Cities & Architecture

Backstage With the Workers Who Tend the First Garden of the Republic

A hundred years ago, what is now the President’s Estate was a sun-blasted, boulder-strewn saddleback, one among several hills in the northernmost spur of the Aravalli range. If Lutyens were to visit the President’s Estate today, he would encounter a greatly altered ecology, far greener and moister than he had left it. Amita Baviskar gives us a glimpse of the work of the army of skilled gardeners who tend to this green oasis in the heart of New Delhi.

Bechanram, Garden Chaudhari, was worried. Garden Chaudhari is the highest position among the malis (gardeners) of Rashtrapati Bhavan.

The monsoons had been unusually heavy this year and had continued into September. Now, even in early December, the weather still wasn’t cold enough. Many of the calendula, phlox and dianthus seeds that they had sowed didn’t germinate and the seedlings that did emerge were puny and straggly. The heavy smog that blocked out the sun hadn’t helped either. They would have to sow again, praying that the new lot of seeds would come out all right, but then the plants would be late in flowering and the garden had to be in bloom by 26 January. They could buy seedlings from outside – they had reliable suppliers in Kolkata who could provide healthy plants – but one never knew exactly how they would turn out: the colour, the height – any unexpected feature and the effect that they were planning for in the Mughal Garden would be ruined. That’s why the seeds they collected themselves from the previous year’s flowers were the best: they knew exactly what they would grow into. But this weather had upset every calculation. It would be a poorer display this year. Casual visitors might not notice the difference for there would still be plenty to admire. But those who really knew the garden, as did its malis, would look at each other and shake their heads ruefully.

Malis tend to the chrysanthemums. Credit: Narendra Bisht

Malis tend to the chrysanthemums. Credit: Narendra Bisht

Every gardener learns to be stoic about what the weather brings. But when the garden that one grows is the most famous one in the country, each unlooked for turn in temperature is a matter of major concern. From September onwards, 65 malis [Hindi for gardeners] are on their mettle, meticulously going through each intricately choreographed step leading to the garden’s grand opening on Republic Day. Any fumble or false step during these five months would be publicly visible. With so much at stake, it is no wonder that the senior malis are a little brusque with the interviewer, while their supervising officer bites his lip while looking over the calendar that details the duties for each day.

Work on the formal gardens begins in earnest in September. Before that, in April and May, workers remove the previous winter’s spent annuals after carefully harvesting their seeds. After feeding the soil with manure, the beds are planted with staples that can take the blast of summer heat. First, early-ending annuals like dahlia are replaced with slow-growing canna that will only start to flower in July; later, beds of phlox and petunia that continue to flower into May are replenished with sunflower, cosmos, rosy periwinkle and zinnia. The grass is shaved down to its roots and a layer of soil removed from the bald patches to encourage new growth. For the malis, summer is a more relaxed time: the garden merely has to be kept ticking over and, between watering the plants twice a day, they can catch up on other chores, go home for lunch and snooze in the afternoon. When the monsoons bring a fresh spurt of growth to all things green, their main task is tidying up: keeping the maulsari trees trimmed, weeding the flowerbeds and lawn, keeping the creepers in shape and controlling pests on the rosebushes.

Spotted Deer being fed in their pen below the northern ramparts of the Mughal Garden. Credit: Narendra Bisht

Spotted deer being fed in their pen below the northern ramparts of the Mughal Garden. Credit: Narendra Bisht

With the retreat of the monsoons comes the busy season. Summer plants are uprooted and taken to the compost heap. The flowerbeds are dug up, their soil aerated and sunned to kill lurking fungi and unfriendly microbes. The lawn is weeded and mowed twice a week and fed a fortifying diet of urea, bone meal and herbal pest repellents. Late rains can foster termite and fungus infestation, so the ground may also have to be treated with more heavy-duty pesticides. The orange trees are pruned to encourage flowering and fruiting; the maulsari is given its signature bowl-shaped katora-cut, as the malis call it.

