Typecraft: Creating an Indian Typographic Identity

What is Indian graphic design? What is Indian typography? These are some questions that I have been trying to answer since my return to India a few years back. I found most of the design work done in India to be very “western looking”.

Unlike in India, graphic and typographic design in countries such as Japan, America or Holland has a style that goes beyond the language and script in use in that country. They have a unique cultural aspect in their typography and design work — one knows immediately that a certain design belongs to, say, Holland just by looking at it. Unlike those countries, India, is struggling to create its own unique typographic identity. This is perhaps caused by both colonisation and globalization. On one end is the rich Indian visual culture that predates modern graphic design and on the other end a powerful visual culture that globalization is bringing to the everyday Indian from the west.

Ours is an oral tradition and seldom in the history of Indian visual art and culture have text and images been combined together, say, in the form of books. Even story-telling and narrative devices, such as the kaavad or palm-leaf art are devoid of text. Perhaps, the only time text and images have been used together in the subcontinent, is on sculptures in temples. Additionally, the form of the letters have been determined by the tools used to create the script — thus letter forms look pretty similar within a medium and usually no innovative styles were deemed necessary.

However, typography is becoming an important part of today’s visual culture in India. Two current trends are extending the boundaries of type even further — the creation an ever greater number of typefaces especially in non-Latin based scripts and a simultaneous movement that explores handmade typography to new heights. At Ishan Khosla Design, we are working on exploring the latter.

In an effort to understand our culture and tradition, we have started working on projects where Indian art and craft are combined with contemporary typography — typecraft or typography inspired by craft. This results in typographic forms and designs are rooted in our own culture and hence are unique to us.

Fig 1. We worked with a mehndi (henna) artist, Raju, to create the text for the book cover of Skin Ink.

Fig 2. Tal Patra or Palm Leaf Art by Bijay Kumar, an artisan from Raghurajpur, whom we’re working with in Odisha.

Typecraft is based on the symbiosis between typographic language, meaning and the medium in which its being created. It is the coming together of the designer and artist, urban and rural, and, the computer and the hand. The explorations have been done on a range of materials — textile, palm leaf, skin and wood. The various crafts we have worked in to date, include Kaavad, Kachchhi Applique (Fig. 8), Leheria (Fig. 9), Mehndi (Fig. 1), Pattachitra (Fig 2.) and Rabari Embroidery (Fig 7 and 8).

When we worked on the visual identity for Sangam, a three-year dialogue on craft and design, we started by looking at the various forms of Kachchhi embroidery such as Soof (Fig. 3), Kharek (Fig. 4), Ari and even Patchwork (Fig. 5 and 6).

Fig 3. Computer generated typography inspired by Soof Embroidery

Fig 4. Computer generated typography inspired by Kharek Embroidery

Fig 5. Computer generated typography inspired by Patchwork

Fig 6. Computer generated typography inspired by Patchwork

We honed in on Dhebaria Rabari embroidery since it was non-geometrical and allowed for more possibilities in typecraft creations. Once we created a digital version of the letters, that were based on the visual form of the embroidery, we worked with Sajanu-ben, an artisan in Kachchh, to help physically create the form in cloth. Of course, we could have just ended the process on the computer, but the idea of creating the typecraft on cloth with embroidery and applique seemed to complete the circle of this symbiosis. In this way typecraft, helps artisans to innovate and give them enough income to sustain their livelihood.

Fig 7. The identity for Sangam: the Australia India Design Platform, inspired by the Dhebaria Rabari embroidery.

Fig 8. Sajanu-ben’s version of Sangam, based on our interpretation of the work and style of her ancestors.

Fig 9. Made using leheriya, a Rajasthani tie-dye method that produces wavy lines of leher.

The key for creating a good typecraft is to first understand the craft and its properties.
Using the language of the craft, one should then start rendering the typographic forms. This rule works better in crafts that have a well-defined structure, such as embroidery and tal patra, and less so in any painted craft.

There are two kinds of typecrafts:
1. Where the shape of the letters are derived from existing typefaces. This is the case in Sangam, where Rabari embroidery was used, and Skin Ink where henna was used.
2. Where the shape of the letters themselves are unique and not based on any existing typeface, and instead, are derivative of the craft itself.

