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Mapping India’s memory

Artists are using 16th century maps to trace India's history, collective memory and identity

(From left) ‘Ancestral Dress 01’ (2017); and ‘Ancestral Dress 02’ (2017) by Pala Pothupitiye. Photos courtesy Blueprint 12
(From left) ‘Ancestral Dress 01’ (2017); and ‘Ancestral Dress 02’ (2017) by Pala Pothupitiye. Photos courtesy Blueprint 12

For the longest time, maps have been regarded as frozen artefacts—repositories of yesteryear explorations and narratives of a time gone by. However, artists are now using cartographies as tools to question notions of memory, identity and urban development. While some are layering old maps with patterns of contemporary geographies to find ruptures in between, others are looking at these as theatres where oral histories and memories of lived experiences can be played out.

One such instance of artistic intervention is taking place at the Kalakriti Archives, Hyderabad, where, as part of the museum and archival fellowship offered by the India Foundation for the Arts, or IFA, two researchers are working on the Munn maps. Dating back to 1915, these have been made available to the public for the first time for study. Their origin is just as interesting as the contemporary interpretations they are giving rise to.

In September 1908, a tempestuous Musi river wreaked havoc on Hyderabad, washing away nearly 18,000 houses and leaving thousands homeless. This prompted the nizam to devise plans for a new urban design. A team of surveyors, led by engineer Leonard Munn, drew up elaborate maps of the city’s municipal limits between 1912 and 1915.

For years, the precise detailing of these has amazed scholars. Drawn to two scales—400 feet to an inch and 53 feet to an inch—the set of 848 maps contains detailed street patterns, open spaces, gardens, even names of residents and owners.

Collector Prshant Lahoti and his wife, Rekha, acquired around 550 Munn maps for the Kalakriti Archives a couple of years ago —with over 3,000 vintage maps, it is one of the largest collections in a private collection in India today. Recently, the Lahotis got in touch with Karen Leonard, a California-based anthropologist and a historian of Hyderabad, who opened up her set of 232 Munn maps to them. “We now have 638 unique maps between us," says Lahoti.

The fragility of the paper was a deterrent but whenever he did manage to study them, they held interesting revelations. “For instance, they show that light railways used to run from the secretariat to Gandipet when the latter was being constructed," he says. The maps are now being digitized by the Google Cultural Institute, and Lahoti hopes to find the remaining 200 maps to complete the set.

A set of 300 Munn maps will be unveiled for the first time on the Google Art Project during the 2018 Krishnakriti Festival in Hyderabad, scheduled for January, in association with Bonjour India.

To Shikha Pandey, Mumbai-based researcher and film-maker, such cartographies have always been of particular interest. “These don’t feature language or drawing, which was a trademark feature of the maps from that period and was difficult to follow. Rather, they follow contemporary cartographic practices," says the artist. Pandey is using these maps to activate different kinds of personal encounters—tactile, visual and sonic—with public spaces through history. The artist’s project, Memory Theatre, will map such histories from four locations in the city.

An IFA fellow, Sirisha Indukuri, is looking at how insights into “non-physical" narratives can emerge from a reading of physical spaces such as the old city of Hyderabad, or Abids, one of the oldest commercial centres in Hyderabad. She is also using oral histories that have been passed down through generations, some of it even documented in written form.

In Goa, meanwhile, a young moving-image artist and former IFA fellow, Gayatri Kodikal, has been working with maps from the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) collection to trace the history of the remains of a Georgian queen. According to historical sources, the queen, Ketevan (1560-1624), ruled over Kakheti, a kingdom in Eastern Georgia, till she was killed in Shiraz, Iran, when she refused to give up her faith. It is believed that some of her remains were taken by the St Augustine Portuguese Catholic Missionaries to Georgia and the rest transferred to Goa by an unknown traveller. “I found one map in the ASI archives from the 16th century which showed not only which buildings existed but also where they were placed. It was rare as maps from that time used to be crude, bereft of architectural details," she says.

This led her to create an art game, featuring multimedia games, projections and a set of installations centred on Old Goa, and the places where the remains of the queen could be. Titled The Travelling Hand, it’s currently available in her studio. Kodikal is hoping to launch it soon at select galleries.

Artists are also using maps to create new cartographies, based on their interpretation of issues such as colonialism, war and religious extremism. One saw an example of this at a recent show by Sri Lankan artist Pala Pothupitiye, titled Until This Moment. At this show, presented by New Delhi-based galleries Exhibit 320 and Blueprint 12, government and colonial maps were treated as two-dimensional surfaces, which he used to draw attention to lived experiences within these inscribed spaces. Pothupitiye works a lot with inverted maps of South Asia, questioning why some countries are shown as the “big boys" in the region and others as smaller powers.

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