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An Indian Typography

Rathna Ramanathan, Indian teacher and designer, based in London, explores what defines and influences an Indian approach to typography.

Is there such a thing as an Indian approach to typography? Does place (and context) have an undeniable influence on typographic expression in the Indian context? Yes. Typography which Ellen Lupton, designer and author of Thinking with Type defines as ‘what language looks like’ can not be separated from the circumstances in which language lives and grows. These include place, as noted above, but also use of language as seen by the tools that influence it, technology used to create typographic language, and culture and human need that drive language. This essay does not aim to summarise the approach to Indian typography in a short space but draw attention to some of what influences Indian typographic traditions and approaches.

A Tamil sign in a temple that is carved by hand into stone.

Influence of Tools
Jo de Baerdemaeker has referred to some of this in his article When writing becomes typography for this column. In India, as in many other parts of the world, the root of typographic tradition is born in the hand-drawn, hand-carved letter as seen in palm leaf manuscripts, coins and in stone carving. Those familiar with North and South Indic scripts know of the different writing tools and traditions that have given rise to different character shapes. With writing, one can note that in Northern Indic traditions, scripts are more linear with top lines, probable as a result of using tree bark and reed pens. In Southern India, where palm leaf and a sharp-pointed stylus were used, the shape of the characters is more curvilinear. The more rounded shape of the letters is because it was easier to produce curves than straight lines without tearing into the leaf.

Comparison of handwritten and sign-painted forms (of the Tamil character ‘k’)

Another example of how tools influence our writing can be seen in how we are taught to write and draw characters. During a Type Camp I conducted with Shelley Gruendler in 2009, the class worked with sign painters to create Tamil characters and poster designs. The sign painter approached the character from a purely visual perspective – trying to achieve what the American printer and typographer Frederic Goudy called ‘the perfect shape’. For the sign painter it does not matter so much what order the strokes take or how often the brush is lifted from the surface. This is very different from what we are taught to be good handwriting – the strokes in the ‘correct’ order and a minimal lift of the pen from the page. The approach that we have to writing has a distinct influence on the form of the character.

Title page of a Tamil — English Bible, printed by letterpress, 1840

Printing in India
In India, the birth of printing has two main strands. In 1556, the Portuguese brought letterpress printing to India and lithography was introduced to India in the 1820s. According to literature on the subject (see Francesca Orsini’s Print and Pleasure or Ulrike Stark’s An Empire of Books) books that were guaranteed sales or were commissioned by a patron or the government were printed by letterpress. These books were said to hold the ‘mystique of English publications’. Scholars are argue that letterpress was not a preferred medium of printing in India as it was an expensive and labour intensive process requiring metal type in Indic scripts and oil-based ink for printing with movable type.

Lithography, which came later, was more popular in India. Smaller printers used lithography. The affordability and ease of the lithographic process allowed printers to produce books at low cost in different scripts without having to buy a full set of type – instead one could employ one of the many copyists to write the text. Lithography also allowed for a variety of scripts and required the use of brush and pen work resulting in a more visual experience of the page. It allowed printers a chance to celebrate the visual (and calligraphic) traditions of the page. This in turn made the printed page more familiar to Indian audiences used to the handwritten manuscript. Orsini’s book showcases an example of a text (Khairashah’s Barahmasa) where conventions such as indents and paras were followed in an edition printed by letterpress but are ignored in one printed by lithography. Graham Shaw, past Head of Asia, Pacific and Africa Collections at the British Library, noted that ‘it can be argued quite forcefully that the introduction of lithography in India in the 1820s had a far more significant impact on the history of printing in South Asia than the arrival of typography in the 1550s.’

My assertion is that we feel this tension between visual expression and textual convention in the Indian context. Often with the untrained designer there is a desire to saturate the simplicity of the typographic context with expression no matter what the context is and whether this is actually relevant. Just as our ancestors appear to have found the classical look of the letterpress printed page ‘alien’, it appears that for the lay designer, typography in an Indian context feels unnatural if it is not expressive.

Design, Culture & Human Need
Singanapalli Balaram a well-known Indian educator observed that human need is the origin of design, and that is not just physical but physiological, socio-cultural, ecological and spiritual. In the West, design emerged as a response to industry and mass production and has been removed from art. In India, there has always been a direct link between design and art and craft traditions and is evident in the Indian approach to typography which sees the ‘character’ as an ‘image’. In Sanskrit (as in most Indian languages) the word for ‘design’ is the same as the word for ‘art’ – kala.

Poster for the Tamil movie ‘Nanban’, 2012

As India grows as a nation, there is need to distinguish our emotions from our tasks. There is great need in India for basic, functional typographic design – signage that is comprehensible, communications that are readable, identities that translate. So while India must continue to embrace its unique view of the world, our first task as Indian designers is to find clarity in the purpose of our expression.

Rathna Ramanathan is a graphic designer whose practice is situated around and in- spired by the contexts of culture, language, typography and research. Rathna is based in London, UK and in Chennai, India.