The forecourt of Rashtrapati Bhavan. Credit: Narendra Bisht

The forecourt of Rashtrapati Bhavan. Credit: Narendra Bisht

Meanwhile, in his office behind the Long Garden, P.N. Joshi, Section Officer in the Rashtrapati Bhavan’s Horticulture Department, pulls out the previous year’s nakshaa (map) or planting plan for the formal gardens and summons Sudarshan Kumar, Head Mali. Kumar’s colleagues affectionately call him ‘Doctor saab’ because he can work with pen and paper in a way that they can’t, delineating the entire floral scheme for the gardens. Other malis can also conceive planting schemes and discuss what should be grown, where and why, but they aren’t used to putting their ideas down formally. The paper plan is needed to get senior officials’ approval and to set in motion the process of ordering a host of supplies: seeds, bulbs, plants, fertilisers and pesticides, tools and equipment, pots and what are called ‘other consumables’—burlap, bamboo sticks, polythene sheets and such sundries. Ensuring that supplies and workers are available on time is the responsibility of U.D. Kukreti, the Horticultural Officer on Special Duty, and he is on the phone with the Security Department making sure that all the daily wage labourers contracted to work in the gardens are cleared for entry into the Estate. Files and piles of paperwork flow in and out of his office…

Becoming a mali

Used for growing bonsai plants and palms, the greenhouse is unchanged even after 85 years. Credit: Narendra Bisht

Used for growing bonsai plants and palms, the greenhouse is unchanged even after 85 years. Credit: Narendra Bisht

How does one become a mali on the President’s Estate? Unlike other gardeners employed by the Central Public Works Department who are moved around from place to place, the Rashtrapati Bhavan malis are not transferred. Indeed, far from leaving the Estate, many of them were born on it since their fathers — and often, grandfathers — were also employed as malis before them. Earlier, one could get a job if someone put in a good word: ‘jaan-pehchaan se kaam ho jaata tha’ and, if a worker died while in service, his son would be employed ‘on compassionate grounds’. It was a feudal system and it ensured a close-knit continuity between different generations of gardeners, the older teaching the younger.

Not only kinship but caste and village ties are also important: many of the older gardeners belong to the Saini community, traditional market-gardeners from Rajasthan. Others come from Azamgarh and Faizabad districts of Uttar Pradesh.

first garden

First Garden of the Republic: Nature in the President’s Estate
Edited by Amita Baviskar
New Delhi: Rashtrapati Bhavan/Publications Division, Government of India, 2016

As Vinod Prakash Saini, Chaudhari in the formal gardens, said, ‘Hum haath ke dastkaar hain’ (Our craft lies in our hands). Gardening lore is passed on by watching and doing.

A keen eye and constant practice hone the skills required to nurture plants: to know which seeds require what ideal conditions to germinate; to gently tamp down the soil around a seedling with the exact amount of pressure that removes air pockets without hurting its tender roots and stem; how to optimise the changing calculus of space and sun and shade; when to feed and water, when to prune and harvest; how to diagnose what’s afflicting a sickly plant and to nurse it back to health.

There are no manuals or training courses on the President’s Estate, only years of apprenticeship working alongside the more experienced malis. Gardeners do visit the annual fair at the Pusa Agricultural Research Institute where they get to see new vegetable varieties and farming equipment, but that’s about it. In the past, they gleaned information and techniques from experts on bonsai or cacti or roses who were occasionally brought in to advise on the Rashtrapati Bhavan collections.

Last year, some of the ‘decoration malis’ who arrange flowers for the Rashtrapati Bhavan were taken to a luxury hotel to learn new styles from professional florists. These initiatives have to be built upon to create a systematic process of reflecting on past and present gardening practices and incorporating new ideas and techniques.

