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.