A little late to this story, I know, but during my recent holiday I became interested in how landscape design supports the fitness routine of Narendra Modi, the Prime Minister of India.
Is it News?
Normally, the fitness habits of a world leader are not particularly news-worthy. For a brief moment last month, however, this changed. In late-May, PM Modi accepted a fitness challenge issued via Twitter by Indian cricket captain Virat Kohli. At the time, Reuters noted that Modi’s willingness to respond to the challenge had prompted some political backlash, especially considering the opposition party’s call for Modi to focus on lowering fuel prices rather than making fitness videos. Two weeks later, in mid-June, the PM released a video on his popular Twitter account showing his morning fitness routine performed on the grounds of his official residence at 7, Lok Kalyan Marg, New Delhi. Countless English language media sources picked up the story. The pro-government Indian press was delighted. The Guardian was complimentary and cited the context of a nation-wide campaign to tackle obesity and poor health among the country’s 1.25 billion people. CNN noted the popularity of the video which had been “quickly transformed into a meme, with people inserting images of Modi exercising into famous photo ops and scenes from history.” Each media outlet described the routine, its links to Modi’s well-known support for yoga, and – most importantly – featured images of the PM exercising outdoors in his garden.
It is remarkable that the video even exists because it provides a rare view inside the grounds of the Indian Prime Minister’s estate. Located at 7, Lok Kalyan Marg (7 LKM), the estate itself is heavily guarded on a restricted road and Indian nationals do not know much about it. (Goswami, 2018). Prior to the release of Modi’s fitness video, there were almost no publicly-available images of the property. The street name itself was changed a few years ago from ‘Race Course Road’ to diminish links with the British Imperial era. The estate is located in an elite part of New Delhi that was planned in 1915 by the British architect Edwin Lutyens when India was a jewel in the British crown. Today, this part of India’s capital city is protected as a heritage district and has been known since 1988 as the ‘Lutyens Bungalow Zone’. Home to public institutions, government residences and elite private residences, the zone’s generous proportion of green spaces are sometimes considered by environmentalists as New Delhi’s ‘green lung’. (Ganju, 1999) The several bungalows that make up the Prime Minister’s residence were originally designed by a member of Lutyens’ team, Robert Tor Russell, in the 1920s and 1930s. (Mishra, 2014.) Modi’s official residence is the 5th bungalow at 7 LKM. The estate’s manicured lawns are planted with indigenous trees to create a tranquil, private space that contrasts sharply with the densely built-up areas of suburban New Delhi.
Not only does the video provide visual access to a landscape of privilege, we are also given insight into how the current Prime Minister has shaped that setting. The video shows that PM Modi uses the landscaping of his residence to great effect, especially when he walks bare-footed on an outdoor, ground-level track that encircles what looks to be a large, mature arjun tree. The PM explained in a tweet that the design of the track was inspired by the Panchtatvas, or the five elements of nature – Prithvi [Earth], Jal [Water], Agni [Fire], Vayu [Wind] and Aakash [Sky]. The word panchtatvas originates from Sanskrit – ‘panch’ stands for five and ‘tatvas’ indicates elements. More than naming a condition in which inert elements co-exist, the word suggests a world-view of non-hierarchical interdependence. As such, it is a powerful concept. This concept aligns with Modi’s views of inclusive government and reaching out to disenfranchised members of an electorate historically been divided by class or caste. When reporting on a policy statement announced by PM Modi in 2017, a writer in India Today cited Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s panchtatva – “dabe [down-trodden], pichre [backward], shoshit [marginalised], vanchit [deprived] and mahila [women]” – as a concept that would drive his government’s efforts to reach out to the unreachable up to 2019 general elections. “The government would make women, youth, tribal, marginalized and minorities core to the central social schemes to realise ‘New India’ objective spelt out by him at the BJP [Bharatiya Janata Party/Indian People’s Party] National Executive in [the city of] Bhubaneshwar.” (Pandey, 2017.) More than a rhetorical device, the concept of panchtatva can be linked to a variety of political, social, spiritual and even ecological values. And Modi’s reference to panchtatva as a concept underpinning his custom-made fitness track in his private garden takes on a larger significance.
One commentator describes how Modi makes use of the track around the tree in his garden as part of his morning fitness and yoga practice: “First, PM Modi can be seen walking on the pebbled surface on the inside of the track with a stick in hand for form. Then he moves to the main track. The circle is split into a number of sections – there’s one that’s filled with water, followed by a wooden section to dry off. Then there are a number of sand-fill sections and one filled with small white pebbles. There are also two sections of regular ‘Earth’, one with grass, one without.” (Prasad, 2018.) The landscape feature is both an attractive accent for the mature tree and an inviting site for walking meditation.
The design of the track reveals an approach to landscape based not on a traditional naturalistic model (the English garden) or a formal model (the Italian garden) or illusionistic model (the Japanese garden) – but rooted in concept and practice. Composed simply using two concentric circles of sturdy, steel-like, dark grey edging segregated from the surrounding lawn, the track is a ring of ground cover sectioned into different surfaces. The retaining edge, wide enough to function as a balance beam during the PM’s walk, is occasionally studded with over-sized rivets to mark the rhythm of the changing sections. The track appears to be divided into 16 parts, each large enough to accommodate three steps in a meditative walk. I can imagine the stimulating sensorial effect underfoot as one walks along the cool ring and then on the track filled with sections of packed soil, grassed earth, water, wooden decking, flat stone warmed by the sun, smooth pebbles, cut limestone screening, and damp sand. As opposed to a uniform track for walking meditation that is straight and requires one to reaffirm mindfulness at each turn-around, this sectioned circular track enhances mindfulness with each new surface. The haptic experience, starting from the grassed lawn to the grassed starting section, changes at every third step: caressed on the grass; enveloped in the dry screenings; grasped by humid sand; wet in the water; dry on the wood; warm on the flat rock; unstable on the smooth pebbles; supported on the firm earth; and so on. The feet move and flex, the mind focuses, the lungs fill with air, the body feels comfort in nature’s elements.
Far from a simple gesture of responding to a superstar cricketer’s challenge on social media therefore, Prime Minister Modi’s reveal of his walking track has many lessons to share.
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