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Spatializing Gentility: The Public Park and Civic Pride in the Colonial Indian Landscape

Jyoti Pandey Sharma, Deenbandhu Chhotu Ram University of Science and Technology, Murthal, India, Summer Fellow 2011

My research during the Summer Fellowship at Dumbarton Oaks focused on examining the public park as a nineteenth-century cultural import to the Indian Subcontinent's post-Mutiny municipalized city. Indeed, public parks proliferated in colonial India following the 1857 uprising (Mutiny), as the state engineered the urban landscape, making it safe and healthy for European living. The prevailing Victorian discourse on the benefits of urban open spaces was well known in the Subcontinent, the ideal being championed by colonial engineers and sanitarians devising urban restructuring programmes to order cities that had abetted the insurrection. Popularly manifested as the railway station-town hall-public park combine the interventions were beacons of modernity commanding a strong visual presence as the city's new civic landmarks.

The examination of resources at Dumbarton Oaks, with its own splendid garden setting, revealed that the public park was a quintessential Victorian leisure space catering to both relaxation and self improvement via institutions for physical, moral and intellectual nourishment. The notion being transmitted to the Subcontinent as part of the colonial civilizing mission, parks were laid out as botanic gardens, municipal and archaeological parks, soldiers' gardens and memorial gardens. Often fashioned by remodeling a garden of pre-colonial, particularly Mughal origin, the park transcended its role as a genteel leisure landscape, to act as an agent of urban aeration and disease control, besides serving as a marker of colonial authority. Inspired by Loudon's Gardenesque style, a typical municipal park had walks, lawns and plantings, utilities, bandstand, library and menagerie with garden furnishings imported from home or improvised indigenously. Archaeological parks were more restrained, centering on historic remains, notably a tomb that guided the layout. Vigorous park building enterprise presented cities with a rather elitist leisure circuit to take pride in as a civic space, replacing the more inclusive pre-colonial institutions of urbanity.

It's much transformed avatar notwithstanding an impressive corpus of colonial public parks still survives in the Subcontinent, with its worth as a cultural resource undervalued not only by the curious visitor but also by academia. While my research has been an attempt to draw attention to this colonial intervention as part of the Subcontinent's heritage, I have also gained from a first-hand experience of site management of the Dumbarton Oaks museum and gardens as a historic tourist site.