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For the first time, over 30 antique maps on display in month-long exhibition

The Indian Express logo The Indian Express 28-03-2022 Benita Fernando
© Provided by The Indian Express

Clumps of coconut trees, ambling elephants and a church steeple soaring above roofs are part of Vue de Goa, a map from 1750. In the distance are rolling hills, while boats of various kinds dot the sea in the foreground. Made by prolific French cartographer Jacques-Nicolas Bellin, this map would have been an eye-opener of sorts for Europeans who hadn’t travelled to Goa but wanted to know more about the land.

The pictorial map, called so because it doesn’t use conventional cartographic elements but relies more on illustration, will be on display for the first time at the Asiatic Society of Mumbai’s first exhibition of maps. In 2019, 100 maps from Asiatic Society of Mumbai’s collection were proposed for conservation, of which 32 will be showcased in 'Meandering Through a Mapped Canvas'. The month-long exhibition opens on April 1 at Asiatic Society of Mumbai’s Durbar Hall.

Vispi Balaporia, president of Asiatic Society of Mumbai, said, “(We) had been discussing a display of its maps for quite a while. But it was first necessary to take stock of the condition of these maps…A personal visit will enable the viewer to take a cartographic journey through the centuries.”

The exhibition is a collaborative effort between Asiatic Society of Mumbai, Rotary Club of Bombay, heritage management company Past Perfect; and independent paper and book conservator Amalina Dave. The project is funded by donations of an undisclosed amount, collected by the Rotary Club of Bombay specifically for this purpose.

Priyasri Patodia, chairperson of the Rotary Club of Bombay’s Urban Heritage Committee, said, “On display will be a wide range of maps spanning a period of 300 years. As years advance in the exhibition’s narrative, an evolution is seen in terms of map-making techniques, the commissioning powers and the changing lengths and breadths of the Indian sub-continent.”

The exhibition is intended to impress upon visitors the importance of conserving documentary heritage.

Dave, assisted by the Asiatic Society of Mumbai’s conservation staff, worked on these maps, which were at various stages of deterioration. “I don’t know if it’s madness or love, but we put them together piece by piece with a tweezer, magnifier and different kinds of adhesives,” Dave said.

Funds were dedicated to saving maps that were in the poorest condition. A map of “City Environs of Calcutta”, published by the Surveyor General’s Office in Calcutta in 1851, is exhibited to highlight the difference conservation can make.

While all the maps are on paper, Dave pointed out that the kind of paper varies across the collection. She said, “Paper is not one object.”

Maps from the 17th century are on cloth paper and those from the 19th century onwards are made on wood paper, following industrialisation. There are maps on tracing paper too.

The exhibition begins with the oldest map in the collection, donated to Asiatic Society of Mumbai by former Irish ambassador Brian McElduff.

Dating back to 1652, the map is called L’empire du Grand Mogol (Map of the Great Mughal Empire), made by French cartographer Nicolas Sanson D’Abbeville.

The exhibition includes maps with cartouches (decorative emblem), including one of Bombay by Bellin, circa 1756. It’s among six maps of Mumbai in the exhibition. Another Mumbai map is a plague map from 1897, detailing the epidemic from the previous year.

Archivist Deepti Anand, co-founder of Past Perfect, has researched the collection and curated this exhibition.

She said, “Everyone knows how maps have been used as political tools by colonising powers. That’s a general thread…but we decided to include two story threads. One was what the mapmaker wanted to say through the map. Secondly, what did the map go through while Amalina was conserving it?”

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