Legend has it: See how amateur cartographers are reflecting clients’ stories in maps
Personalised charts weave tales into the gridlines: An air force officer’s career, a walk two friends took to school, the position of the stars on a given day.
A good map tells us where we are; the best ones also hint at who we’ve been.
One of the world’s oldest surviving maps, for instance, is a clay slab from the 6th century BCE Babylonian empire, currently housed (what isn’t?) at the British Museum. It depicts the world as a disc, surrounded by a ring of water, with Babylon marked as a rectangle at one end. It was created not to help Babylonians get from point A to B, but to offer perspective: here’s the world, and here you are in it.
Some are customised to represent army careers across decades; others chart school routes that two friends took in their youth; some represent tiger corridors and weave in local art forms; others pinpoint the position of the stars on a given day.
The maps are being created by illustrators, architects, designers and data journalists; anyone with access to the internet and a knack for spinning yarns out of coordinates can give it a go, says architect, urban designer and amateur map-maker Sri Hari Kanth Venna.
His most evocative project so far traced a path that two childhood friends from a small town in Kerala, both now in their early 20s, took every day to school. “One of them reached out to me to create it as a birthday gift,” says Venna, 28, who began dabbling in cartography in 2018. “Initially, I made a rough sketch. Then as we spoke, I added details of the bus stop where they met each day to begin their walk; I highlighted their school. We added a note that summed up my client’s memories.”
In another commissioned piece, Venna picked out temples in the pilgrim town of Vrindavan, and added background artwork showing the deities Radha and Krishna sitting on a swing, under a tree, drawn in the Sanjhi folk art style of the region. The map was a 90th birthday gift from architect Shveta Mathur to her father-in-law, Ramesh Chandra Sharma, in October 2022. Vrindavan was significant to him because he visited often with his mother.
“The point of my maps is to capture the ways in which people experience spaces,” Venna says.
For an air vice marshal’s retirement, Venna charted milestones across a 48-year career, in eight maps. Commissioned by his daughter, the maps marked out significant postings as well as where he had been when he received promotions and awards; when his children were born and graduated. “It was interspersed with archival photographs. They were not just maps; they were a spatial timeline of his life,” Venna says.
Some of his maps can be viewed @vennaillustrations on Instagram. Prices range from ₹1,000 to ₹30,000.
On the wild side
Since 2021, the 29-year-old Bhubaneswar-based artist has created 15 such illustrated maps, of areas such as the Melghat Tiger Reserve in Maharashtra, elephant corridors in Kerala and tiger corridors in central India, and of the biodiversity of states such as West Bengal, Andhra Pradesh, Rajasthan and Gujarat.
Most were commissioned by state forest departments and independent wildlife foundations and NGOs such as World Wide Fund for Nature-India (WWF-India), Wildlife Trust of India (WTI) and Biodiversity Collaborative. The maps are typically displayed at nature interpretation centres and uploaded onto these organisations’ websites and social media handles.
“The maps he made for us are part of our digital resource centre, One Planet Academy,” says Neha Raghav, associate director for environment education at WWF-India. “Schools can access them and use them in classrooms or embed them in their websites.”
You can also see them on Instagram, @sudarshan_shaw.
A little twinkle
The entrepreneur also collects and restores vintage maps. “My father serves in the Army, and this led to an early love of maps, especially cantonment ones. With this venture, I wanted to create personalised maps as gifts and souvenirs, as well as curate vintage maps,” she says.
Her collection can be viewed on themaptree.company.site (there’s one showing the position of British troops in Delhi in 1857; another showing a plan for Calcutta dating to 1893; and one of Bombay Reclamation from 1911). Prices start at ₹499.
Points to ponder
Since 2017, the Bengaluru-based non-profit organisation Oorvani Foundation (People’s Voice, in Kannada) has been working to build maps that visually translate datasets — such as voter turnouts, budgets, pedestrian deaths, the presence of public urinals and water fountains — across cities.
There are some, for instance, of parks and playgrounds in Hyderabad. Others show police jurisdictions in Mumbai and Delhi.
The data is being gathered anyway, as part of the organisation’s OpenCity initiative, an open-access urban data repository. “Through maps, citizens are actually able to actually see where they’re located and why and how a certain issue, for instance, flooding-prone zones or traffic, can impact them,” says Meera K, 50, managing trustee of the foundation. “It’s part of our mission to bring visibility and transparency into local governance and foster a better understanding of urban and civic issues through data.”
The maps and data can be viewed on opencity.in.
“Often we’d have visitors at the studio who didn’t know much about Byculla or wanted to explore it. So we’d quickly sketch maps of our favourite local bakeries, restaurants, walking areas,” says design director Zeenat Kulavoor, 34.
Because Byculla puts it all together: local attractions, best places to eat, majestic trees, heritage sights to see.
Created in collaboration with heritage guide Alisha Sadikot, it points out the plant nursery Ratanshi’s Agro (purveyors of rare fertiliser mixes hard to find elsewhere in the city), the Hasanabad Dargah (built in 1884 as the resting place of the first Aga Khan), the Magen David Synagogue (built in 1864 by merchant and philanthropist David Sassoon); it also features popular eateries ranging from the 1970s Gupta Kulfi to Bombay Sweet Shop (a gourmet fusion mithai store that opened here in 2020). And, of course, the zoological gardens complex that houses the city’s oldest museum, the Bhau Daji Lad; Mumbai’s only heritage botanical garden; and the zoo.
The map is available free at the restaurants Bombay Canteen, O Pedro, Subko Coffee and Bombay Sweet Shop, and can be viewed @bombayduckdesigns on Instagram.
“What Google Maps doesn’t reflect are one’s experiences, which we’ve tried to weave into the map,” says Kulavoor. “A map that one can just tuck into a handbag or pocket and fish out while passing through enables direct engagement with a place.”