Celebrating Janaki Ammal, Botanist and a Passionate Wanderer of Many Worlds

Recently, there have been attempts to reposition Janaki Ammal as a champion of the oppressed minority and a feminist who had to struggle against upper-caste men-of-science.

E.K. Janaki Ammal standing in snow. The picture was taken during her time at the John Innes Horticultural Institute, London. Credit: John Innes Archives/Wikimedia Commons

E.K. Janaki Ammal standing in snow. The picture was taken during her time at the John Innes Horticultural Institute, London. Credit: John Innes Archives/Wikimedia Commons

The Botanical Survey of India (BSI), Kolkata, has taken it upon itself to showcase the life and work of an extraordinary, but little known, Indian botanist and humanist, E.K. Janaki Ammal. “She was one of the first women scientists to receive a Padma Shri, in 1977,” explains Paramjit Singh, director of the BSI, highlighting some of the reasons for the yearlong exhibition.

At the simplest, Janaki Ammal could be described as the person who added “a spoonful of sugar” to the native variety of sugarcane. By a laborious process known as polyploidy, manipulating the cells or cross-breeding of hybrids in the laboratory, she was able to create a high yielding strain of the sugarcane best suited for the country.

Her early work as a geneticist in the Sugarcane Breeding Institute at Coimbatore took her to London in 1940, where she was hired as an assistant cytologist at the John Innes Horticultural Institute, apparently the first woman scientist to be given a salaried tenure. It was the start of a journey that introduced her to some of the most talented cytologists, geneticists and eugenicists working in the early 20th century in different parts of the world. She is the coauthor with C.D. Darlington of The Chromosome Atlas of Cultivated Plants. Darlington, who was to become the director of the institute, was a close friend and mentor for the greater part of her life. As was J.B.S. Haldane, a former director and who, along with the anthropologist Verrier Elwin, was to come to India in the mid-20th century at the invitation of Jawaharlal Nehru, then the prime minister.

Janaki Ammal’s research into chromosome numbers and hybridity contributed to the then-latest findings in the evolution of species. Her work on the gorgeously varied and flowering magnolia plant can be seen every March to this day on Battleston Hill in Wisley, when the saplings that she had planted are in full bloom. The magnolia belongs to one of the oldest group of tree families, and the flower has been celebrated in Japanese and Chinese legends. The distinctive feature of the flowers is that they are made up of both sepals and petals, almost as if they were fused together by a glass blower to form what is termed tepals’. One such flowering magnolia, a somewhat frail bloom in pure white, is named after herMagnolia kobus Janaki Ammal. Only a few nurseries in Europe have the variety today.

‘Bird and Magnolia’

Our parents were living at the time in Paris, in what was then a quiet neighbourhood called Neuilly-sur-Seine. My father was among the first recruits of the Indian Foreign Service of a newly independent India and the first secretary at the embassy in Paris, and we were more than happy to welcome the distinguished Janaki Ammal into our household. She was an aunt on my mother’s side of the family; ensconced in an airy room under the eaves of the narrow and semidetached house, she was more like a guest than a family member. She would take us at times to the laboratory where she worked, and sit us down on high wooden stools with sheets of paper and pencils to trace out the areas where certain plants could be found across the world.

In this, she may have been following in the footsteps of the famous but tragically doomed Soviet botanist and geneticist Nikolai Vavilov (1887-1945). Having travelled across the world and collected seeds and plants, Vavilov is credited with identifying a series of geographical areas where a group of organisms either domesticated or developed its singular characteristics. These centres of origin were also described by him as centres of diversity. He believed that preserving these areas was to preserve the vitality of an environment as nature had intended it to be; that both Earth, its produce and all the multitude of life-forms could sustain the people and creatures living off it. Vavilov was to meet a sad end during the Stalinist era, when he disappeared into the Gulag.

She was not always fierce. She often told us about the small black-striped South Indian palm squirrel named ‘Kapok’ that she had smuggled in the folds of her sari and taken with her to the John Innes Institute in London to keep her company. There were also weekends during which the whole family would make a trek to the Ramakrishna Mission outside of Gretz, where the head of the mission, a monk from a princely family from Kerala, and the chatelaine, a French lady called Mamaji, would provide the guests with simple meals and wonderful conversation across a long dining table. On such occasions, Janaki Ammal sparkled for she had become in every sense of the word one of them!

