Old maritime images

Malam-ni-pothis, which were written and drawn by old sailors mostly from Kutch and used as navigational aids, offer a peep into our seafaring traditions, writes B. N. Goswamy

A European gallery. Painting on paper, possibly from Gujarat; 18th century. Bharat Kala Bhavan, Varanasi
A European gallery. Painting on paper, possibly from Gujarat; 18th century. Bharat Kala Bhavan, Varanasi

While planning the exhibition on Indian manuscripts that opened recently at Frankfurt - scouring widely scattered collections, selecting objects, negotiating with lending institutions, conceptualising displays, etc. - I was keen on taking there at least one malam-ni-pothi.

It did not eventually work out, for the pothis that we had set our eyes on are in the collection of the National Museum, and they were found to be too fragile to be sent out in their present state. But even examining them again was a pleasure, for not too many of them have survived the ravages of time or neglect.

These malam-ni-pothis, just in case one does not know what they are, were written and drawn by old sailors, mostly from Kutch - seafarers being called malams there - and used as navigational aids.

The oldest of these surviving pothis goes back only to the 17th century, but one knows that, for a very long time before that, from the ports of Kutch seacraft used to sail out, sometimes making their way to the Gulf states or the east coast of Africa, at others even down the Arabian sea and around the land mass of India towards south-east Asia.

The routes were not easy, and the seas had to be known as well as they could be: these pothis, remarkable documents in themselves, were prepared therefore as aids, filled with cartographic notes on distances, drawings of land falls, names of ports with their latitudes and longitudes, stellar bearings, instructions on sailing through difficult passages, and so on.

One of the most enterprising figures in the history of Kutch, Ram Singh Malam, who, as a shipwreck, landed up in Europe, early in the 18th century and returned home after having learnt their exotic crafts and skills, must have carried such a pothi with him, one imagines. Those in the National Museum do not carry any names, however: only information. And utterly enticing visuals, for many of the drawings on their pages bear the aspect of abstract paintings.

My keenness on taking a malami pothi to Frankfurt stemmed at least partly from the fact that little is known outside of our land of our seafaring traditions, certainly remarkably little of images connected with it.

And yet, if one looks for them, one finds them everywhere. On a seal from Mohenjo Daro, for instance, going back to more than 4000 years, with a carved rudimentary image of a seafaring vessel. On fragments of sculptures from Orissa and Bengal and Maharashtra and Goa with elaborately depicted seacraft filled with powerful warriors and affluent traders and quiescent cargo.

But most of all in paintings in which one sees ships make their way upon stylised waters, sails filled with wind, flags fluttering from masts, navigators bustling about, and oarsmen holding on to long poles.

From Kutch itself, there are paintings that show crafts moving towards safe harbours or a-sail upon shoreless waters. The renderings are all highly mannered but there is no mistaking the fact that seafaring was within everyone’s awareness, and ships and boats presented no strange sights.

Feeding into this were folktales current all over India: telling of merchants setting off for distant lands, enchantresses luring sailors away, divine intervention coming to the rescue of shipwrecks and off-course ships, traders landing upon unexpected islands like Swarnadvipa - ‘the isle of gold’ - and the like.

Also reflected in art very often is the association of ships with ‘firangis’ who came in massive vessels, and seldom with peaceful intent. The sight of sailors with telescopes, or of ominous looking cannon tied to secure mounts, stayed with artists more often than one might anticipate.

Two images come readily to my own mind, one from the Pahari area, and the other possibly from Gujarat. The work of the 18th century Pahari painter, now in the National Museum, is the more surprising, for he might never have laid eyes upon a ship in real life, and was possibly relying upon images of ships that he might have seen only in other painters’ work.

But he conjures up a wonderfully lively scene with a great sailing ship surrounded by four-enemy craft, guns firing from all directions, smoke billowing, arrows singing on their way to enemy targets. And while this fierce engagement is at its pitch, aquatic animals - fish and crocodiles and composite creatures - raise their heads from under the water as if to watch this strange and noisy spectacle. Fact and fantasy come together here, in a dreamlike manner.

The other painting, possibly from Gujarat, is quieter in its mood. It shows a three-masted ship, evidently a merchant vessel, flying gaily striped and coloured sails, making its majestic way through the waters.

The men on the ship - and there is a whole lot of them - seem to be all ‘firangis’, being dressed in Portuguese-looking outfits and hats with upturned brims. But they seem, at least here, to be a peaceful, revelling lot, come here to do business perhaps.

Into this seemingly ‘observed’, or at least ‘contemporary’ looking, image, however, is brought in a rendering of the water surface that is so highly stylised - showing a basket-weave pattern, as it is generally called - that it takes one suddenly back to 2nd century sculpture and 15th century paintings. It is as if the past had continued to live and breathe in the artist, even as he took in the sights of the present. But then carefully stored memories do not fade that easily.