A modern journey back in time

Oct 07, 2011, 11:49 IST | Soma Das

Catch a glimpse of life in 16th century India through Italian traveller Ludovico de Varthema's illustrated manuscript and re-trace the journey in the present through Dr Ishrat Syed's photographs

Catch a glimpse of life in 16th century India through Italian traveller Ludovico de Varthema's illustrated manuscript and re-trace the journey in the present through Dr Ishrat Syed's photographs

The concept of time travel has inspired countlesss novels and films but rarely has it actually been practised. The Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya attempts to do that by juxtasposing two exhibitions -- Voyage to India of Ludovico de Varthema and Persistence of Memory by Dr Ishrat Syed.

An illustration of Ludovico de Varthema's narrative

A first look of India
Italian traveller Ludovico de Varthema's book, Itinerary, was published in Rome in 1510 and featured an account of his travels through 'Oriental lands'. Varthema had visited the continent at a time when the Portugeuse were carrying out expansion plans in the Indian Ocean. After leaving Venice in 1502, he crossed Egypt and Persia to come to India where he traversed the western coast from Khambat, Chaul, Goa, Mangalore and Cochin to Sri Lanka, Burma (present-day Myanmar) and Java (in Indonesia). He published Itinerary in 1510.

The Portal by Ishrat Syed

His account is colourful and unique, especially since he was a traveller who roamed for pleasure without commercial or military interest. His works are considered to be a meeting point of two distinct cultures with barely any connection to each other as India was yet untouched by European presence.

The Girl

While there were no images in the book, an illustrated manuscript describing the same places Varthema visited was found conserved in the Casanatense Library of Rome, in a book entitled Figurae variae Asiae et Africae. The book was a success and was translated into 50 languages including Latin, German, Dutch, Spanish and French.

According to Dr Roberto Bertilaccio, a lecturer of Italian at the University of Mumbai, "Itinerary was a landmark book. It offered Europeans a glimpse of life in India; the popular occupations, common habits and lifestyle of its people. Varthema also has a certain purity of insight since he was unattached to any particular sect or community and would spend time in cities to actually understand the people.

Interestingly, the illustrations are believed to have been made by an anonymous Portugeuse artist though some historians believe it was done by an Italian. The manuscript's imagery is precise and beautiful; there is so much detailing in each image which makes it fascinating." The De Varthema exhibition is produced by National Archives in Rome under the aegis of the SpiceRoute initiative of UNESCO.

Old meets new
If you want a present-day perspective of the same events, you can check out The Persistence of Memory: How Travel Bookends History. Curated by Dr Ishrat Syed and Kalpana Swaminathan (who jointly write under the name Kalpish Ratna), it features photographs of Varthema's route as taken by Dr Syed.

"Being a medical historian I was researching manuscripts about the rise of Mahamari (epidemic) in Bombay which happened after the arrival of foreigners (Vasco da Gama arrived in 1498). That's when I came across these narrative accounts. I wanted to show the difference between de Varthema's times and how modern industrial development has brought about changes," he says.

As a small part of the research for his book Palimpsest, Dr Syed re-traced the journey and went from Mumbai to Goa, Diu and Daman to Dadra Nagar Haveli and back to Mumbai. "History is almost always through the western eye; they came, saw and wrote. But I wanted to add an Indian voice to the narrative," he adds. Strangely, it was often easily possible for Dr Syed to recognise the places depicted in the 500-year-old accounts as rural areas had been left relatively untouched over the centuries.

Summing up the exhibition, Swaminathan says, "While there may be a change in landscape, the land remains as a witness and helps recover memories that may have been wiped out."

From: October 8 to October 22, 10.15 pm to 6 pm
At: Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya, Fort.
Call: 22844484

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