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Presenting Historical Imagination Via Cartography

Partho Datta

By Arundhati Virmani
Editions Autrement, Paris, 2012, pp. 96, Euro 19.00


This is a slim and beautifully produced book of maps about India’s history, culture, religion and politics, wide ranging in its scope and very enlightening too. For reasons best known to Indian historians and their publishers, maps have played only a marginal role in pedagogic endeavours and their inclusion in text-books has been instrumental and narrowly political. Which student and teacher has not groaned at the stern warning in small print that the Survey of India has made mandatory about the rightful boundaries of our beleaguered nation? Even the relative safety of the past has not escaped the censorious reach of the Survey. Maps, for centuries, in the hands of authoritarian states, imperial adventurers, modern governments and romantic nationalists have been ways to appropriate spaces, not only political boundaries but also strategic territories, productive areas, religious reach. Perhaps that is why they function as wish-fulfillment for the powerful who want to revel in ownership. For this reason maps are sometimes downright lies, a denial and travesty of the reality on the ground.   Modern scholarship especially geo-graphers, historians, cartographers have long been aware of this problem and they have been tackling maps the way they approach textual material in the archives, cautious about not taking it at its face value, sifting material to suss out the facts from the verbiage. But modern scholars have been keen to adopt the wonderful visual strategies of mapping—colour, legend, symbol for presenting archival and other data in graphic forms. This approach enables a representation of spaces other than the merely geographic, unties the shackles of nationalism and unravels themes that presents many surprises. Arundhati Virmani’s book is important not only for the succinct profile of India through maps but also for indicating aspects of our history and society that is not immediately obvious. She is Professor of History in Marseille, France and has used her familiarity with archives and the available secondary material to present a survey of India from the ancient janapadas to the present. That such a book should have been published in France is not surprising. French historical scholarship has always had a very close bond with geography and cartography. The beautiful maps and the design are the work of cartographer Melanie Marie.   Virmani’s book is accessible to Indian readers although the text is in French, but hopefully there will be an English version soon. The compact design ...

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