at times, armies were encamped in the ample lawns as well. The Mughal garden could be a focus of conviviality, of merriment if not bacchanalia, one where a verdant, somewhat overgrown expanse, nevertheless kept in mind the boundaries of geometric parterres. As late as the 1830s, Fanny Parks wrote appreciatively of the abundance of fruit trees, of bird song and of the rainbow colours of the flower beds.

All this was soon to go as George Nathaniel Curzon set about sanitizing the Taj gardens. While respectful of the detailing basic to the structure of the parterres, “English flowers” were banished in favour of lawns, and mahogany trees and palms, unnecessary obstructions to the vista, were pruned or removed. The viceroy had decided on how those who flocked to the Taj should view it: with little thought to historicity. Curzon mediated a new viewing for the eager tourist. The monument that had occupied such a special place in his heart was to glow in all its ethereal beauty from the minute one entered the 42-acre precincts. There was to be no competition from the gardens, even if this meant felling old trees and bushes that had been chosen and planted with such care by those to whom a garden was a space almost as sacred as the tomb.

The Taj complex occupied Curzon from almost the moment he arrived at Government House in Calcutta. As one of his biographers commented, “Agra . . . knew the fearful joy of five Viceregal inspections in six years”; each visit was followed by precise salvos aimed at the hapless officials of the ASI: the cypresses were too thickly planted; was it not possible to find bigger plants? Garish flowers needed to be removed; there should be more lawns... and so on. Even as he was planning to send Francis Younghusband to Tibet and planning on the Partition of Bengal, Curzon was continuing his interminable barrage of memos to the ASI and working on the Ancient Monuments Bill. As the work on the Taj complex neared completion, J.H. Marshall, who had been appointed its director general in 1902, commented with some bravado that the Taj and its environs could “hardly have looked more effective in the days of the Mogul Emperors than it does now.” There were others too who defended the viceroy’s foray into re-defining the landscape around the Taj: fruit and fragrance trees had been greatly admired — but perhaps Bernier and Tavernier had seen only young growth — and not the tangle of later years, they demurred.

Tall claims indeed which can be judged one way or the other with the copious visual and written material generated on the Taj Mahal over several centuries. A careful study of North’s paintings and the many photographs such as the present image taken prior to 1900 do indeed show rich vegetation and umbrageous trees through which the monument rises. The Curzonites altered much of that, and the contemporary viewer sees the Taj through the eyes of a 19th-century Western imperialist who felt that he could better the Mughal Empire’s aesthetic sensibility. He was not wrong in assuming that it is to the monument to eternal love that people throng from all corners of the world; the environs, he felt, must be kept tidily in place. Yet, one may well ask, was George Nathaniel Curzon justified in modifying for generations to come the context of that “snow-white emanation starting from a bed of cypresses?” Or, for that matter, why, armed as it is with a rich visual history and landscape and horticultural expertise, has independent India not thought of interrogating this supreme colonial intervention and recreated the clearly legitimate vision of yet another imperial power?