sign language

Not Arial or Times New Roman, Indian streets are ruled by charming homegrown fonts

Typeface and graphic designer Pooja Saxena identifies interesting fonts on Indian streets and records them on Instagram.

As she was walking down a street in Panjim in 2017, a shop sign caught the eye of Pooja Saxena, a typeface and graphic designer. The wooden sign, written in cursive Sans Serif font, was advertising Bentex watches and straps. It was the elaborately designed ‘B’ with its multiple curves and an eye in the middle that intrigued her. It was the perfect addition to her online project, titled India Street Lettering, where she documents street lettering and signage from across India.

Saxena shared a photograph of the Bentex sign as part of a recent social media challenge. The letter ‘B’, which she described as flamboyant, was her second entry for the online challenge, titled #36DaysOfType, celebrating typography and lettering.

Five years ago, Barcelona-based graphic designers Nina Sans and Rafa Goicoechea got the ball rolling on a project they titled 36 Days of Type, with 26 days assigned to each letter of the Latin alphabet, and the rest to 10 numerals. Now in its fifth edition, artists and designers all over the world have been posting their take on the alphabets since April 3, experimenting with material, colours, calligraphy and graphics.

Saxena’s entries for the challenge bring into focus the shop signs, building names and billboards she has spotted on the streets of India, with emphasis on a certain alphabet either because of an eye-catching curve or a detail reminiscent of a design movement. “India is rich not only in the sheer number of languages and scripts used, but also in the variety of styles and materials in which public lettering exists and it plays a huge role in how we experience our cities and neighbourhoods,” said the 30-year-old.

Saxena is part of an emerging community of typographers who are devoting their time to adapting regional scripts for the digital age. In the last few years, with the emergence of type design studios, such as India Type Foundry and Mota Italic, and designers, such as Saxena, Shiva Nallaperumal and Satya Rajpurohit, the interest in typography has grown. These typographers are creating aesthetically pleasing font families, keeping in mind the vast amount of letters included in the scripts that exist in the country.

Saxena, who has a little over 1,000 followers on Instagram, has so far showcased shop signs from Delhi, Panjim, Chennai, Mumbai and Bengaluru on her page. “Public lettering plays a huge role in how we experience our cities and neighbourhoods,” said the Delhi-based designer. “India is rich not only in the sheer number of languages and scripts used, but also in the variety of styles and materials in which public lettering exists. There is diversity in styles and materials. Some signs are hand-painted, others are neon, and then there are signs fashioned out of wood, metal, tiles, or even carved in stone.”

For #36DaysOfType, Saxena is showcasing a few of her favourite examples of local type she has documented over the years around Indian cities, or “in the wild” as she likes to say.

“A”

“My family and friends – especially my brother Prateek – know that the greatest gifts to me usually involve type,” said Saxena. “Prateek is great at spotting signs in Goa, where he lives, and makes lists of places he thinks I should visit. Mapusa Market was one of them. What really attracted me to this sign were the colours. Blue and beige is not a combination you often see on hand-painted signs. Its slight italic angle, relaxed serif letters and tight spacing made me a fan.”

“D”

Another letter, another city — lowercase neon “D” from Indiana Crockery on M.G.Road in Bangalore. Go 👉 to see a lit rendition, and of course, the original sign. . . For this edition of #36DaysOfType, I will shine a spotlight on the ingenious letter designs of local sign-makers in India. Every day, the letter I post will be based on a sign that I have spotted in the wild. Visit India Street Lettering (link in bio) for more photos and stories. . . #36DaysOfIndiaStreetLettering #36Days_D #MatraTypeDrawsLetters #Type #TypeDesign #Lettering #InstaType #TypeNerd #TypeLove #TypeMatters #Typography #TypographyInspired #TheDailyType #TheGoodType #LetteringCo #GoodType #TodaysType #DesignInspiration #ArtOfType #ShowYourWork #TypeGang #BFType

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The neon sign on MG Road was spotted by the typographer on a trip Bengaluru years ago. “Hand-painted signs are easy to see as handmade, but so many people don’t realise that neon signs are handmade too. A person heats and bends a glass tube into the shape of the letter.” For Saxena, the neon signs are a combination of history, chemistry, pop culture and design. “Neon was discovered in 1904 and the chemistry behind these signs makes me wonder how one gets all these colours and also makes me think of the film Blade Runner,” she said. “All this makes neon signs just so exciting and attractive.”

