Human Flower Project

A Feel for the Real and the Artificial

When are artificial flowers in order, and when will only real blossoms do? Sandy Ao comes upon floral irony in Kolkata’s New Market.


A shop of artificial flowers, the only one amid many

flower stalls at Kolkata’s New Market

Photo: Sandy Ao

How do you feel about artificial flowers? Maybe these other terms—“silk” “faux” “plastic” “handmade” “fake” – would color your answer.

A couple of weeks ago, we visited Quinta Mazatlan in McAllen, Texas, a beautiful Spanish style home and surrounding patios, gardens, and estate that are now an international gathering place for birders. On a sideboard in the livingroom stood a huge arrangement of lilies and what looked like proteas flowers. “Are these real!?” we yelped – and were told quietly, no.

There’s always a sheepish, sunken feeling then, at least for us. We tend to look away, as if after all there had been nothing to admire. What is that? Is it having been duped?

imageB.S. Ghandi Sons, a seller of artificial flowers in Kolkata, India

Photo: Sandy Ao

Traditionalists might be interested to know that artificial flowers have been around a long time, since at least the first century A.D. Pliny describes trendy accessories of his day: chaplets “made of nard leaves” and “multicolored silk steeped in perfumes.”

Anthropologist Jack Goody writes that in 16th Century Fujian, China, “there was already a flourishing market in artificial flowers.” He quotes a plant hunter of the period who observed “artificial flowers are more in use than natural ones.” Goody concluded from his research into Fujian society, “artificial flowers seem to have no negative value in the context of self-decoration and could be used by one and all.” (The Culture of Flowers, pp, 371-72.)

Our friend photographer Sandy Ao of Kolkata, India, inspired our questions and investigations. She recently sent along two sets of photographs from her city’s New Market, a banquet of flowers year around. “This is the only artificial flower shop among the real flower shops,” she writes of B.S. Ghandi Sons, a veritable thicket of blooms and grape tendrils glowing under bare incandescent lights. We recognize poinsettias, lilies, stock, roses, daisies ... but many of the other varieties are unfamiliar. They may be renderings of plants native to India or perhaps just figments of a flowermakers’ imagination.

Sandy happened upon the shop during Diwali last October and was intrigued to find the owner and his family busily carrying out a puja (ritual) dedicated to the Hindu gods Lakshmi and Ganesh. She notes with glee, “When offering Puja comes, the shop owner makes an offering to the god/goddess with fresh flowers!!” Good catch, Sandy!

imageA Hindu priest conducting a puja for the Goddess of Wealth, Lakshmi, in a Kolkata flower shop shoos away a visitor.

Photo: Sandy Ao

A pandit (Hindu priest) sat at left conducting the ceremony inside the shop, while the owner, his wife and small son took part in prayers. On the floor, they faced an altar with figurines of the deities garlanded in marigolds, tuberoses and other fresh blooms. A bowl of milk and plates of fruit had been laid before the statues, and candles were shining.

The pandit was clearly none too pleased that Sandy’s there’s taking photos. “I was being shooed away,” she writes. That’s because the Lakshmi puja is considered a somewhat secret observance. “Lakshmi is the goddess of Wealth, therefore,” Sandy explains, “this puja is a very private one, always shared with the family members only. They do not invite or welcome outsiders.” She considers this attitude “quite natural… not wanting to share the wealth with others!”

She surmises, “The shop owner most probably is a North Indian, from the same community of our Prime Minister Dr. Manmohan Singh” because for people of this region Diwali is the festival for worshipping the Goddess of Wealth and Ganesh, Lord of Auspicious Beginnings. “Marigold is a must flower” at Diwali, Sandy says, perhaps because it grows plentifully at this time, though we think flame-orange makes it especially well suited to the festival of lights.

She points out, “Here we see 2 pairs of idols, of Lakshmi and Ganesh: the pair on the left are from the previous year. On the right are the new pair of idols, which are to be kept in the shop till next year. The old Lakshmi and Ganesh are supposed to be immersed in the holy river the next day of Diwali, but first they will share the Puja with the new idols on the Diwali night.” Sandy observes that while “these old idols are adorned with lesser flowers compared with the new idols, I must say that’s being very polite, to say “Thank you” to the old couple.”


Altar at Diwali, October 17, 2009,  with statues of Lakshmi and Ganesh and many fresh flower garlands

Photo: Sandy Ao

But why would Mr. Ghandi, with perhaps the most extensive collection of artificial flowers in all Kolkata, buy fresh blooms for Diwali?

Sandy conjectures: “Using flowers in the puja is the only way to discipline us to preserve nature.  After all who is not afraid of god/goddess?! And who does not seek blessing from above?”

Fair enough, but why couldn’t artificial flowers warrant such a blessing? Why wouldn’t Ganesh and Lakshmi be equally pleased with several dozen silk gladiolas? We welcome readers’ thoughts on this.

Our own view is that fresh cut flowers constitute a higher-order gift. Obtaining them is not just an expense but a true sacrifice—not on par with tossing a virgin into a volcano or slitting the throats of seven calves, but Hindus, bless them, don’t go in for that sort of thing. Still, cutting a rose is something that can’t be manufactured; it’s taking a life, and giving something once-living. An artificial flower is a decoration; a cut-flower is an act of tribute. 

And Mr. B.S. Ghandi, perhaps more so then the rest of us, can feel the difference.

Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) on 02/20 at 04:38 PM


Nothing’s better than the real thing.

Posted by Georgia on 02/22 at 11:20 AM
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