Aesthetics in cartography: a more democratic access to information?

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Can atlases serve to empower those at the bottom of the pyramid, permitting an understanding of historical change, social developments and a more critical awareness of regional, national traditions and resources?

Arundhati Virmani
22 March 2013

This article is part of an occasional series on ‘The Political Aesthetics of Power and Protest,’ the subject of a one-day workshop held at the University of Warwick last September. Democracy, since it does not function through command or coercion, requires instead a constant renewal of sets of symbols - symbols which appeal to people and instill in them a sense of belonging and identification. Increasing disenchantment and disillusion with the state, with political institutions, their practices and performance, makes it more important to explore the place of this aestheticisation of political language, the aesthetics of protest as well as of power.

Maps matter. A typical British map of India in the nineteenth century showed British India in an attractive pink. (Fig.1) In others, the same British India was coloured red. Later productions contrasted the pink of territories permanently administered by the British government of India with the yellow of native states and territories. The play on colours conveyed different messages. An intense red, or pink highlighted British expansion, dominating the pale, straw yellow of the politically weaker Indian princely states. On the other hand, a more intense yellow gave the impression of strong Indian states. (Fig.2) Finally, a balance of colours gave the impression of a homogenous empire. Thus, a seemingly simple codification of colours could invite the viewer to consider the empire as a harmonious coexistence of different territories rather than a field of confrontation and conflict.


Figure 1.

The belief that the persuasive and convincing capacity of cartographic representations could help structure ideas of nationality and imperial identity or feed patriotic pride, promoted the systematic production of maps first under the East India Company and then later under the British government of India. Maps emphasized the colonial shaping and logical re-organization of territory to make it politically coherent and administratively manageable, portraying the development and modernization of this colony through networks of communication, railways, roads or urban growth. From the perspective of government, maps were essential to administrative goals and key instruments of colonial control and domination, symbols of power and propaganda, manipulation and subjection.


Figure 2.

The British conquest of Bengal in the eighteenth century stimulated the production of maps, beginning with James Rennel’s first cartographic surveys. His Bengal Atlas (1781), dedicated to Robert Clive and to his victory in the Battle of Plassey (1757), was clearly destined to facilitate the collection of revenue in the province. Rennel extended his surveys to produce a highly detailed and precise Map of Hindoostan (1782), which proved a decisive turning point, accelerating cartographic productions of the country and its regions.

The production of several regional surveys from Colin MacKenzie’s topographical survey of Mysore in 1800 to A. Arrowsmith’s Atlas of South India (1822) was to inspire the East India Company’s Atlas of India project, launched in 1823. The motive of furthering knowledge of British India possessions among the working classes led the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge in London, in the 1830s and 1840s, to produce maps for a far bigger market than the small, select circles of Indian administrators and British elites. In India, maps were used to promote an imperial visual image of « Englistan » to children in schools. The Trigonometrical Survey became one of the biggest and longest operations undertaken to map Indian territory, from 1802 to 1892.

This ancestry has somehow made them suspect as tools for manipulation and distortion. Maps remain sources of anxiety (for governments) and nations at war and more often than not solicit official disclaimers that the external boundaries portrayed are neither correct nor authentic. The recent India-China « visa map » exchange in November 2012 confirms this. Beijing’s new passports showing Arunachal Pradesh and Aksai Chin as part of China in a map on the watermark provoked India to respond with a visa stamp for Chinese passports that showed these same territories as part of India.

For formerly colonized nations affirming their newly independent status, maps and atlases occupied a key place in the administration of their populations but even more so, as Benedict Anderson’s suggestive work Imagined Communities (1983) demonstrated, in presenting its citizens with a spatial idea of their country.

Independent India was equally conscious of the power of maps. One of the first national projects of the newly formed Republic in 1953 was the compilation of Bharat : Rashtriya Atlas (1957) under the patronage of the prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru. It clearly broke with imperial cartographical traditions by adopting a common system of measurement - the metric system - for the whole country, as opposed to the British “imperial” measures, as well as to the prevailing mosaic of systems at the local and regional level. It opted for the new national language, Hindi, rather than English. It also presented a detailed portrayal of the new country’s natural resources, as if pointing to the potentialities of India’s development and in the process engaging citizens in their nation’s plans for future development. But on the other hand, it continued the colonial tradition of producing maps and atlases that structured ideas of nationality and identity.

This cartographic result was still a tool in the hands of the government : it was directed and managed from the centre, under the recently organized National Atlas Unit under the Ministry of Natural Resources and Scientific Research, even if the technical realization of the Atlas had been handed over to a geographer, S. P. Chatterjee based not in the capital but in distant Calcutta. Its treatment of Indian space and territory projected the political perspective of the new government : firstly, to re-adapt India’s educated elites to their new frontiers, without the territories that now composed Pakistan. Secondly, to inform citizens of their new administrative divisions down to the villages, to acquaint them with the landscape, environment, health, irrigation, communication and industrial features of their country, and engage them in a common understanding of its resources and its possibilities.