A future challenge for the gardens and grounds is to fill up the large number of permanent positions among the horticulture staff that lie vacant. All the permanent malis are in their forties and older; no one has been recruited for almost two decades. The shortage of staff is dealt with by hiring workers on contract. This practice makes it harder to transfer the skills of malis from one cohort to the next. Gardening knowledge that is acquired and passed on through a long-term hands-on relationship is lost when temporary malis don’t get to stick around long enough to learn from the

Contract workers at roll call on a winter morning. Credit: Narendra Bisht

Contract workers at roll call on a winter morning. Credit: Narendra Bisht

senior staff and the latter aren’t motivated to teach those who might not be around the next year. So the temporary malis are relegated to doing the more basic jobs and the heavy lifting. Specialised skills acquired by working on the same task for years, such as making bonsai, are difficult to teach under such circumstances. More generally, the transition means the gradual tapering off of generations of workers who have a deep familiarity with the President’s Estate, who know the distinctive features of each tree and flowerbed, as well as the sum of the landscape.

The steady shrinking of permanent jobs in the lower levels of the Indian government has been a broad trend in the last two decades. However, it has very specific implications for gardening, as indeed for any vocation that requires sustained engagement with one’s work. Excellence demands years of dedicated practice, the opportunity to learn and reflect, to try out new things and, most of all, to care about one’s work and take pride in it. Only permanent jobs allow for any of these enabling conditions. Temporary jobs at the mali level — without benefits or security — don’t attract formally trained professionals with degrees in horticulture and landscaping either. When malis come and go, recruited from the ranks of ‘unskilled labour’, it becomes harder to maintain the standards of the Rashtrapati Bhavan gardens and grounds. Any manual work is treated with deep disdain in India; the President’s Estate can help to overturn this deep-seated social prejudice by making the skills of its malis more visible and valued.

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The older malis look back fondly on their years on the Estate. They remember officers who took the initiative to send some of them to Iran in the 1970s to work on the royal gardens of the Pahlavis. Jagpal remembers President Zail Singh’s time when several malis were recruited. President Abdul Kalam was praised by a number of malis for improving their working and living conditions, including building toilets near the Herbal Garden — a major relief, especially for women workers. Malis recalled that when presidents walked in the Mughal Garden, they would stop and chat with them, inquiring after their welfare.

Older malis who have a gift for colour and composition arrange flowers for the Rashtrapati Bhavan’s rooms. These ‘decoration malis’ prepare the elaborate bouquets that adorn Durbar Hall during ceremonial events. They also fill the dainty vases that dot the tables and desks in offices and bedrooms. Credit: Narendra Bisht

Older malis who have a gift for colour and composition arrange flowers for the Rashtrapati Bhavan’s rooms. These ‘decoration malis’ prepare the elaborate bouquets that adorn Durbar Hall during ceremonial events. They also fill the dainty vases that dot the tables and desks in offices and bedrooms. Credit: Narendra Bisht

Individual presidents and their wives are also remembered for what they brought to the gardens: Zakir Hussain for importing rose varieties and for getting built the glass conservatory for succulents; Neelam Sanjeeva Reddy for encouraging citrus bonsai; R. Venkataraman and K.R. Narayanan for the banana varieties they brought from south India; Usha Narayanan for introducing tulips and ikebana floral arrangements; Abdul Kalam for installing the musical fountain, starting the deer and duck park and creating the Herbal and Spiritual Gardens; Pratibha Patil for sending the Dalikhana fruit and vegetables to an orphanage. Having said that, Sher Singh observed, ‘Haan, hum First Family ke liye kaam karte hain, aur ye soch kar garv bhi hota hai, par sach poochho to public se jo taareef milti hai woh kuchh aur hai’ (Yes, we work for the First Family and we’re proud of that but, to tell you the truth, it’s the praise from the public, now that’s something else).

Extracted from First Garden of the Republic: Nature in the President’s Estate. Edited by Amita Baviskar. New Delhi: Rashtrapati Bhavan/Publications Division, Government of India, 2016.