Saturday, 29 November 2014

Drawing the line: Lecture on maps and prints of the Punjab.


KARACHI: Very seldom does one get to hear such an absorbing account of an important period in the history of the subcontinent and the development of the art of cartography. Eminent art historian and author F. S. Aijazuddin delivered an engaging lecture on the exhibition ‘Drawing the Line (rare maps and prints)’ under way at the Mohatta Palace Museum and on his book ‘The Resourceful Faqirs’ at the museum on Friday evening.

Mr Aijazuddin, using a series of inspiring images of rare maps, paintings and sketches, talked about the history of map making starting with the earliest map of Iraq (2400BC). He said one of the initial Arab maps was from 1154 and quipped that the Arabs saw the world upside down (north-south, south-north). Ptolemy was the first one to use the grid system on a map to measure latitude and longitude. At the time, map makers depended on maps drawn by maritime captains. There were three techniques of map making: woodcut, line engravings and lithography (the last one came in use in the 19th century).

Mr Aijazuddin said the earliest map that he had was from 1846; it was done using Ptolemy’s method. One of the later maps, when the art of map making was further developed, depicted the area inhabited by the Makranis who were referred to as the fish-eating ‘hairy race’. Maps of the Mughal Empire and Africa followed, with the famous Jonathan Swift lines: “So geographers in Africa maps/ With savage pictures fill their gaps/ And o’er uninhabitable downs/ Place elephants for want of towns.”

When Shah Shuja of Afghanistan sought refuge from the British, he stayed in Lahore for some time and gave the Koh-i-noor to the maharaja.

The second part of Mr Aijazuddin’s lecture was on the Punjab ruled by Ranjit Singh. He said it was in the beginning of the 18th century that Punjab became accessible. It was the time when there was a Sikh kingdom in Lahore reigned over by the diminutive, pockmarked, illiterate but highly intelligent Maharaja Ranjit Singh. In 1799 he became the master of Lahore. The maharaja had three assistants — brothers Faqir Azizuddin, Faqir Imamuddin and Faqir Nuruddin (the family that author is a direct descendant of). The brothers had earned unusual powers considering the fact that they were Muslims. The family had practising hakims and earned the trust of the maharaja when he went to a hakim after having an eye infection. It was a risk that paid off, he said.

Mr Aijazuddin shed light on the qualities and duties of each brother. Azizuddin was a masterful negotiator, Imamuddin was the keeper of Govindgarh Fort and Nuruddin was an important member of the court and after the passing away of the maharaja was a member of the Regency Council. When Ranjit Singh gave the run-around to East India Company’s Charles Metcalfe, the latter got upset. The maharaja asked Azizuddin to negotiate with him on his behalf. The successful conclusion of the negations led the British to draw a line fixing the frontiers of lands under Ranjit Singh along the Sutlej River, demarcating Punjab from British India. This was for the first time that Punjab became a nation-state, and Ranjit Singh was acknowledged as a maharaja.

Mr Aijazuddin pointed out that in order to expand his business Ranjit Singh needed money. So when Shah Shuja of Afghanistan sought refuge from the British, he stayed in Lahore for some time and gave the Koh-i-noor to the maharaja.

Expanding on the politics at the time, Mr Aijazuddin said Alexander Burnes desired to visit Ranjit Singh to hand over King William’s gift of five dray horses to the maharaja. Ranjit Singh resisted because Burnes wanted to do reach him by the Indus, which had a military purpose. But when the Mirs conceded, Burnes embarked on the journey up the Indus via Multan to Lahore. Ranjit Singh asked Azizuddin to draft a letter to return the gift to the king in a way that didn’t offend him. Azizuddin’s skills were tested, but he wrote a cleverly worded letter. Similarly, when the British saw the Russian threat in Afghanistan, Azizuddin there too was involved in successful negotiations.

Mr Aijazuddin said December 1838 was the twilight in Ranjit Singh’s reign. Six months after the killing of one of his important generals in Peshawar, he died. He was cremated in Lahore. He was succeeded by his son Kharak Singh, who was addicted to opium, so his son Naunehal Singh controlled the kingdom, who was very anti-British. Ironically, the haveli built for him in Lahore housed a school called Queen Victoria’s Girls School. After Naunehal Singh’s death Sher Singh assumed power. All of Ranjit Singh’s successors continued relying on the Faqir brothers. When Sher Singh was murdered in 1843 the eight-year-old Dulip Singh came to power, but the kingdom was controlled by his mother, Rani Jinda. Subsequently, the British defeated the Sikhs and the Treaty of Lahore was signed.

“Once Sikhs made history, now they are relegated to it,” commented Mr Aijazuddin and added that of the three Faqir brothers, Azizuddin was the first to die in the late 1840s. Two years later Imamuddin passed away followed by Nuruddin.

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