Kochi Muziris Biennale
Kochi Muziris BiennaleFacebook/ Kochi Muziris Biennale

The Kochi-Muziris Biennale (KMB) unveiled a unique collection of museum-quality maps of India from 16th to 19th centuries on Thursday. The exhibition is first of its kind in India, which is held in association with Hyderabad-based Kalakriti Archives, an art-promoting organisation.

Kochi, which is now the centre stage of art explorers, is hosting 108-day-long Kochi Biennale Foundation, which began on 12 December and is slated to conclude on 29 March 2015. The Binennale mainly shows 100 works by 94 artists from 30 countries.

The exhibition of maps is aimed to bring out the show that features a total of 47 maps spanning across four centuries, which are arranged under three categories: Jain cosmic, pilgrimage and cartographic.

Titled 'Cosmology to Cartography', the exhibition at Heritage Arts in suburban Mattancherry showcases both early maps that are produced with vegetable dye on cotton, woodcuts, copper engravings with colour or watercolour and ink on paper.

"Located in one of the oldest antique warehouses, it presents a good juxtaposition between historical and antique objects. The cartography exhibition provides a glimpse into the glory days of navigation," said Riyas Komu, Biennale, 2014 director of programmes

He also added that the exhibition is a "very site-specific project that fits perfectly" into the ongoing biennale's artistic director Jitish Kallat's curatorial theme of 'Whorled Explorations'.

Kochi Muziris Biennale 2014
Kochi Muziris Biennale 2014 Crowd Funding CampaignFacebook/ Kochi-Muziris Biennale

The India maps, some of which are stunning for their scale, have been collected by Kalakriti founder Prashant Lahoti over a decade ago.

"I was excited and proud to showcase them for the first time at such an important cultural venue as the biennale. I did not want to dilute the importance of the maps by showcasing them anywhere else. These maps are the history of India, and give a valuable glimpse into the statues of old cities, some forgotten. I think it is a duty to preserve it for future generations," said Lahoti

The exhibition showcases some vividly coloured yet picturesque maps that stand in tune with Jain philosophy, where the earth is divided into regions of the gods, mortals and the damned. The pilgrimage maps, exhibit lands, which probably belonged to temples, chart out panoramic routes to Badrinath in the Himalayas or Shatrunjaya in Gujarat. Key shrines are marked out along the course of the Ganges, in which the depictions of people meditating, trekking or taking baths on the banks of the river flowing upcountry.

"The exhibition displays move from the symbolic to the political, and there is a dichotomy in the first, the middle and last few. The early part of the exhibition represents a world of meaning, while the later political ones are a world of order; these depict coastal towns and sea ports, which were important trading indicators," said Vivek Nanda, executive curator who is a town planner and whose current projects include the Mumbai-Delhi corridor.

Out of the 47 maps on display from a collection of 3,000 maps, the exhibition shows some very rare depictions which includes an early 18th-century Japanese map, which shows India as the centre of the world because it is the home of Buddhism, a pilgrimage map with Persian translations, a mid-18th century one produced from early Portuguese manuscripts that shows the southern peninsular facing upwards, the first Dutch map of the subcontinent and the Middle East, and the first map of India as a single entity, made in 1822, for the directors of the English East India Company.

The exhibition also has political maps made by the Portuguese, Dutch, French and English that were created to consolidate their power in the Indian sub-continent.