Unique show of rare India maps of 16th & 19th centuries

Dated: December 17, 2014

Kochi, Dec 17: The Kochi-Muziris Biennale (KMB) unveiled a unique collection of museum-quality maps of India from the 16th to the 19th centuries. It was a first-of-its-kind public exhibition in the country in association with the Hyderabad-based Kalakriti Archives.

The show features a total of 47 maps spanning four centuries and arranged under three categories: Jain cosmology, Pilgrimage, and Cartography.

Titled ‘Cosmology to Cartography’, the exhibition at Heritage Arts in suburban Mattancherry showcases both early maps that were produced with vegetable dye on cotton, besides the later ones done in woodcuts and copper engravings with colour or watercolour/ink on paper.

“Located in one of the oldest antique warehouses, it presents a good juxtaposition between historical and antique objects,” said KMB’14 director of programmes Riyas Komu, hailing it as a “very site-specific project that fits perfectly” into the ongoing biennale’s artistic director Jitish Kallat’s curatorial theme of ‘Whorled explorations’.

“The cartography exhibition provides a glimpse into the glory days of navigation,” added Komu.

The India maps, some of which are stunning for their scale, have been collected by Kalakriti founder Prshant Lahoti over a dozen years.

Vividly coloured, they contain picturesque representations of the world — sometimes in tune with Jain philosophy, where the earth is divided into regions of the gods, mortals, and the damned. The pilgrimage maps, which probably belonged to temples, chart out panoramic routes to Badrinath in the Himalayas or Shatrunjaya in Gujarat. Key shrines are identified along the course of the Ganges and graced by depictions of people meditating, trekking, or taking baths on the banks of the river flowing upcountry.

“The exhibition displays move from the symbolic to the political, and there is a dichotomy in the first, the middle, and the last few,” said Executive Curator Vivek Nanda, a well-known town planner and urban architect and whose current projects include the Mumbai-Delhi Corridor. “The early part of the exhibition represents a world of meaning, while the later political ones are a world of order; these depict coastal towns and sea ports, which were important trading indicators.”

There are some very rare depictions, an early 18th-century Japanese map which shows India as the centre of the world because it was home to Buddhism; a pilgrimage map with Persian translations; a mid-18th century one produced from early Portuguese manuscripts that shows the southern peninsular facing upwards; the first Dutch map of the subcontinent and the Middle East; and the first map of India as a single entity, made in 1822, for the directors of the English East India Company.

The political maps, made by the Portuguese, Dutch, French, and English, were created to consolidate their power in India. The British colonial maps were produced painstakingly, over five to seven years, using astronomical observations, and in terms of difficulty, the maps they made of Europe and North America were incomparable to the Indian ones, according to exhibition curator Dr. Alex Johnson.

“After they had made maps of Bengal, the British desperately needed accurate maps for the rest of India,” said Johnson, who is a Munich-based author and dealer in antiquarian maps. “So, they started to create this with Indian help and by 1822, they had mapped out the whole country.”

Lahoti, who established Kalakriti in 2002, expressed the hope that the cartography exhibition would open up greater public interest, besides leading to a significant exchange of ideas and education with other collectors.

“I was excited and proud to showcase them for the first time at such an important cultural venue as the biennale,” said the real-estate businessman. “I did not want to dilute the importance of the maps by showcasing them anywhere else. These maps are the history of India, and give a valuable glimpse into the statues of old cities, some forgotten. I think it is a duty to preserve it for future generations.”

CB

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