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An exhibition that reveals the stories hidden within the old maps of Udaipur

An exhibition of rare maps in Udaipur, supported by a grant by The Getty Foundation, hopes to offer a deeper understanding of Mewar’s history

The maps on display have tremendous archival value. Courtesy: Maharana of Mewar Charitable Foundation

By Abhilasha Ojha

LAST PUBLISHED 29.08.2023  |  04:00 PM IST

When art conservators Anuja Mukherjee and Bhasha Shah saw a 19th century map of undivided India, framed and displayed at the exhibition Picturing Place: Painted And Printed Maps At The Udaipur Court, they couldn’t stop beaming with pride. Until some months ago, the map, despite its extraordinary historical value, had been just another crumbling piece of paper. The conservators spent long hours trying to piece it together.

Today, their efforts on this and 52 other artefacts have culminated in an exhibition, an outcome of the Paper Project grant awarded by The Getty Foundation in 2021 to the City Palace Museum, Maharana of Mewar Charitable Foundation (MMCF), in Udaipur, Rajasthan. The initiative aims to fund print and drawing projects and make collections more accessible to 21st century audiences. MMCF trustee Lakshyaraj Singh Mewar says the grant has allowed the museum to showcase their commitment to building and sharing their rich legacy of art and culture.

Since the City Palace Museum has a collection of over 28,000 photographs, 2,000-plus paintings and over 2,000 maps, paring this down to 53 artefacts—a mix of 31 topographical, district, national and world maps, seven hand-painted renderings of maps of Mewar and Udaipur, 12 photographs of landscapes, besides architectural drawings and old diaries, or bahida—for the show was both, daunting and an opportunity. The exhibition finally opened on 21 July at the museum and will remain on display there till 31 December 2024.

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Shah and Mukherjee, together with the exhibition curator Shailka Mishra, worked long hours to tackle brittle, damaged paper. Special adhesives, Japanese archival paper and moisture-control techniques were applied to treat the parchments before they were flattened out, cleaned and fumigated to remove dust particles. Since the exhibition will travel to other cities too, this was critical.

For the conservationists, bringing each map back to life was akin to “nurturing a child". Mishra too found the visual storytelling fascinating—from the typical Orientalist imagery of earlier maps and a political leader’s personal note to procure a map in the 1930s to a map from the mid-1970s showing the scope of tourism in Udaipur. Even the names of English cartographers on some of the maps tell the story of how the British were engaging with the royalty to introduce administrative changes.

Mishra, who had been poring over the artefacts, including tools for measuring maps, for over a year, was struck by the draughtsmanship, with several of the maps displaying the complex “hachure" line technique to show the land’s terrain in greater detail and depth. She has also explained the significance of some of the maps commissioned by the Survey of India office in Kolkata. For instance, many of the parchments highlight how the British consolidated their rule by building a network of railways, canals and roads. “Many of the 19th century maps on display show the finesse and sheer artistic spirit of the cartographers, as seen in the shading and hand colouring techniques," says Mishra.

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With the museum getting more than a million visitors every year, Mayank Gupta, CEO of the foundation, says they have set up interactive kiosks and tours for the exhibition, for people to understand Mewar’s historical importance through maps. “The maps are historical documents and have tremendous archival value," notes Mishra. “They are a pointer to the political and cultural motivations, while also elaborating on the agency of the court artists within the field of cartographic knowledge."

Abhilasha Ojha is a Delhi-based writer.