A corollary of Typecraft of course is typography inspired from craft and not created with the help of an artisan. But it is still considered Typecraft. (Fig. 3–7)

An example of the latter is, the typography created in the palm leaf art or tal patra for Sangam. We took motifs from adivasi or tribal, art and craft — to create these letterforms. The form is still legible but the layer of art has transformed the letter forms into something uniquely Indian.

So far the explorations have been in the Latin script only, but we hope to make it region specific with the craft and script perhaps belonging to the same region. The goal is to create 28 typefaces from 27 states in both Latin and the local language if we can get funding.

In conclusion, in the vast heritage Indian traditional visual arts and crafts where a vocabulary has been created over millennia, it is very challenging to improvise this into contemporary typographic language. But, the search for roots and identity doesn’t imply reproducing the original, indigenous tradition but transforming it through a contemporary design perspective. Through a bold new movement, designers across India, are collaborating with artisans, and merging traditional and contemporary, Indian and International, Art and Design. The movement towards typecraft is transforming Indian typography and design by making it unique to its own roots and culture. The designs are rich in meaning and form, and application.

4 thoughts on “Typecraft: Creating an Indian Typographic Identity

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  1. first off i really admire your work and zeal in promoting good design or perhaps a more aware design in a country like ours. as a student it is re-assuring to know someone with a global perspective and exposure is concerned with the state of affairs here.
    although you may feel there is a dearth of good work from design students in our country the i hope my opinion on this particular work doesn’t come as ‘criticism’ but as a ‘questioning’.

    one might say that india lacks a typographic identity or a maybe even a identifiable design identity but the day that does happen -this country, our culture as we know or perceive it will lose its charm.
    does a replication or ‘fitting in’ of existing visual patterns in the indian context into a typography capture the very root of the craft itself ?
    take for instance the patchwork inspired photography (fig 6) -does the patchwork and its essence and its geometry dictate the typography or has it simply ‘wrapped’ itself around an existing set of letters …the ‘whole’ness of the patchwork -its most characteristic feature -is lost in this particular typography.
    what if perhaps one started to look as patchwork as simply a play on colours – for the individual element in ALL patchwork is the same – an isosceles triangle – it is simply a play of colours that finally creates the pattern.
    my second question –
    is the medium in which a typography is created (handmade) – a ‘typecraft’ per say -really an answer to the amalgamation of a culture and a typography ?
    that of course is dependent on the level one choses to design unto.
    if typography is the chosen means of expression then how does the training we have undergone let us rest at a physical manifestation of the design ? isn’t the aim to ‘crack’ the very core of the idea we want to express ?
    to put this into perspective – an instance where a designer has accomplished this –
    take the idea of ‘bio-mimickery’ for instance – this idea has been interpreted in several different ways and in a gamut of different disciplines – a designer who designed a carpeting system for an airport re-invented this concept in what i thought really caught the pulse of bio-mimickery.
    he made a carpet out of several different, random pieces of carpets stitched together such that if ever a part was damaged it could simply be cut and replaced with any piece of carpet without looking patchy – just like a forest floor where there are so many individual elements that if you remove a leaf it really doesn’t make a difference ! the carpet didn’t have any print of leaves or anything – but functionally it worked just like a forest floor ! i thought it was an amazing take on design ….
    anyhow i hope this helped to take this idea further because if design is anything it is a back and forth process.

  2. Shalini,
    Its ok, and in fact good to criticize. Of course not for the sake of it, but to do so to learn from the process of dialogue it creates.
    I don’t think India will lose its “charm” if it gains a typographic identity that it so needs. A typographic or graphic identity will in fact create a sense of understanding and respect for our traditions. People will see “typecraft” on the street and might question if its Indian or what the source of the design is. If anything, we have more to gain by creating a link with our past than we have to loose in this race towards globalization and rampant “mallification” of India. I think malls and globalization will lead to a loss of charm, not typography that is inspired by our past and current traditional crafts.