At a critical point in her life, when it seemed she had come to a crossroads in her career in England, she came across a painting by a Chinese artist. In bold calligraphic style – with the magnolia flowers painted in flat strokes of silver across a brown background with a long-tailed drongo on a branch – the artist explained that it was the bird of good fortune. He had entitled it ‘Bird and Magnolia’. “It was my last five pounds. But on seeing the painting, there was something prophetic about it,” Janaki Ammal used to say in her later years when pressed to explain the story to my sister Surya and I, her grandnieces. “It was time for me to go home.”

As it happens, the purchase of the painting coincided with a personal request made to her by Nehru to return to her homeland in 1951. It changed the course of her life. She was appointed as the Officer on Special Duty to the BSI, in which capacity she reorganised the Calcutta office in 1954. Interestingly, the current exhibition is housed in the same building where Janaki Ammal worked as the head of the BSI.

An Indian princess

In 1924, Janaki was granted a scholarship to attend the University of Michigan. She received her MS from there in 1925. She returned to India and taught at the Women’s Christian College for a while, before returning to Michigan again as the first Indian Oriental Barbour Fellow. She completed her DSc. in 1931. One of the episodes she recalls from her journey to America was of the time when she, like many other visitors from the East, was detained on Ellis Island awaiting immigration clearance into New York. “I think my long hair and attire in traditional Indian silks allowed me in straight away,” she would tell us in her later years. “They asked me whether I was an Indian Princess. I did not deny it.”

Writing to her sister Parvathi, in 1930 from Ann Arbor, Janaki cannot help but share her delight at being in and around Michigan:

I am spending a week at the very apex of the Michigan Peninsula – you will see from the map that we are at the center of the great lakes region. Lake Erie on one side and Lake Michigan on the other. The whole state of Michigan is full of beautiful fresh water lakes and the University has an excellent station for research near Cheboygan for Summer Work. Since my work keeps me in the Botanical Gardens, I have been able to come up here – but this summer I decided to take a short holiday.

This is a lovely place – my back yard is the lake shore and I just have to run in for a bath when I feel inclined. There are small wooden houses scattered about the place with just the necessary camp furniture – for both students and staff. Most of the professors bring their family. So this is a very interesting sociological colony. I have a guesthouse all to myself and am having a real rest.

We all have a common dining room. All the classes are in the form of excursions and it is like one grand picnic. There are motorboats and trucks to take the students about. I think only American can plan things on such a scale. There are only about 150 students. But when you consider that we are cut away from civilisation, you can understand how difficult it must be to keep everything going.

On all sides are lovely pine forests with Red Indian villages scattered around. The American Indians are fast dying out. They make bags and baskets and bring them for sale here.

It is rather cold up here. I saw the Aurora Borealis yesterday night. It was a gorgeous sight to see the whole sky lit up with beams of light.

In the same letter, Janaki dreams of creating a pan-Asian sisterhood of scholars:

“I was very happy to get Brother-in-law’s letter and to find that he is interested in my projects for North Malabar. I shall be writing to him in detail about my plans. I hope some day to see my dreams come true. I am interested not only in India but the whole of Asia. Having met many Chinese and Japanese girls out here, I realize what a lot Asia has in common. You know, I have started an organization that is going to link the University Women of Asia – we are still in an embryonic state – but I am getting new members for all quarters. It is my dream to send some Indian girls to study in China and Japan and have girls from these countries to come to our country. I have just had an invitation from a college in China to teach botany. Of course, all this means money, but I feel that it will come somehow. I hope to be back in India before very long.

(Some portions of the letter have been left out.)

The Edathil family

E.K. Janaki Ammal. Credit: John Innes Archives/Wikimedia Commons

E.K. Janaki Ammal. Credit: John Innes Archives/Wikimedia Commons

In recent times there have been attempts to reposition Janaki Ammal as a champion of the oppressed minority by virtue of her belonging to the Thiya community of North Malabar (today Kerala), described as a backward class. She is also portrayed as a feminist who had to struggle against the upper caste men-in-science ruling the agricultural-botanical roost of her time. There was never a time when she was not anything but fiercely independent.

