Swetha Mathur, architect and faculty at School of Planning and Architecture (SPA), Delhi, gifted her father-in-law, on his 90th birthday, a map of Vrindavan, Mathura. It is a gift that he cherishes, one that brought memories alive and made his day.
“The map brought back not just memories of the place but also of the elders in the family who are not around. Unlike a photograph, with a map you get to ‘locate’ memories,” she says. Elements incorporated in the map include temples the family visited and the art forms of the area.
The map has been created by Venna Sri Hari Kanth. The cartographer from Vishakhapatnam is an architect, an urban designer, and also her former student. Now studying at the University of Michigan, Venna’s maps are sold as art on websites such as Kulture Shop, Dessine Art and Art & Found. “Maps are important as they help us understand a city’s growth. And it is difficult to read from outdated maps. Indian cities don’t have detailed maps and making a map is a huge task,” he explains over a call.
A map of Kolkata that he made in 2018 as part of his Masters in Urban Design at SPA was the beginning of Venna’s tryst with cartography.
Interestingly there is a Chennai connection to Venna’s map story. One of the first maps was of Chennai and MS Dhoni. It was a tribute to the former skipper of the Indian team, who announced his retirement in August 2020. “I made a map of Chennai and Dhoni to show that he may have retired from all formats of international cricket but we could see him play for Chennai Super Kings (CSK). That map, Chennai city’s, with Dhoni’s face superimposed on it was widely shared among CSK fans on Instagram and also on the CSK official IG handle,” Venna recalls. The response to that map gave him an insight into how maps resonate with people — “My journey customising maps started there.” On requests from fans, he made several maps for the other IPL teams.
Art in topography
According to Swetha, what makes Venna’s works special is how he combines cartography and art. “The maps showcase both, and while doing so he brings out the beauty of geography. The work is tedious and labour intensive as it involves a lot of work such as verifying information, accurate measurements, besides ensuring that contours are accurate,” she adds.
A city’s topography constantly evolves and most available maps of cities and towns do not factor in those changes. Only major cities and towns have been mapped in detail, the smaller ones seldom have such maps. “A particular dot on a map conveys a place or location. That could be part of a memory or a house that belongs to someone and could mean several things to them. People connect to cities and maps.” The smaller cities he has mapped, besides Vrindavan, include Aluva (Kerala), Gulbarga (Karnataka), and Rajsamand (Rajasthan).
Venna does not use GIS (Geographic Information System mapping) data and that sets his work apart from other memory map makers. “It is not accurate enough. I use open sources such as OpenStreetMaps for reference.” Although these are just memory maps where some may think accuracy is not of consequence but Venna prefers his maps updated as he sees them as being functional while being art created by “many planners, designers and Nature itself”.
Customised orders take time: a detailed map of Kochi took four months to complete, and his bestseller, Colombo, five months. “I tell my clients that it takes time and cannot be done in a jiffy, and most are prepared to wait.”
Venna wants to bring out the art in maps be it detailed or minimal. The former are detailed representations of places, landmarks and other details, unlike the latter. The sizes start with A4, “we, obviously, cannot show the entire city on a map of that size, on that size a part of the city or one area can be shown. Large maps are beautiful,” he says. Detailed maps also include buildings, green spaces and other aspects of a city.
The 27-year-old started posting his cartography samples on Instagram during the lockdown, which led to enquiries and orders for personalised maps. “People have different thoughts and feelings about places and maps, they see maps differently,” he says. His clients include students of Architecture or urban designers and those in the hospitality industry. There is also commissioned work by construction companies which prefer to showcase their projects on a map rendered aesthetically”.
Many places, many kinds
A map he made was “a gift of memory” of the route from Delhi to Ladakh, for a couple, who wanted to map their first journey together. For some, maps are a substitute for photographs, “A map can show the places that mean something to you. One map can hold more memories and tell more stories than a single photograph,” he adds.
Since college keeps him busy he does not have as much time to customise maps. “If a new project is a build-up from my previous work (map), it takes lesser time, however starting a new map requires detailing and customisation, hence more time,” he says. Venna’s maps on the other sites cannot be customised, he customises based on consultations.
The process of customisation starts with speaking to the client about their requirement and memories associated with the place. For example, when an Air Force officer retired his family commissioned eight maps to chart the course of his journey from when he was commissioned into the Air Force, in 1971, to his retirement in 2021. When the order was placed, it was decided to make maps of the eight places that mark important landmarks in his professional and personal life. The maps have been charted with photographs. “As I said…maps tell stories!”
Venna’s maps are on Instagram @vennaillustrations