Tasveer Ghar: A Digital Archive of South Asian Popular Visual Culture

Artful Mapping in Bazaar India

Cartographic Reflections on the Priya Paul Collection

Sumathi Ramaswamy
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The mapped form of the nation is one of the more intriguing of presences among the ubiquitous mass-produced prints that grace public and private spaces in India. Intriguing, because as historians of cartography assure us, the national map is a highly specialized product and possession of the modern state and modern science. Its form, they tell us, is “hard-won,” generated by experts in the science of cartography and related disciplines, learned through formal schooling in classrooms, and disseminated through the work of modern bureaucracies and agents of the state. As such, one would not expect it to proliferate in everyday, demotic, and mundane contexts, especially since access to the knowledge that undergirds it is often highly guarded and policed by the state, and even more so in contexts where borders and boundaries are in question and hence not to be trifled with.


Given such well-established assumptions, the appearance of the map of India in all sorts of configurations in mass-produced prints—of which there are several striking examples in the Priya Paul Collection—is important to document and understand both for the range of roles into which it is drafted, and for the work that it is made to do as the science of state cartography is appropriated by the artful mapping of the street and bazaar.1 In my recent monograph [Figure 01], I created the analytical category of “barefoot cartography” to capture the demotic and everyday uses of the map form of the nation outside the specialized realms of state and science.2 I demonstrated the manner in which in contrast to scientific and state cartography, mass-produced art in India privileges the anthropomorphic, the devotional, and especially the maternal, so that the mapped space of the nation comes to be occupied by varied bodies, human and divine, known and anonymous, lofty and plebian.3 In this essay, I elaborate on this argument by focusing on four interconnected realms in which the cartographic image of India (in varied configurations) appears in the company of such bodies—the pedagogic, the patriotic, the commercial, and the divine. To anticipate my principal argument, I suggest that “artful” mapmakers of the street and the bazaar have a critical and constitutive role to play in producing and disseminating knowledge about the form of the nation among the citizenry. I would even propose that it is through the labours of barefoot cartography and such artful mapmakers—more so arguably than through the highly specialized operations of the state or science—that most Indians become familiar with the shape of national territory—its “logo form”—that they inhabit as citizen-subjects.4 This was especially true during the colonial period when in most schoolrooms across the country, but especially in rural India where the majority lived, geography books, atlases, maps, globes, and other such artifacts were scarce objects that hardly anyone would have encountered in their daily lives. In contrast, mass-produced and commercially available prints and posters, numerous and ubiquitous, attempted to reach the average Indian and deliver their varied image-messages. And yet, the knowledge of the terrain of the country that is disseminated through bazaar art is shot through and inflected by the somatic and worshipful, the commercial and the libidinous, so that “India” rarely appears as empty social space as it does in normative maps marked by lines and grids. In the artful mapping of the bazaar, bodies appear to matter more than boundaries, the affective more than the abstract.5

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Acknowledgments: I am grateful to my colleagues Christiane Brosius and Yousuf Saeed for their reading of this essay and for their suggestions for the changes, and to the other Tasveer Ghar authors who have commented on Priya Priya’s luminous collection of popular images and whose insights have contributed as well to the formulation of my ideas here.

1 Here, I have been influenced by Kajri Jain’s work in which, drawing upon historians Christopher Bayly, Anand Yang and Rajat K. Ray, she clears a space for our understanding of the bazaar as an “arena of circulation” and “vernacular capitalism,” in which mass-produced images are deployed “in an economy where sacred, commercial, ethical, aesthetic, and libidinal forms of value are closely intermeshed” (Jain, Kajri. 2007. Gods in the Bazaar: The Economies of Indian Calendar Art. Durham: Duke University Press, quotation on p. 16).

2 Ramaswamy, Sumathi. 2010. The Goddess and the Nation: Mapping Mother India. Durham: Duke University Press.

3 This conceptual category draws on the everyday reality of the average Indian’s privileging of bare feet in numerous contexts ranging from the sacred to the mundane. The category seeks to capture a metaphorical sense of “barefoot-ness” as a condition of being that facilitates a more earthbound and fleshly relationship to soil, land, and territory than is arguably possible when following the rarified protocols of scientific cartography.

4 The idea of the map-as-logo was conceptualized by the political scientist Benedict Anderson who used it to discuss the visual form of the map in which “all explanatory glosses could be summarily removed: lines of longitude and latitude, place names, signs for rivers, seas, and mountains, neighbors. Pure sign, no longer compass to the world. In this shape, the map entered an infinitely reproducible series, available for transfer to posters, official seals, letterheads, magazine and textbook covers, tablecloths, and hotel walls. Instantly recognizable, everywhere visible, the logo-map penetrated deep into the popular imagination, formal a powerful emblem for the anti-colonial nationalisms being born” (Anderson, Benedict. 1991. Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism. 2nd ed. London: Verso, p. 175).

5 I am drawing here upon Kajri Jain’s argument regarding the “informality” of the bazaar’s economy—one marked only partially and incompletely by notions of the European “market”—to make a parallel argument about the “informal” cartography that flourishes in bazaar art.

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