The true laboratory is the Mind

By: Tania Bhattacharyya

Tanaya Madam was talking about the major contributions of the British and other Europeans in the field of botany, horticulture and agriculture in colonial Bengal.


Rupsha listened silently as Tanaya Madam went on-


‘‘The Western influence during British colonial rule also extended to the establishment and foundation of different botanical gardens, herbaria, horticultural gardens enabling experimentation, research and subsequent flourishing of botanical studies, emergence and development of new methods and techniques which are inclusively indispensable for pursuers of botany and plant sciences as well as plant hobbyists and crop-growers.


Bengal in colonial India housing Calcutta, the erstwhile capital of the British Raj, was often the major focal point of such activities.


The Indian Botanical garden at Shibpur, Howrah-Asia’s largest botanical garden was established by Lieutenant Colonel Robert Kyd in 1787. After the death of Colonel Kyd, Dr.William Roxburgh, widely regarded as “the father of Indian Botany” and the most accomplished botanist to have served the East India Company took over the charge of the botanical garden. Many other noteworthy taxonomists like Wallich were associated with this garden. The contributions of such experts are widely revered, one of the major accomplishments being the collection, identification, preservation and documentation of plants indigenous to the country and the introduction and acclimatization of exotic plants. 


The Agri-Horticultural Society of India –the oldest horticultural institute of India was established by Reverend William Carey on September 14, 1820. In 1827, this society published the first document on Agriculture and Horticulture in India. In 1828, the society took the initiative in conducting the first horticulture exhibition in India.


The contribution of Sir David Prain, Scottish physician and botanist in British colonial Bengal is highly significant. Prain arrived in India as a physician cum botanist to serve the Indian Medical Service. In 1887 he was appointed curator of the Calcutta Herbarium. In 1898 he became Director of the Royal Botanic Garden, Calcutta as well as the Botanical Survey of India. From 1898 to 1905 he also served as Professor of Botany at the Medical College of Calcutta. His publication-Bengal Plants(1903) is an indispensable tool to identify and describe plants found in Bengal.


 In the modern global scenario, soilless gardening and hydroponic methods of growing plants are fast gaining impetus due to shortage of fertile land and water and the increasing need for water and soil conservation.


Hydroponic activities also flourished in British colonial India. During 1935-1939, the British Ministry of Agriculture under ‘grow more food campaign’ started taking active interest in hydroponics. The first research study commenced at the Government of Bengal’s experimental farm at Kalimpong. James Sholto Douglas conducted intensive research during 1946-1948 which ultimately paved the way in emergence of a novel method of soilless culture named “Hydroponics-The Bengal System.” The Bengal system was practically a new discovery which was inexpensive to install, simple to maintain and economical to operate. The system with some suitable modifications has also emerged successful in India and abroad. The Bengal system has been largely devised to satisfy Indian conditions and needs. In the present scenario, practice of this system for growing essential plants and crops holds great promise and has far–reaching positive implications.’’


Rupsha was mesmerized.


‘‘Madam, I want to do independent research in botany, that too in Bengal. I want freedom in my research, and a well-intentioned level-headed guide like you who will encourage the freedom of my mind and help me when required.’’


Madam smiled, ‘‘Go ahead Rupsha. I am with you. Always remember Sir Jagadish Chandra Bose’s words- The true laboratory is the mind, where behind illusions we uncover the laws of truth.’’