Registered with the Registrar of Newspapers for India under R.N.I 53640/91

Vol. XXXIII No. 21, February 16-29, 2024

Flower Shows at the Agri-Horticultural Society

-- by Sriram V

Semmozhi Poonga, located on Cathedral Road hosted a flower show last week. Events of this kind have become increasingly rare in our city but there was a time when the annual flower show was much looked forward to. It was of course best associated with the Corporation, which took over the hosting of it from 1924 and continued till the 1990s after which the event became increasingly sporadic, ceasing altogether in the last decade or so. But the idea of a Madras Flower Show originated at the Agri-Horticultural Society (AHS), which hosted shows from 1835 to the 1980s. This article attempts to trace the history of flower shows at the AHS as gleaned from various sources.

The AHS came into being in 1835 and by 1839 it had established a practice of conducting flower shows. In its proceedings for 1905 it recorded that it had held its 66th annual flower show that year, which indicates that 1839 was when the first such event was held. However, there were years when the flower show was given the miss and so we can assume safely that the event was held from 1835 itself. Produce came in from all over what was Madras Presidency and its surroundings, and the list of places include Bangalore and Salem. The venue was the Society’s gardens on Cathedral Road from inception.

The Horticultural Gardens, Madras, 19th century photograph. Courtesy: Sarmaya Archives.

The first report of the flower show which is available to us dates to 1839. A list of prize winners gives us an idea of what was displayed and a profile of the participants. The event was called the annual show of flowers, fruits and vegetables and in keeping with that, prizes were given in each of the categories. What emerges is that the AHS had a healthy mix of the colonial masters and Indians, though the latter were of course only from the economically well off sections. Thus we find names such as Colenda Mudelly, Unnamulay, Ponappah and Ramasawmy rubbing shoulders with Porteous, Ouchterlony and Prendergast. The fruits and vegetable names too seem to highlight this. Podalankay holds its own against Pamplemousses and cabbage. It is news to us that coffee was grown in the city itself! Besides the named winners, there were according to the list, several ‘market gardeners’ who too were given prizes though their names were not recorded for posterity. One among these we learn was the gardener of Dunmore House, which in today’s terms would be much of Venus Colony and its surroundings.

The next available report in the public domain of the flower show at the AHS is from 1898 and from a reading of it we can see that 60 years after inception the event had changed quite a bit. While it still displayed flowers, vegetables, and fruit, it was known as the flower show. The profile of attendees indicates that the establishment had become heavily involved. The Government, which had been supporting the AHS with a grant from inception, was by now giving money for the conduct of the flower show as well. Government House was a major exhibitor of its plants, as was the Police. The Saidapet Government Farm sent in several vegetables and fruit. Another vast precinct that sent in exhibits was Old College Park, which must mean the campus of the College of Fort St George, located on College Road. From a special mention we learn that People’s Park was absent that year but was a major participant in previous editions.

The Government was also providing a lot of assistance by way of services for the smooth conduct of the flower show. The Governor sent in tents, carpets, furniture and also lent the services of his band. The Police too was in attendance. The Corporation made sure that the road leading to the AHS was well watered to settle the dust.

Some enterprising businesses had evidently decided to market their produce at the flower show. Both Spencer & Co and Oakes & Co had booths where they had cigars on display. And Spencers also had its cigar rollers demonstrating the process itself. An Indian name of interest is Ranga Raju & Co, ‘the dairymen of Mount Road’, who demonstrated the scientific process of butter making and even gifted little tins of delicious cream to the visitors. Tile and pot makers too put up stalls. An intriguing entry is of jadoo fibre and liquid, a product from Australia. It had peat moss as its base to which were added a whole lot of enriching chemicals and natural ingredients, which compound in liquid and solid form was used as fertiliser. The idea does not seem to have caught on, for the same report has it that people in India were using a much cheaper equivalent, with the same results. We read of a large tent that was the central feature. The Madras Mail described it as the finest part of the show and it housed ferns and foliage plants.

By 1898, flowers themselves were judged based on species, cut varieties and bouquets. The Government House gardeners were evidently the best, for Lady Havelock walked away with the first prize in a few of the categories. The Governor followed closely. Other prominent names that we can decipher are those of Eardley Norton, Lodd Govindoss, Sir George Moore and AT Arundel. The last two would serve successively as Commissioners of the Corporation of Madras and that perhaps explains why the flower show gradually got taken over by the civic body. By 1924 the AHS’ flower show was a shadow when compared to what was being organised by the Corporation at My Ladye’s Garden. In 1898 however all that was the in future.

The fruits and vegetables section had plenty of Indians competing and winning, with an unknown Subbammal being adjudged first in many categories. It was also in 1898 that the AHS decided that it would henceforth shift its flower show from February to January. But in 1902 (the next year in which we have a report), the flower show was held only in February and so probably the shift was never made. Things are just about the same – the Governor still lending equipment, Spencers, which had taken over Oakes still putting up a cigar booth and the band playing. Parry’s we can see has a tea-tasting tent. By way of infrastructure there was an important change. A broad road had been laid to the south of the AHS gardens so that exhibitors could bring in their displays without crowding the main road. As to what was this road and what became of it subsequently remains a mystery. Was it the Beerkaran Street of present day? If so, it is not broad by any stretch of imagination.

Why the Corporation took over the conduct of the flower show from the 1920s onwards remains unanswered. It cannot be denied that the horticulture department of the municipal body was growing steadily, from its inception in 1879 when the management of Napier (now May Day) Park was entrusted to it. The AHS had all along managed on a shoestring budget and perhaps it was felt that the Corporation was better off organising the flower show and it certainly hosted it very successfully for decades.

The AHS itself was a mere shell of its former self by the 1980s. Its highlight was its beautiful heritage bungalow in which seeds and manure were sold. That was demolished in the 1990s and a new building, designed in copycat fashion but not quite the original came up later. From then on, the AHS was in the news only for the wrong reasons. First was the litigation leading to the eviction of Woodlands Drive In and later came cases regarding ownership. With political interests getting involved chiefly because of the land, the Courts had to step in, and the Government has been steadily reclaiming much of the AHS. The southern campus is now the Semmozhi Poonga and a part of the northern campus is Senganthal Poonga, both well maintained. The AHS however seems an institution of the past.

Ironically, the Government has brought the flower show to where it began, in 1839!

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