The Se­cret Lan­guage of MAPS

Each map is a trea­sure trove of sto­ries, well-heeled sources of his­tory and a reser­voir of eras gone by. Anub­hav Nath, Cu­ra­to­rial Di­rec­tor, Ojas Art, tells us how maps can speak to us through car­tog­ra­phy


It’s in­ter­est­ing how maps de­fine the bor­ders of each coun­try. The pre-In­de­pen­dent In­dia in­cluded Pak­istan and Bangladesh (erst­while East Pak­istan). Post-In­de­pen­dence, they branched into three en­ti­ties. This art of graph­i­cally rep­re­sent­ing a ge­o­graph­i­cal area is re­ferred to as car­tog­ra­phy. As an art, it was at its zenith be­tween the 17th and 19th cen­turies, as ex­plor­ers dis­cov­ered more places and were also able to mark their ex­act ge­o­graph­i­cal lo­ca­tions with the help of lon­gi­tudes and lat­i­tudes. Dur­ing that time, there was a vast com­mis­sion­ing of maps by the west­ern pow­ers. Car­tog­ra­phy is also ed­u­ca­tional as it helps in un­der­stand­ing chang­ing ge­o­graph­i­cal bound­aries and the pos­si­ble rea­sons be­hind them. “The Euro­peans had great in­ter­est in In­dia, and com­mis­sioned many car­tog­ra­phers to make maps of the ter­rain. In­dian maps are con­sid­ered to be among the best and are pur­sued by col­lec­tors all over the world,” shares Anub­hav. Re­cently, Anub­hav cu­rated an ex­hi­bi­tion, In­dia: A Map­ful Story. The ex­hi­bi­tion con­sisted of 71 vin­tage maps by car­tog­ra­phers of em­i­nence such as Seut­ter, Ren­nell, Mortier, Lapie, Bonne and Tal­lis. About the ex­hi­bi­tion and the cu­ra­to­rial process em­ployed in it, he in­forms, “This is the se­cond such ex­hi­bi­tion. The first one was held three years ago. We have been able to add some his­tor­i­cally im­por­tant pieces to the col­lec­tion. Also, there is an in­crease in aware­ness about maps as there was a sem­i­nal ex­hi­bi­tion that was held at the Na­tional Mu­seum not too long ago. The sub­ject of In­dian maps is very large, so one has to work in a seg­ment. We have con­cen­trated on maps upto 1946, that is pre-in­de­pen­dence.” On what con­sti­tutes a good map, he as­cer­tains, “The car­tog­ra­pher is most im­por­tant, along with the re­gion and pe­riod. There is also a per­sonal con­nect,

with the places you are fa­mil­iar with or the city you grew up in, etc. Car­tog­ra­phy is a holis­tic art and science, and a map can give great in­sight into the his­tory, ge­og­ra­phy, eco­nom­ics, so­ci­ety and the art of the time.” Anub­hav finds the map of the Mughals cel­e­brat­ing 50 years of Red Fort, Delhi, 1687 C.E., his fa­vorite. And, why? Be­cause… “En­graved by Mel­chior Haffner and pub­lished by Jo­hann Wag­ner, the map shows the Mughal ter­ri­to­ries and has a rare view of the Red Fort in Delhi on the 50th an­niver­sary of the cre­ation of Shah­je­han­abad. The Mughal Em­peror Shah Je­han an­nounced the build­ing of the Red Fort in 1639, which was com­pleted in 1648, lead­ing to the shift of the Mughal cap­i­tal to Delhi. The build­ing spac­ing, etc, is very ac­cu­rate, though some shapes have gone wrong. But the Di­wan-e-aam and the Di­wan-e-khaas are clearly iden­ti­fi­able,” he gushes and adds, “Au­rangzeb took over as em­peror in 1658 and im­me­di­ately con­structed the Moti Masjid in 1659-60 within the Fort grounds. The map does not show the Moti Masjid. The three car­touches on the top (in Ger­man) are very sig­nif­i­cant and give a lot of in­for­ma­tion.” The top left cor­ner car­touche trans­lates as ‘Il­lus­tra­tion of the state Shah­je­han­abad in In­dia—the res­i­dence of the Grand Mo­gols’, fol­lowed by the cen­ter car­touche which reads, ‘ The Em­pire of the Great Mughals’. Fi­nally, the right car­touche reads, ‘50 years ago in the place 100 be­fore Delhi had been built’. “On fur­ther un­der­stand­ing, one may de­ci­pher ‘100’ as an er­ror—it ba­si­cally trans­lates from old Ger­man as ‘ 50 years ago in this place, Delhi was built’. Also, it in­cor­po­rates all the words on the same map—Delly is Delhi and Ge­han­abad is Shah­je­han­abad, the new name of the place. Then, it uses Grand Mo­gol, the pop­u­lar term, which caught Europe’s imag­i­na­tion and pain­ters, in­clud­ing Rem­brandt,” ex­plains Anub­hav. Anub­hav also points out an anom­aly that in­stead of a string of wooden boats joined to­gether, the car­tog­ra­pher has cho­sen t o make one large boat skele­ton in­stead. “A loss in trans­la­tion, mostly,” he feels. Fas­ci­nat­ing, in­deed! But what’s the fu­ture of car­tog­ra­phy in the era of Google Maps? “The cur­rent car­tog­ra­phy is dig­i­tal and changes in real time. In the 1700s, it would take 10-12 years for a change to be made, as some­one had to go out and ver­ify in per­son and then trans­mit that in­for­ma­tion. The art and aes­thetic side is not that im­por­tant and the con­cept of car­touches and ex­tra dec­o­ra­tive el­e­ments in the maps is com­pletely amiss to­day,” says Anub­hav in con­clu­sion.

Mughals cel­e­brat­ing 50 years of Red Fort, Delhi, 1687 C. E.

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