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Writing a new history for disappearing typefaces

Akhlak Ahmed alias Shabbu’s work is visible across Delhi, in the vividly painted name boards tacked onto streetside fruit-juice stalls. The 26-year-old has been painting the lettering on these boards since 2002, while pursuing a Bachelor’s degree in fine art at Jamia Milia Islamia University. Riddhi Doshi writes.

art and culture Updated: Jun 23, 2012 22:47 IST
Riddhi Doshi

Akhlak Ahmed alias Shabbu’s work is visible across Delhi, in the vividly painted name boards tacked onto streetside fruit-juice stalls. The 26-year-old has been painting the lettering on these boards since 2002, while pursuing a Bachelor’s degree in fine art at Jamia Milia Islamia University. “I paint signs to pay for my education,” says Ahmed.

In 2000, determined to be an artist, Ahmed ran away from his hometown in Lucknow and headed to Mehboob Studio in Bandra, Mumbai, where he painted posters for C-grade Bollywood films while working at a tea stall. In 2002, he then headed to Delhi to study art. To support himself, he found work painting fruit-juice stall name boards with the help of a relative who owned one such stall.

In March last year, Ahmed was one of the first artists approached by 29-year-old graphic designer Hanif Kureshi, who is documenting street artists’ disappearing typefaces.

Kureshi invited Ahmed to design an entire typeface using his unique, square-cut, technicolor characters — a set of English and Hindi letters covering all the alphabets, digits and symbols on a computer keyboard. This typeface and 14 others are now available on Kureshi’s project website, handpaintedtype.com. “Hundreds of unique, hand-painted character styles are now dying out,” says Kureshi. “As a result, the city’s hoardings aesthetic is changing fast. About 15 years ago, most hoardings were hand-painted. Now, most signs use uniform, low-cost, computer-generated lettering. That’s why I decided to document the work done by the street artists and preserve and promote it on a website.”

Conversely, the rise of graphic and digital art is sparking interest in typefaces and lettering among a new generation, giving rise to fresh typefaces, especially in commercial art fields such as advertising and merchandise.

Mumbai-based NGO Aksharaya, for instance, has seen a sharp rise in the participants signing up for seminars, lectures and creative typography camps.

“Two years ago, when we started the lecture series, we would have an average of 50 people attend each event,” says font designer and member of the NGO Sarang Kulkarni. “Now, we get 200 people for the more popular subjects relating to Indian letter forms.”

The next step

The future of unique typography seems to be in commercial typefaces and quirky display fonts such as the Gandhiji font created by the Indian arm of advertising agency Leo Burnett two years ago, and the Hinglish font recently created by Mumbai-based Shirin Johari, 28, for advertising agency DDB Mudra.

Johari is associate creative director at Mudra and designed the Hinglish display font to help readers understand Hindi phonetics by looking at the corresponding English letter superimposed on it. The font is available for free download, but was created with the Incredible India tourism promotion campaign in mind. It was recently awarded a Gold and Bronze medal at the Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity.

“I wanted to teach something — a few letters, maybe — to people unfamiliar with the Devanagari script, or make Hindi seem friendlier and less intimidating,” Johari said, in an email interview from Amsterdam.

(With inputs from Radhika Raj)