Indian garden design comes of age
The design practice M/s. Prabhakar B. Bhagwat is pushing the boundaries of landscapes and gardens
Aniket Bhagwat is a writer, teacher, activist, designer and third-generation landscape architect – his father is acknowledged as India’s first qualified landscape architect, and his grandfather, Bhalchandra Bhagwat, was a Superintendent of the Empress Botanical Gardens in Pune in the 1940s. His firm invests in academic study and research, and over 40 years on from its inception, M/s. Prabhakar B. Bhagwat is one of India’s most influential landscape design practices, gaining a reputation for looking to India’s heritage, culture and landscape for inspiration, rather than to Western styles of design.
An Indian sense of design
For Aniket, Indian design differs from that in the West in several significant ways. “When you look at Western landscapes, there’s often a sense of linearity, a sense of logic to the way spaces are connected. Indian landscapes don’t necessarily exhibit a beginning and a linear sequence. You can pretty much pick up the thread of these spaces depending on where you find yourself and you can consider it the beginning of your journey,” he explains.
Water is used in a distinctive way. “The manifestation of water in an Indian garden is rarely an exuberant, joyous fountain. Water is usually calmer, more agricultural, a simple channel as against a kind of European fountain or waterfall that you see with a sculpture attached. Water is pristine in the sense that it’s to be enjoyed and used very sparingly.”
The palette of planting differs too. Aniket uses solely native plants. “Very often I’ll use agricultural crops or plants which grow on the boundaries of fields or alongside the roads in the countryside. It rarely tends to be showy. The colours are muted, green and whites maybe, but they’re never profusely colourful.”
The Halfway Retreat near Ahmedabad encapsulates Aniket’s approach. His practice was involved in the architecture and the landscape design, with the whole project taking just over a year to complete. The client’s brief was to create something which “had the soul of the land”. Aniket explains, “On the face of it this would be a modern garden surrounding a modern house, but it’s the details that will make someone realise this is somewhere strongly rooted in the context of the country.”
These details included the choice of plants and how they were planted in defined grids or strips to create formality and emulate the way crops were planted in the area, creating a link with the surrounding countryside. “Ahmedabad is pretty much on the edge of the desert, so summer temperatures go up to 45°C and it’s about four to five months of that sort of temperature. Then in winter temperatures can drop down to 5 to 6°C, so it’s pretty harsh when it comes to planting material,” he says.
Using robust native plants is one way he deals with these extremes. Plants such as Pennisetum purpureum (elephant grass) and hybrid napier grass (gajraj grass) link with the agricultural land beyond. The large shrub or tree Tabernaemontana divaricata (crepe jasmine), was chosen for its shiny dark green leaves and scented white jasmine-like flowers. A grid of kadamba trees (Neolamarckia cadamba) is a nod to India’s cultural and religious heritage.
Water is important for its relaxing, cooling properties, but it’s also been used here to create a sense of place. Fountains that pour water into a pool are a nod to village standpipes. A sunken courtyard, the Water Court, has sprinklers that pump a fine mist into the air creating humidity for the lush planting that surrounds the courtyard, and there are agricultural-like channels that collect rainwater for irrigating the garden.
One of the first projects Aniket’s father worked on was transforming a disused, desolate basalt quarry into a self-sustaining forest park. Ever since, the practice has transformed some of the most unpromising locations into inspiring landscapes. When Aniket came to Vadodara in Gujarat with his client to discuss the Bridge House, it was a barren site with bare, scorched earth, only a handful of trees and the abandoned foundations of a house.
The location was stunning – close to the city but surrounded by forest, with incredible views from higher ground. However, building in the area was tricky because of the sandy soils and growing anything was difficult due to the salinity of the earth. They set about stabilising the soil mechanically with geomats and coco logs, and planted soil stabilising grasses.
“While we were building the house, the site itself was not really ready for planting as there was a lot of construction work going on. So we used the time to sow temporary crops such as alfalfa, which have high nitrogen values. We would keep planting these and keep ploughing them back into the soil, improving the organic content so that by the time we came to do the planting proper, the soil had improved,” he says.
They also had to tackle the lower ground on the site, which is prone to flash flooding. “We decided the landscape here should have the sort of planting that could withstand a few weeks of flooding,” says Aniket. The wild, untamed planting of grasses and rushes appears natural, but its simplicity and unobtrusiveness belies the hard work involved in turning this parched ground into somewhere plants can thrive.
His idea for the house was to create two separate buildings – one for the private spaces and the other for public and entertaining areas. The two would then be linked by a steel bridge elevated high above an azure swimming pool, with the landscape design connecting the buildings to the countryside beyond. A semi-circular amphitheatre built from the local Kota limestone was designed so that the owners, patrons of the arts, could hold plays and concerts. “The stone was chosen because it’s very local to the property but also because it’s more durable for outdoor use than many of the beautiful sandstones we have in the country,” explains Aniket.
Finding a voice
Aniket works hard to raise the profile of landscape design in his country and to spread the word about Indian designers to a world audience. The practice is also involved with LEAF, a non-profit organisation engaged in research and publication in landscape design and environmental planning.
They have also put together an exhibition with an accompanying ebook which discusses how we look at the landscape. It will tour the country from January 2017 for 12 months visiting 15 cities. “India is not a formed country; it still has cities and institutions to build,” says Aniket. The challenge he sees is to grab these opportunities and to make the profession of landscape design in India sought after and respected.