As compared to colonial maps, this was a public detailed and dense inventory of the land. British maps though very informed and precise had remained confined within official gazettes and classified documents. The atlas of independent India was an equally political exercise, through an apparently transparent display of the state of the country as it was.

But if it was democratic in its intention, it was less so in practice. Concretely speaking, it was an expensive item (100 rupees, which at the time was considerable) and therefore quite inaccessible for many ordinary Indians. Its large unwieldly size made it more appropriate as a reference item in public or private libraries and official institutions rather than homes or even schools. These large maps continued an older tradition of 16th century manuscript maps suitable for consultation on the desks of military generals.

Maps and atlases published after independence continued to be printed in the large format. They were hard cover, expensive and therefore relatively inaccessible items. They focused on presenting an up-to-date portrait of economic, demographic data, served at best as a political, administrative history, illustrating the state’s national projects and plans of development.

None of these atlases took the diachronic dimension of the construction of state and territory into account. This coincided with the official position and state efforts devoted to the construction of the future; efforts, which, as Nehru had clearly affirmed, required Indians to liberate themselves from the burden of the past or the nostalgia of an ancient golden age. As such, they could serve as a political, administrative history, transforming statistical data into graphic images, giving an up to date picture of economic, demographic facts and developments in the country. In the eyes of national governments, atlases were inspired by a national impulse and demands of national planning and intended to present these facts and projects to Indian citizens.

Paradoxically, both their content and their material shape made them undemocratic tools of knowledge. The content was presented in far too technical a form to favour quick and easy understanding by a large audience. A similar problem afflicted the few historical atlases that appeared from the 1970s onwards. These were not state intitatives but scholarly productions. The first, The Historical Atlas of South Asia (1978) was the result of an American academic initiative, in the shape of a major project launched by the university of Minnesota in September 1964 under the direction of the American geographer Jan Otto Marius Broek and the historian Burton Stein. It was finally completed by the geographer, Joseph Schwartzberg. The latter had worked in close contact with the Office of the Register General of India, in particular to “prepare the detailed outlines for a series of atlases to accompany the 1961 census of India at both the national and the state levels”. This was even more inaccessible to the lay reader.

Equally, atlases produced by Indians (Irfan Habib, Atlas of the Mughal Empire, Delhi, O.U. P.,1986) andAtlas of Ancient Indian History, Delhi, O. U. P., 2012) require  an already high interest in historical questions and issues as well as skills for interpreting the complex sets of information provided. Maps in these cases became technical texts, demanding painstaking decoding and interpretation by the enthusiastic and highly interested student and university readers.

At the other end of the spectrum, maps included in school text books were easily understandable, even if they were limited to school students and presented more static glimpses of the nation’s history and past. Even in today’s global, internet age of widespread access to information and the growth of experiential maps, interactive maps, though straddling the fields of science and art, remain an elitist object of consumption.

It is precisely because maps demand technical skills and specialized knowledge that researchers are wary of producing them and atlases have become largely the preserve of institutional, government structures or big teams. The availability of rich sources of information today, sometimes as electronic sources, and the possibility of cross-checking has certainly rendered the task of map making easier than it was. In the case of India, a historical atlas of India can be conceived to contribute to a public debate on the « idea of India », a central question in Indian politics in the last few decades.

Today there is an urgent need to democratize this medium, mainly because never has history been so surrounded by myths, never has it been so conflictual and prey to violent polemics. Some of the recent debates in India, on the placement of mosques or temples, on the ethnic roots of communities, or the historical presence of communities and religious groups feed on justifications drawn from sacred texts, oral traditions, and politician interpretations.

History in India has today become highly contested and interpreted by political parties, groups, communities to legitimize their status, identities and place in the Indian political spectrum and society. This is particularly so for the ancient period, which is today projected in strongly religious terms, as Hindu above all, and is subject to bitter polemics and controversies about the original inhabitants and foreigners.

Showing the changing political configurations within the subcontinent from the 6th century B.C. onwards, the shift of political power and economic activitiy from the Indus valley to the Gangetic plain in the 3rd century B.C., or the rise of Buddhism and Jainism, highlights the complexity of languages spoken, of movements, displacements and exchanges that were taking place in ancient India. Mapping contributes to criticizing the myths that surround this period.

It is possible today to consider historical atlases as a democratic tool that facilitate access to territorial and spatial knowledge and interconnections, to the history of a region, nation or social groups and communities in terms of a space, a territory and the construction of a territory. Can atlases serve to empower those at the bottom of the pyramid, permitting an understanding of historical change, social developments and a more critical awareness of regional, national traditions and resources ?

An editorial adventure begun in France at the end of the 1990s by the French publishing companyAutrement in 2000, under the direction of Henry Dougier proposes a collection of small atlases that is a move in this direction. Covering a broad range of European and non European countries, cities and themes, they propose a synthesis of scholarly research, recent historiographical shifts and approaches in an accesible form, at a reasonable price. Their target is schools, university students but also a larger group of readers.