    You may have a point about the patchwork, but please note this was all done on the computer for us, internally and with our client to figure out what the visual manifestation of Sangam should look like. Perhaps if we went ahead with the patchwork direction, we might have reached a different conclusion and design. The process is more important than the outcome.

    Perhaps you could do something interesting with the patchwork and show it to me. I would be interested in seeing that.

    Typecraft is my response to coming back to this country after 12 years and seeing the following examples being representative of our culture:



    The former is cliche and the latter been done to death.

    I found them shallow representations of Indian typography and graphic design is and can be about. I tried to seek a more meaningful and deeper connection with my people and my culture. I encourage you to do the same. Perhaps you’ll come out with something very different and exciting too.

    I never said Typecraft is the only way to connect with our culture through typography.

  3. I appreciate the initiation of this dialogue and would like to highlight a few points being mentioned here. Ishan talked about the missing combination of image and text in traditional indian visual art and craft. I disagree. Integration of text and image has taken place in a number of our visual traditions. A lot of indian manuscripts would be an example of that. Miniature painting is another one. I have seen absolutely exemplary pieces of miniature art in the City Palace Museum in Jaipur that illustrate my point (which of course have a Persian root). A lot of Jain art, yantras and mandalas are some of the other forms of indian traditional visual art that immediately come to my mind.

    I would also like to address the idea that colonization and globalization have caused the struggle for a unique typographic identity for our country. We as a people have a certain value associated with the traditional indian. This poses a problem on two levels, one is that the old is revered so highly that ‘modifying it’ becomes an issue and is often seen as ‘devaluing it’. The other is that the ‘western’ has become visually and functionally more desirable than the indigenous (possibly a result of colonization) which also means that we uphold the mass-produced over handmade. There is also the questionable impulse to preserve the traditional because if you change it, the ‘charm’ gets lost. Simply preserving the old and archaic speaks to the fear of losing an identity, an idea of the self that depends on nostalgia and looking to the past. Modifying anything requires questioning one’s value system since the text and images being modified have symbolic meaning associated with them. The fact that recently there has been a rise in the use of traditional media and the integration of craft is also a symptom of a return to the ‘handmade’ and the idea of the ‘global local’ in the global design scene. In this sense, design being a back and forth process rings true.

    Shalini, I think what would happen in my understanding is the opposite of what you mentioned. India and its culture would be more accurately reflected in their current form because visual culture is a window to our inner and outer worlds. Its not possible to simply preserve (although that in itself is important) our visual traditions without responding to the contemporary world. This would result in a huge disconnect in the world we live in and its representation and typography is only one of the mediums that do that. Otherwise, we’ll cease to have an emotional, psychological response to our visual culture.

    “…is the medium in which a typography is created (handmade) – a ‘typecraft’ per say -really an answer to the amalgamation of a culture and a typography ?”

    What happens is the merging of the ideologies that the two systems represent. It would be ultimately successful only if it does ‘crack’ the core of the idea one wants to express. I think what Ishan is exploring is a hugely uncharted territory (for the most part) with a lot of potential and I really appreciate that. I understand the concerns Shalini has expressed and I do think, as designers, we need to be careful not to get swept away with the tide of shallowness.

  4. Dear Anvita,
    Yes India didn’t have a completely oral tradition, I don’t claim we have a “missing” textual tradition but a largely oral one. Writing has been present in India with images since ancient times, but the written tradition was for Brahmins only. Only in the last 800 to 1000 of India’s 5000 year history has the written tradition spread in other means.

    “In India even after the advent of script, Vedas were to be learnt only from a Guru though oral rendition and never through reading. One reason could be the need for chaste pronounciation and correct intonation (swara). Another reason could be the selfish desire to keep it the preserve of a few.” [1]

    However, all forms of prayer (mantras), learning (repeated chanting) and communication of stories, events etc was largely done orally. The reason India had a large illiterate population explains the fact that for day to day living by the common folk, text was not as important as the oral tradition of India.

    Its not the mass communication that graphic design is about. And in a sense, “graphic design” and “typography” only came to us with the printing press during the Raj.

    Some other links that talk about the Oral Tradition:
    [1] http://anumarlapudi-pondering.blogspot.in/2007/06/oral-traditions-of-india.html

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