“E”

Why have one bar in the middle of an “E,” when you can have two? Bringing some Art Deco eye-candy from Mumbai today. Go 👉 to see the original sign. . . For this edition of #36DaysOfType, I will shine a spotlight on the ingenious letter designs of local sign-makers in India. Every day, the letter I post will be based on a sign that I have spotted in the wild. Visit India Street Lettering (link in bio) for more photos and stories. . . #36DaysOfIndiaStreetLettering #36Days_E #MatraTypeDrawsLetters #Type #TypeDesign #Lettering #InstaType #TypeNerd #TypeLove #TypeMatters #Typography #TypographyInspired #TheDailyType #TheGoodType #LetteringCo #GoodType #TodaysType #DesignInspiration #ArtOfType #ShowYourWork #TypeGang #BFType

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The ‘E’ that Saxena spotted for the 36 Days series is one she found on a building called Oval View and she chose it for its Art Deco aesthetic, an architectural style that is prominently seen in some areas of Mumbai. “A couple of years ago, I planned a trip to Mumbai [and spent] an afternoon near Oval Maidan, documenting all the Art Deco signs in the neighbourhood,” she said. “If you start from the intersection of Madame Cama Road and Maharishi Karve Road and walk up to Eros Cinema, there are so many gems to see. This particular ‘E’ was tall and with two bars in the middle, instead of one. It is hard to miss.”

“H”

“H” is for history. The letter for the day comes from Delhi’s Nicholson Cemetery, and was fashioned close to two centuries ago. Go 👉 to see the original. . . For this edition of #36DaysOfType, I will shine a spotlight on the ingenious letter designs of local sign-makers in India. Every day, the letter I post will be based on a sign that I have spotted in the wild. Visit India Street Lettering (link in bio) for more photos and stories. . . #36DaysOfIndiaStreetLettering #36Days_H #MatraTypeDrawsLetters #Type #TypeDesign #Lettering #InstaType #TypeNerd #TypeLove #TypeMatters #Typography #TypographyInspired #TheDailyType #TheGoodType #LetteringCo #GoodType #TodaysType #DesignInspiration #ArtOfType #ShowYourWork #TypeGang #BFType

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“I found this ‘H’ as part of my research for a lettering walk in Kashmere Gate in Delhi,” said Saxena, who conducts lettering walks in the Paharaganj area. “I had visited the cemeteries in this area years ago as a college student, and remembered that there was some beautiful tombstones. This letter is from a tombstone that would have been erected around 1823 – it is one of the oldest I have found in the cemetery.”

“I”

The stylish letters and vivid colours of Yelahanka’s Prince Boutique bring us today’s “I.” I love how the guidelines drawn by the painter are still visible in this sign. Go 👉 to see the original. . . For this edition of #36DaysOfType, I will shine a spotlight on the ingenious letter designs of local sign-makers in India. Every day, the letter I post will be based on a sign that I have spotted in the wild. Visit India Street Lettering (link in bio) for more photos and stories. . . #36DaysOfIndiaStreetLettering #36Days_I #MatraTypeDrawsLetters #Type #TypeDesign #Lettering #InstaType #TypeNerd #TypeLove #TypeMatters #Typography #TypographyInspired #TheDailyType #TheGoodType #LetteringCo #GoodType #TodaysType #DesignInspiration #ArtOfType #ShowYourWork #TypeGang #BFType

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While in Bengaluru, finding it difficult to explain to cab drivers where exactly she wanted to go, Saxena would end up exploring places on foot quite a bit. The Prince Boutique sign, with its stylish ‘I’, was spotted by her on one such walk. “I chanced upon a quiet road nearby with a row of wonderful hand-painted signs for everything – mosques, boutiques, vegetable and fruit seller to an auto parts shop,” she said. “Of the lot, the vivid colours and stylish letters of Prince are my favourite. I think they really seem to fit what the shop sells.” She believes that shop signs are meant to not only attract customers, but are also a way for locals to engage with their vernacular and design heritage.

“The signs need to be attractive and memorable and need to be in language and aesthetic style that the customer has come to expect and will be drawn to,” she said. “I love signs which use interesting style of letters, colour and layout, or use expressive lettering to incorporate illustrations into the letters. Also, how a sign maker tackles the complexity of Indian scripts can be inspiring.”

