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Breaking stereoTYPES: How artists blend art and alphabet

For urban users, type is now becoming an exciting way to engage with traditional and contemporary design. For the artists, it’s a new way to keep traditions relevant in a digital age

more lifestyle Updated: Oct 16, 2017 15:38 IST
Anesha George
Anesha George
Hindustan Times
Type,Typecraft Initiative,Ishan Khosla
Sumitra of the Gond tribe of Chhattisgarh creates type out of Godna tattoo art, as a part of The Typecraft Initiative.

When Ram Keli, Sumitra and Sunita, of the Gond tribe of Chhattisgarh, would tattoo the women in their community, they never imagined that the ancient motifs — scorpions, fishbones, even a slice of karela — would find their way into the complicated world of fonts.

But, in 2012, they met type designer Ishan Khosla, who launched the self-funded project Typecraft Initiative aimed at reviving the struggling Godna tattooing style after it lost favour with the increasingly modernised tribe.

Ancient Godna motifs — scorpions, fishbones, even a slice of karela — have found their way into the complicated world of fonts, through the initiative.

Khosla’s initiative engaged women Gond artists (most of them with no formal education) to recreate those traditional designs as a new typeface for the English alphabet. The results were astounding. Leaves, flowers and geometric patterns effortlessly merge to form shapes from A to Z. Those who want to use these letters as a font can purchase it on the Typecraft website – the proceeds go directly to artisan livelihood programmes.

In the process, Khosla learnt that minor details like scale make a huge difference. “ Designs that look good on the computer may actually be too fine or too small for embroidery, so understanding the scale in which craftspeople work is important,” he says. He also hopes that the digital version of the typeface can further be promoted by the state government. “It can be used as the official state typeface for tourism or railway station signage to bring the focus back to these communities and lead to more commissions for the community of artisans.”

Type created from Chittara art from Karnataka. Only five families still paint these intricate geometric murals using red stone powder, clay and fruit extracts in the state. (The Typecraft Initiative)

Khosla has developed eight typefaces based on motifs ranging from Kutchi embroidery to Mithila paintings from Bihar. For the Godna and Chittara art from Karnataka (where only five families still paint intricate geometric murals using red stone powder, clay and fruit extracts) he collaborated with Spanish type designer, Andreu Balius. Typecraft Initiative hopes to create at least one typeface from each of India’s states. “So far we have only worked on Latin script based typefaces. We now want to work with Indic scripts as well,” he says.

Gujarati Ahir embroidery is also a part of the initiative launched by Ishan Khosla. (The Typecraft Initiative)

Designers are coming up with innovative ways to show more of India’s rich culture and history through typefaces. For urban users, it’s an exciting new way to engage with traditional and contemporary design. For the artists, it’s a new way to keep traditions relevant in a digital age. Type is also making inroads into the world of pop culture and public art.

Typing-It-Up in public

To bridge the gap between type and art, Pooja Saxena, 29, a graphic designer based in Delhi along with her fellow designer Kriti Monga, started organising Typerventions, or font installations in public spaces. “We started off in 2011 in Delhi, where people assembled in public spaces like Hauz Khas and Lodhi Garden to explore their creative side by making font installations,” she says.

One event used 600 paper boats, folded by about 15 volunteers and stitched together to form the English alphabet in cursive style. The boats were then set afloat in the Hauz Khas tank. “Most people joined in because they wanted to explore the otherwise complicated world of font creation that is seen only in the digital space,” Saxena says. “We showed how new fonts can be created offline as well.”

600 paper boats were stitched together to form the English alphabet in cursive style and set afloat in the Hauz Khas tank at a Delhi Typervention. (Pic courtesy: Pooja Saxena)

When she shifted to Bengaluru in 2013, the Typerventions moved with her. Locals created new fonts using food items like corn, beans, jam, banana peels and masking tape and taking inspiration from the scripts of different languages.

Locals created new fonts using food items like salt to write witty phrases in different languages at a Bangalore typervention. (Pic courtesy: Pooja Saxena)

Nirbheek Chauhan, 29, a software developer in Bangalore, recalls attending a session in Cubbon Park two years ago. “What I loved best was that a layman like me could explore lettering using everyday items like banana peels or nachos to create interesting type not just in English, but Kannada, Tamil and Hindi,” he says. “There was also the added challenge of being witty in my phrasing and saving my ‘art work’ from ants and insects.”

The typervention gave people a chance to explore the world of lettering, while also trying to come up with witty phrases. (Pic courtesy: Pooja Saxena)

There are typography boot camps and workshops round the year, some organised by type foundries and others by independent type designers, advertised on Facebook. The people who sign up range from engineers and developers to photographers, apart from designers.

When products are the ‘arty type’

Brands like Mumbai-based Kulture Shop, which sells quirky lifestyle products by graphic artists, have done their bit to make the merging world of typography and art easily available to the public. Kulture Shop, which also functions as a collective, has over 80 artists creating designs for 13 product categories. “Typography on T-shirts is something that really flies off the shelf, because it’s bold and makes a statement which people relate to,” says co-founder Kunal Anand.

Bahubhashi means multilingual and the type is an amalgamation of scripts from languages like Bengali, Gujarati, Urdu, Tamil, Odiya and Kannada. It is available for purchase on Kulture Shop.

Kanpur-based type designer Shreyansh Agarwal’s Bahubashi type has made it to cups, T-shirts and laptop skins on Kulture Shop. “Bahubhashi means multilingual and is an amalgamation of scripts from languages like Bengali, Gujarati, Urdu, Tamil, Odiya and Kannada,” says the 26-year-old designer. When you ask him what made himcome up with this, he says, “It’s the best way one can express the diversity in India as one through art.”