What do maps of India have to do with an undergrad course at the Institute?
If you attended the closing ceremony of ‘India on Our Mind’ – the exhibition on Indian maps held at IISc from 18 March to 20 April – you might have spotted a bunch of students being given certificates that day by Raghavendra Gadagkar, Chair of the Centre for Contemporary Studies and Professor at the Centre for Ecological Sciences. These undergraduate students from the sixth-semester Bachelor of Science (Research) programme had been active volunteers, manning the exhibits and guiding visitors through the large hall lined with maps belonging to different time periods, each item retelling a story from the past. But their engagement with the subject of the exhibition went far beyond just the one-month display.
The exhibition itself was meant to supplement the course ‘Introduction to Governance’, as part of the humanities undergraduate programme, which is designed to acquaint students with the functioning of the Indian government.
The exhibition itself was meant to supplement the course ‘Introduction to Governance’, as part of the humanities undergraduate programme. The maps were sourced from the Hyderabad-based Kalakriti Archives. Uday Balakrishnan, Visiting Faculty at CCS, and the instructor for the course on governance, traces his association with Kalakriti Archives to the 2014 Kochi Biennale, India’s biggest art exhibition, organised every two years. Talking about the idea behind this exhibition and its relevance, he says, “Prshant Lahoti, who runs the archives, has the largest collections of South Asian maps. The theme that year [at the Kochi Biennale] was Whorled Explorations.” Balakrishnan recalls that the Kochi exhibition drew a huge crowd. He wanted to bring this to IISc for his students, while also keeping it open to the public. Balakrishnan adds, “This exhibition would not have been possible without the support of Kaushal Verma, Chair, APC, Gadagkar, and the Deans of the UG programme.”
The exhibition at IISc, which drew close to 2,000 school children, including students from other districts such as Mandya and Hassan, was split into four sections. The first section housed maps from the 15th century, which paint a picture of how people viewed the universe, comprising gods, men and demons. As time progressed, people began representing pilgrimage landscapes. For instance, a pilgrim from the 18th century documents his journey from Haridwar to Badrinath through a colourful painting. Being conceptual visions, these maps were not drawn to scale, and mainly served as guides. The second section showed how European colonisers viewed India, and the growth of India’s towns and cities – this was the time that scientific tools were employed to measure the length and breadth of the country. And, after Independence, as the country began marching towards development, India built its own satellites. The third section captured this transformation: Balakrishnan included ISRO satellite images to show how India sees itself and the world. All the maps, put together, take you through a journey from the 15th century to the modern era, representing how India came together as a country and evolved over the years. But the fourth section was different from the rest – it was a series of audio-visual presentations.
All the maps, put together, take you through a journey from the 15th century to the modern era, representing how India came together as a country and evolved over the years. But the fourth section was different from the rest – it was a series of audio-visual presentations
The Three-Month Project
In a span of three months, the sixth-semester students were tasked with representing different aspects of India through maps in the audio-visual presentations. Armed with creativity, analytical and interpretation skills, the students worked on a range of topics from tracing India’s states since independence, and the country’s borders disputes, to India’s energy scenario and environmental challenges. The students brought alive these aspects of India by collecting data and overlaying them on maps. A few students lent their voice to make their presentations.
Chandrakant Harjpal, a sixth-semester student and a mathematics major, who worked on a project mapping the country’s environmental challenges alongside a few of his other classmates says, “We assigned topics on air pollution, water pollution, deforestation, and so on, amongst ourselves. And then we combined all the maps and graphs in a sequential form using a video editor.”
According to Balakrishnan, the idea was to get students to work together as a group, to get them to think about India. “I don’t think this project has been done before by students at schools or colleges. I am proud of it. IISc is proud that the students could take some time off from their demanding schedule and come up with something as grand as this – 12 projects that mixed cartography and data to show India in all its dimensions,” he says.
As part of the course, Balakrishnan invites policymakers such as Members of Parliament, Supreme Court judges, former chief secretaries, former ambassadors, and the like, to interact with his students. Justice J Chelameswar of the Indian Supreme court, Hormis Tharakan, former Head of Research and Analysis Wing, Vinay Lal of the University of California, Los Angeles, and Sir Mark Tully, former Bureau Chief of the BBC, have been some of the noted visitors. “I wanted students to understand that Parliament is just not about people abusing each other. There are a lot of committees which examines issues. Every aspect of government is overseen by the Parliament. Parliamentarians go through a process of vetting. All this is new to the students,” he explains.
On the relevance of humanities for science students, Balakrishnan says, “We try our best to interest them as citizens of our country, to give more meaning to the science they do. The course helps them understand what is happening in the country and how science can be used to connect to people.”
We try our best to interest them as citizens of our country, to give more meaning to the science they do
Balakrishnan brings in another perspective: as science students are honed in logical thinking, they approach concepts in humanities differently. For example, in an earlier project, he had asked his students to analyse the circumstances of India’s Partition and the factors we need to guard against to prevent a similar scenario in the future. The students looked at it in detail, examined it and then came up with their interpretations. “I was impressed with how my students approached the question. They made their presentations on how likely or unlikely it is for such an event to happen. They were bringing a scientific vigour to the thinking. Science is a fantastic basis to do humanities.” The goal, according to him, is to help students understand and appreciate how India has survived over the years despite setbacks, which will help them broaden their understanding of the country and the world.
According to Harjpal, “Humanities is the bridge between education and society. I learnt that there is a large number of environmental problems that we have to address both on a short- and long-term basis. Solutions need both scientific methods and an understanding of society and the needs of its people.”
Deepak Arya, a Materials Science major, seconds Harjpal’s opinion and adds, “I think humanities is important for science students because it tries to answer this question – why are we studying science? The course was very good, we enjoyed it a lot.”
I think humanities is important for science students because it tries to answer this question – why are we studying science?
Having worked on a project on the evolution of Indian borders over the years with its neighbours (excluding China), Divyansh Khurana, who is majoring in Physics, finds himself better informed. In an email, he writes, “I wasn’t aware of India having an enclave [an Indian territory] inside Bangladesh, which in turn has one of its territories in India; the existence of a region in the Bay of Bengal where India and Myanmar share waters equally, while Bangladesh has the sole rights to excavate the seabed beneath; India sharing a direct maritime boundary with Indonesia, which I thought to be a very distant nation, and many more such facts.” He thinks the knowledge gained from conventional courses that IISc offers is important but abstract and doesn’t directly address the problems that need to be resolved. He adds, “Through different modules in humanities such as anthropology, economics, law, or governance, we are brought face-to-face with these important concepts. Many, who may have been unaware initially, are forced to think in the direction of solving issues and our role in directly serving the nation.”