The transformation of data into a visual image involves more than locating names and some topographical features onto a territory. Questions of colours, even shades must be resolved, and choices of arrows, dots, circles or triangles in fact determine how maps look and therefore how they are read and understood. Sensitivity to colours today flows from the chain of developments in cartographic tradition : from the reflections of the Max Eckert in Berlin in 1921 to 1925 urging a cartogrophy that was adapted to visual reception, to Arthur H. Robinson’s promotion in 1952 of theLook of Maps that emphasized design, and appearance, to Jacques Bertin’s work on graphic semiology that placed the viewer at the heart of cartographic conception. Cartographic conventions have evolved firmly within European and American parameters to establish a veritable cartographic grammar of maps.

Today, aesthetic conventions and choices play a crucial role. Instead of being the last link of the chain, it makes the viewer the first target. The ordering of the information and its presentation is unfolded from his or her perspective. Much of this might appear to be part of a given cartographical tradition and reigning norms, outside the field of the historian or geographer. Yet, it is an essential part of the author’s work for it determines what the viewer will register and the impression communicated.

Distinguishing the colour of the landmass clearly from the colour of the sea might seem too inconsequential and minor a point but it contributes to a final visual impact. Huck Finn tells Tom Sawyer that he knows their hot-air balloon in which they are travelling is going over Illinois because Illinois is green. Indiana is pink because that’s how it’s shown on the map. Tom is disbelieving: states are surely not the same colour out-of-doors as they are on the map, he maintains. But Huck insists that maps tell you the facts as they are. (Mark Twain, Tom Sawyer Abroad, New York, Harper, 1875)

Tracing the extension of a railway network in India presents the choice of either showing the most recent tracks in dark black or the earliest tracks in strong black. Each option delivers quite a different message. The former emphasizes recent developments and the efforts of the Indian state, while the latter shows the first penetration of railways in the Indian landscape, drawing attention to the regions that benefited from this technological advance. If the first railway network is shown on a background of British India and princely India, they immediately inform the reader of the first territorial inequalities, of princely efforts or indifference to the question. The princely state of Hyderabad was in this respect in advance of other princely states of Punjab or Rajasthan.

Deciding the amount of information to be contained in a single map equally becomes an aesthetic exercise. Too many different colours in a single map, shades or lines, dots, arrows and losanges can merely distract in the final run, without communciating a strong clear picture. Finally, the decision of the number of elements to be portrayed in a map can be made on aesthetic grounds. Thus, a regional map that shows women’s co-operatives in Kerala today can easily show the principal towns, the administrative divisions, the capital, without overloading the map. How much information can be contained in a single map ? The final yardstick that the map should be easily understandable thus becomes a matter of aesthetics.

A cartographic representation for example of Gandhi’s displacements in India or in Europe can be measured against the textual information and documentary proof available on the subject. Gandhi’s collected works covering the period from 1884-1948, published between 1960 and 1994, and even available as an electronic book since 1999 provide this information to any interested reader. However, this was mapped only recently in my Atlas Historique de l’Inde (Paris, Autrement, 2012).

It allows us to reconstruct the itineraries of his journeys and displacements and stays in the country and abroad. (Fig. 3) It gives visibility to the material ties that linked Gandhi to the subcontinent in its diversity, draws attention to the cities and states he visited regularly and places where he resided for many days. Just a quick glance at the map informs the reader of Gandhi’s first hand knowledge of India in its diversity but also the links he could have woven with the local people, the forms of political mobilization that his direct presence and visibility to locals could have encouraged and the national dimension built through the personal attachments he formed with Indians in different places.


Figure 3

Atlas Historique de l'Inde, Autrement, 2012

A cartographic analysis highlights this new territorial aspect of Gandhi’s political action. An illustration of an open access and interpretation of the information offered by a map is provided by a recent reaction to a view of Gandhi’s displacements in England during his visit for the Round Table Conference in 1931. It provoked one Indian viewer to ask why Gandhi, a firm advocate of vegetariansim and abstinence, had visited the city of Ardmoor, famous as a centre of whisky production. The question invited by the map thus goes beyond the analysis of the historian, posing a problem, which for the moment awaits an answer.


Contrary to those who see the map uniquely as a means of manipulation, which it can obviously be, the advantage of maps over texts can be considered to lie in their nature of open texts, giving the viewer the liberty to produce his own interpretation from on the one hand, the information and connections provided in the maps and his own questions and knowledge.

The titles orient the reader without imposing a particular interpretation or imprisoning him within a closely defined problematic, although the map is constructed from a limited set of data. But this itself renders visible the presuppostions on which the map is based and thus facilitates their criticism. An atlas can thus serve as a democratic means and tool for putting a current state of knowledge before people in a society where knowledge is still unequally accessible and controlled by deep-rooted notions of hierarchy. 



This article forms part of an editorial partnership, funded by the Gendered Ceremony and Ritual in Parliament research programme at the University of Warwick and the Leverhulme Trust.

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