She travelled to some of the most remote areas of the country in search of the plant lore of the indigenous peoples of the subcontinent. Whenever she felt herself being thwarted by the bureaucracy that often stood in her way, she would retreat to places like the country’s northeast, in the borders between what is now India and Burma, or spend time at Wayanad in Kerala to search for medicinal plants, or go to Ladakh, which she visited to explore methods of sustainable agriculture at high altitudes.

As one who did not subscribe to the “nature versus nurture” conflicts, it may be worthwhile to describe the circumstances of her early life at Tellicherry (now Thallassery in Kerala). Janaki was the tenth child born to Dewan Bahadur Edavalath Kakkat Krishnan, a sub-judge of the Madras Presidency, and his second wife Deviamma.

Krishnan had had six children by his first wife and was to go on to produce thirteen children with Deviamma. In a letter written to him by J.C. Hannygnton, the British administrator and later resident at Travancore who had become his superior at the time, the latter wondered whether he was having too much of a good thing by having so many children born to him with such regularity.

Such familiarity might seem strange coming from a colonial administrator. It was a veiled reference to the coincidence that linked the two men. Deviamma was the result of an earlier liaison between Hannygnton and her mother, a Thiya woman named Kunhi Kurumbi, when he had been posted to Tellicherry many years earlier in a junior capacity. Hannygnton had cohabited with a local woman and birthed two daughters. One of them, Martha, he had managed to settle amongst a good Christian family at Vepery in Madras, while Devi, the younger one, had clung to her mother and refused to be parted.

By the time Janaki Ammal was growing up, the children of such alliances had to face a certain amount of ostracism. The children of E.K. Krishnan and Deviamma were not only tall and well built but also strikingly fair, ruddy complexioned with splendid profiles, high spirits and being good at sports. As a result of the schools and colleges started by the missionaries in North Malabar, the numerous offspring of Krishnan had also been given the best education available at the time. He himself was a man of enviable scholarship: not only did he possess a good library in the family home that he had built, named Edam, his interests in ornithology, botany and natural sciences were traits that he passed on to his children. If at all the family thought of themselves in terms of who they were, it was not as members of a depressed community – but as one belonging to a superior, and perhaps even exclusive, sect known as the Edathil family. This may explain why Janaki Ammal was able to pass off as a ‘Malabar Princess’ while facing down an immigration officer on Ellis Island.

And was she a feminist? It’s hard to say. There is some speculation that she may have formed a romantic attachment to Darlington, who, at 6’3″ and a champion boxer, was very much a ladies’ man, as they used to be known in that time. My sister Surya adds some spice to this by describing an occasion when Darlington appeared in my mother’s house at Delhi in the early 1960s. “There was a tension in the air when he entered. He was a tall, very distinguished looking man. He hesitated a moment and then went straight ahead and kissed Aunt Janaki on her cheek. She blushed a deep pink but said nothing.” She wrote to him in one of her letters in 1939, “I am a born wanderer. There is a great restlessness in me.”

One can only quote from the lines of the Rig Veda that were used in her obituary when she passed away at Chennai in 1984: “The sun receive thine eye, the wind thy spirit; go as thy merit is, to earth or heaven. Go, if it be thy lot, unto water; go make thine house in plants with all thy members.” When she lived, Janaki Ammal believed that it was through her work that she would be remembered. And so it has come to pass.

An encounter with Gandhi

It is now a hundred years since Janaki Ammal described what she hoped to make of her life. In a passionate letter to her older brother Raghavan, then in Rangoon (today Yangon), she recalls the effect of listening to a certain Mr. Ghandi, as she called him. She would have been just about 19 years old at the time.

I am glad to tell you that I had the luck to listen to Mr. Ghandi’s lecture the other day. You should have seen the man. So plain and so Indian. One cannot but be impressed by his simplicity. His eloquence is like his external self, so simple, yet so powerful in its effect. I think I could fall at his feet and worship him. Listening to his thrilling words on social reform, I could not but be moved a little with feelings both of Patriotism and self-sacrifice. I often think over what he said that day. I have a great mind to give up everything and devote my life to the service of the Mother Country. Why not join the Servants of India society that is doing so much good to our land. I think it is the best way I can devote my life to a good end, but I am sure such a life, as a young unmarried woman will be hard as well as dangerous. I must pass my BA and then I must think of what to do.

I often wish I were an old maid so I that could do anything and go anywhere. At other times I think of going in for medicine, that is what India needs most. I must consider before I take to some conclusion.

Geeta Doctor is a journalist and writer.