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The hand typographers of India

As the hand-painted outdoor signs that covered walls, shops and juice stands disappear from our streets, Satarupa Paul chronicles one man’s struggle to save a unqiue Indian art form

SATARUPA PAUL  29th May 2011

mong the country's myriad art traditions, one of the most recognisable has been the hand-painted lettering used on hoardings, banners and trucks. Before the days of the mall and the supermarket, the kirana shops scattered all over Indian towns used hand-painted signs to proclaim their ownership. Gupta Ji ki Dukaan in red and blue jostled for attention with Shanti Halwai Wala. But sadly, as with so many other art forms, the advent of technology and the fast-paced demands of this modernity we cherish are leading to the demise of this under-appreciated art form. Computer software ensures rapid designing, and cheaper prints cut the cost of production by a third. As a result, in the rush to catch up with a tech-savvy world, a rare art form has been pushed to the brink of extinction and its proponents forced to seek out alternate modes of survival.

Some have abandoned the brush for the machine. Originally from Azamgarh in Uttar Pradesh, forty-five-year-old Kafeel moved to the capital, where he established himself as a street painter in the gullies of Old Delhi with his trademark 3D Latin fonts. The advent of computers put an end to this, and he now finds himself jabbing at a keyboard instead of wielding the brush.

27-year-old Umesh is now the creative head of a French advertising company in Gurgaon. Umesh was once a street painter in the town of Dhoraji in Gujarat. While painting trucks, hoardings and shop shutters, he developed a number of signature fonts and typefaces. But he then decided to explore the fields of applied arts, animation and graphic designing. "I did this out of a need to sustain myself as there is no money in street painting. Yet the creative satisfaction that street painting provides – having the freedom to paint as you wish – can't be found in advertising," he says.

Yet the creative satisfaction that street painting provides – having the freedom to paint as you wish – can’t be found in advertising

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In an endeavour to preserve the typographic practices of street painters across India, 28-year-old artist Hanif Kureshi has launched a project and website called Kureshi, who hails from the small town of Talaja in Gujarat, would spend his school holidays with street painters, learning their art and imbibing their skills. He joined Baroda's MS University with the intention of refining his talents enough to become a professional street painter. However, he soon realised that hand-painted signs and hoardings were no longer a feasible option in a rapidly digitalising world. They not only required more time and energy, they were also priced higher. "Customers prefer the cheaper and faster flex or digital prints," Kureshi says. "Since everything has shifted to the digital sphere, I realised it would be a good idea to digitalise the hand-painted fonts of traditional artists and archive them on the web."

Kureshi's search for street painters led to Charan, who has been painting film hoardings for 40 years. He can be credited with inventing the Fruit Juice Style that has been replicated in juice shops across North India. Sixty year old Charan and his family are dedicated to the profession and own a workshop in Chandni Chowk. His son, Subhash plays down the effect of technology on his family's business. He says, "Machines can't take over the accuracy of hand-painted work. The products made by printers fade in no time, while our hand-painted banners last anywhere between five and fifty years depending on the materials used." Charan's brand is famous for painting juice stall banners on paper, tin, ply, cloth and the now-popular plastic and rexine. "You can find our names and numbers inscribed on fruit juice banners all across Delhi. Mera number toh aapko kisi bhi juice wale se mil jayega," says Subhash proudly. Yet even an established name like this one has not escaped the onslaught of computers. "We now provide computer designs and prints, which my 20 year old son looks after. He uses some software to make quick designs and takes them on a pen drive to the neighbourhood printers," says Subhash. "But after using such computer prints for a couple of times, some customers come back to us for hand-painted work."Image 3rd

The website prides itself on being an alternate forum for such artists to preserve their unique typographies. "The artists design their typefaces on banners, which I photograph or scan. Sarang Kulkarni, a professional typographer from Mumbai, has offered to convert these into digital fonts which will be made available to the public to download," Kureshi says. Each font is attributed to the painter who created it. The first batch of fonts by Umesh will be available for free on the site and will be called Umesh Font. For the other typefaces by other artists, one has to pay a nominal amount. The proceeds from sales will go to the painters concerned, providing them with a minimal income.

Kureshi breaks down the geometry and construction of each letter on the site and studies its colours and dimensions, determining how a font may be created with options for shadows, depth and ornamentation. Noted designer and typographer Itu Chaudhuri says of such fonts, "the lettering produced by street artists in North and West India was based on simple geometric constructions, which could be reproduced reliably by apprentices. Such artists were not after calligraphic excellence. The focus was on decorating the letters with colours, shades and rendering them three-dimensionally, to stand out as well as to imitate signs made of wooden or metal letters. As hardy forms, they have a certain sophistication. In contrast to this, lettering artists in Bengal and Andhra Pradesh practised hand-lettering in their own scripts with panache."

So far Kureshi has collected English fonts by 10 artists. In the second leg of the project, he aims to increase the number to 50 and to begin to collect regional typefaces as well. is a collaborative effort and Kureshi invites contributions from anyone who is interested.

Kureshi has also filmed a short documentary on the subject. In it, he explores the contrasting sides of traditional and computerised printing. The film will be screened at the Paris-Delhi-Bombay exhibition that opened at the Centre Pompidou in Paris earlier this week. He says, "My site will act as a storehouse of traditional, hand-painted fonts. If a graphic designer picks them up and gives them a modern twist, hand-painted fonts may invade commercialised trendy spaces as well."

But, as Choudhuri points out, "Kureshi's archive will make hand-painted letterings available for use by anyone. But such digital prints will miss the authenticity of the painter's talent, his colour sense and his original touch."

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