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Looking into the past, one map at a time

An ongoing exhibition gives a glimpse of the Indian subcontinent through rare, artistically made 17th-19th century maps  

The Mughal map of India
The Mughal map of India (Asiatic Society of Mumbai)

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Can maps be considered historical documents? Can they be works of art? These are the questions that ‘Meandering Through a Mapped Canvas’ aims to answer. The exhibition showcases 30 maps of the Indian subcontinent from the 17th to 19th century, coastal regions, river estuaries and some maritime maps made on different kinds of papers including tracing paper. 

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Organised by the Asiatic Society of Mumbai along with the Rotary Club of Bombay, the month-long exhibition showcases maps spanning 300 years. The oldest display dates back to 1652. What’s interesting is the transition in the approach to detailing that one sees over a period of a few decades. While the older maps from the 17th century show spelling errors and poor coverage of geography, there's more attention paid to details in the maps made in the 18th century.

“From the 1700s, you can see a big jump in the surveying technology. The maps are more detailed. For instance, the detailing in the Trigonometrical Survey of India map is astonishing. It’s so systematic that it’s breath-taking. It’s close to the Google map of the 19th century,” said Amalina Dave, conservation consultant, who has been restoring the maps in Asiatic Society’s collection.

The maps were selected based on how badly they needed to be restored, and their historical value, says Priyasri Patodia, chairperson of the urban heritage committee, Rotary Club of Bombay. The Rotary Club funded the restoration and conservation project of the maps in possession of Asiatic Society (a donation was made by a patron who did not wish to be identified). They also roped in Past Perfect Heritage Management to work on weaving a story around the maps.

The Native Town of Bombay map under restoration. Dave worked on the map for nearly two months piecing together the fragments. 
The Native Town of Bombay map under restoration. Dave worked on the map for nearly two months piecing together the fragments.  (Asiatic Society of Mumbai)

Besides the utilitarian value that indicated the obvious economic interest among Europeans in the subcontinent, the maps were also made to look attractive. The maps were hand-painted, engraved, had ornamental inscriptions, in spite of the printing facilities available at the time. “The colour schemes that were used, symbols for cities, the lines, they all remind you in a way of an abstract version of schematic drawing. It’s a piece of art rather than a piece of paper,” says Patodia.

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Some of the highlights include a seven-and-a-half-foot map of a section of undivided Punjab, a 1898 map about the spread of plague in Mumbai, an 1855 map of the native town of Bombay, and a 1788 map of Hindoostan.

Map of Hindoostan after being restored.
Map of Hindoostan after being restored. (Asiatic Society of Mumbai)

The Hindoostan map is a favourite of Dave and Patodia for different reasons. When Dave started work on restoring the map, it was in 24 pieces. “It was very fragile and took the longest—three months—to piece it together,” she says. For Patodia, the map symbolises a time when borders didn’t act as barriers for people to freely travel. “What we want viewers to do is imagine a world without boundaries,” she says.

The exhibition is on at Darbar Hall, Asiatic Society of Mumbai, till 30 April.

Read: Mapping India’s memory




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