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Grids and guides: Biodiversity maps fusing science and art are trending

Sudarshan Shaw’s map of Andhra Pradesh   | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

A sloth beer languidly hangs around a red sandalwood tree stump. An olive ridley turtle swims blithely with a humpback dolphin in the Bay of Bengal. A ferocious Bengal tiger sticks out its tongue at an oblivious barheaded goose. These are some of the scenes from a unique map showcasing Andhra Pradesh’s biodiversity. It has been created by Bhubaneswar-based graphic artist, Sudarshan Shaw.

Made for A.P.’s forest department, Shaw’s map features 60 diverse species of flora and fauna found in the State — from the mangroves to the fiddler crab, from the Indian elephant to the long-billed vulture. Then there are the tribes — Bagata, Savara, Chenchu and others — each connected to the other and to the insects, birds, animals, earth and sea around them.

Done in the Srikalahasti Kalamkari style, for which A.P. has a GI tag, the denizens of the map are a perfect blend of art and ecology.

“The tiger, peacock and deer are quite famous in Kalamkari, but the other species aren’t represented in this style,” says Shaw. So he innovated, looking deeper at the motifs, understanding their shapes and elements, and then creating his own. He had done the same with the biodiversity maps of West Bengal and Odisha, which he had earlier created in the distinctive patachitra styles of the two States.

Birds on smartphones

“Shaw is making waves with his fusion of tribal art and scientific illustrations,” says Rohan Chakravarty, the cartoonist and illustrator who has made over 30 wildlife maps himself. The two artists are part of an ongoing endeavour to make cultural and natural histories more accessible through biodiversity maps.

Geographers and ecologists are an important part of this project. Their maps and map-based platforms have changed how ordinary people interact with the world. Individuals can now map out wells and lakes, record rare butterflies or the movement of elephants in their area simply by keying in such information into their GPS-enabled mobile phones. This, in turns, enables scientists to better understand local flora and fauna. For instance, based on data uploaded by bird-watchers on the online platform eBird, a consortium of 10 research and conservation organisations recently made a nationwide assessment of 867 of the roughly 1,330 bird species found in the country. Published as the State of India’s Birds Report 2020, it has proved to be a valuable study.

Immersive tools

Improved access to digital maps coupled with advanced data analysis tools has further accelerated the mapping boom. It is now possible to map out how climate change will alter your city’s temperature and rainfall patterns just as it possible to get a global estimate of the conservation status of biological species in the coloured-coded lists published by the International Union for Conservation of Nature. “Maps create high levels of engagement and are immersive tools in getting people to respond to a particular context,” says Dr. Nandini Velho, faculty at Srishti Manipal Institute of Art, Design and Technology, Bengaluru.

But biodiversity maps have always existed, if not in the present form. Up until the early 2000s, when satellite maps and digital

The French Institute’s map of Orissa from 1973

The French Institute’s map of Orissa from 1973   | Photo Credit: French Institute of Pondicherry

cartography tools weren’t easily accessible in India, geographers and cartographers relied on physical surveys and hand-drawn maps to document the natural world. The first detailed series of ecological and vegetation maps of peninsular India and the Indo-Gangetic plains were done entirely by hand between 1961 and 1978 by the French Institute of Pondicherry. “If you’re doing maps manually, it’s quite an art,” says R. Prabhakar, one of the founders of the India Biodiversity Portal (IBP), a repository of information on Indian biodiversity. The IBP itself has curated over 203 digital maps and its 20,000 users have recorded over 58,000 species in India.

Layer by layer

Prabhakar worked as an apprentice at the French Institute in the late 1980s. Referring to the work he witnessed there, he says, “In the absence of satellite maps you had to map out given areas through extensive field studies.” Cartographers in the 60s and 70s painstakingly worked out how to represent diverse vegetation types, varied forest compositions, densities and rates of degradation, layer by layer. On the same page, they also mapped out climate patterns, agricultural crops and soil composition. “The French Institute combined visual appeal with vast scientific information in their maps.” says Prabhakar. “They were masters of the craft.”

Rohan Chakravarty’s maps are almost as detailed as the French Institute charts. His map of

Rohan Chakravarty’s map of Pakke Tiger Reserve.

Rohan Chakravarty’s map of Pakke Tiger Reserve.   | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

Mumbai shows the metropolis’s rich coastal and terrestrial wildlife coiled up within its transport network, buildings, markets, monuments, and 20 million people. In Chakravarty’s map of the Pakke Tiger Reserve in Arunachal Pradesh, a river lapwing can be found right next to a forest guard, who stands before a memorial to P.D. Majhi, a forest guard killed in anti-poaching operations in the sanctuary in 2007. “It serves as a way to memorialise people like Majhi and others on whose efforts the park was built” says Velho.

The attempt to place people in the context of their natural habitats can be seen in Shaw’s maps too. He says that communities on the margins of forests, grasslands and oceans are rarely represented in Indian maps. Yet their threatened cultural traditions are often inclusive of wildlife. So Chakravarty has used thangka art in his maps of Sikkim and the Azulejos style of painting in his map of Goa’s Panaji.

While being stylised, the animals and birds are also true to life. Shaw and Chakravarty often travel to the places they later recreate in their maps. “I will make a tiger as lazy or as ferocious as it really is. My art is based on my experience,” says Shaw.

The writer is a freelance journalist.

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Printable version | Jan 18, 2022 6:00:06 PM |

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