The letter “C” takes us to Chennai, and to Advance Screen Supplies, a small shop in Triplicane that sells screen-printing supplies. The shop owners were so pleased when I told them how lovely their shop sign was. Next time you see a sign you like, how about telling the shop owners and making their day? ☺️ Go 👉 to see the original sign. . . For this edition of #36DaysOfType, I will shine a spotlight on the ingenious letter designs of local sign-makers in India. Every day, the letter I post will be based on a sign that I have spotted in the wild. Visit India Street Lettering (link in bio) for more photos and stories. . . #36DaysOfIndiaStreetLettering #36Days_C #MatraTypeDrawsLetters #Type #TypeDesign #Lettering #InstaType #TypeNerd #TypeLove #TypeMatters #Typography #TypographyInspired #TheDailyType #TheGoodType #LetteringCo #GoodType #TodaysType #DesignInspiration #ArtOfType #ShowYourWork #TypeGang #BFType

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Swara Bhasker: Sharp objects has to be on the radar of every woman who is tired of being “nice”

The actress weighs in on what she loves about the show.

This article has been written by award-winning actor Swara Bhasker.

All women growing up in India, South Asia, or anywhere in the world frankly; will remember in some form or the other that gentle girlhood admonishing, “Nice girls don’t do that.” I kept recalling that gently reasoned reproach as I watched Sharp Objects (you can catch it on Hotstar Premium). Adapted from the author of Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn’s debut novel Sharp Objects has been directed by Jean-Marc Vallée, who has my heart since he gave us Big Little Lies. It stars the multiple-Oscar nominee Amy Adams, who delivers a searing performance as Camille Preaker; and Patricia Clarkson, who is magnetic as the dominating and dark Adora Crellin. As an actress myself, it felt great to watch a show driven by its female performers.

The series is woven around a troubled, alcohol-dependent, self-harming, female journalist Camille (single and in her thirties incidentally) who returns to the small town of her birth and childhood, Wind Gap, Missouri, to report on two similarly gruesome murders of teenage girls. While the series is a murder mystery, it equally delves into the psychology, not just of the principal characters, but also of the town, and thus a culture as a whole.

There is a lot that impresses in Sharp Objects — the manner in which the storytelling gently unwraps a plot that is dark, disturbing and shocking, the stellar and crafty control that Jean-Marc Vallée exercises on his narrative, the cinematography that is fluid and still manages to suggest that something sinister lurks within Wind Gap, the editing which keeps this narrative languid yet sharp and consistently evokes a haunting sensation.

Sharp Objects is also liberating (apart from its positive performance on Bechdel parameters) as content — for female actors and for audiences in giving us female centric and female driven shows that do not bear the burden of providing either role-models or even uplifting messages. 

Instead, it presents a world where women are dangerous and dysfunctional but very real — a world where women are neither pure victims, nor pure aggressors. A world where they occupy the grey areas, complex and contradictory as agents in a power play, in which they control some reigns too.

But to me personally, and perhaps to many young women viewers across the world, what makes Sharp Objects particularly impactful, perhaps almost poignant, is the manner in which it unravels the whole idea, the culture, the entire psychology of that childhood admonishment “Nice girls don’t do that.” Sharp Objects explores the sinister and dark possibilities of what the corollary of that thinking could be.

“Nice girls don’t do that.”

“Who does?”

“Bad girls.”

“So I’m a bad girl.”

“You shouldn’t be a bad girl.”

“Why not?”

“Bad girls get in trouble.”

“What trouble? What happens to bad girls?”

“Bad things.”

“What bad things?”

“Very bad things.”

“How bad?”

“Terrible!!!”

“Like what?”

“Like….”

A point the show makes early on is that both the victims of the introductory brutal murders were not your typically nice girly-girls. Camille, the traumatised protagonist carrying a burden from her past was herself not a nice girl. Amma, her deceptive half-sister manipulates the nice girl act to defy her controlling mother. But perhaps the most incisive critique on the whole ‘Be a nice girl’ culture, in fact the whole ‘nice’ culture — nice folks, nice manners, nice homes, nice towns — comes in the form of Adora’s character and the manner in which beneath the whole veneer of nice, a whole town is complicit in damning secrets and not-so-nice acts. At one point early on in the show, Adora tells her firstborn Camille, with whom she has a strained relationship (to put it mildly), “I just want things to be nice with us but maybe I don’t know how..” Interestingly it is this very notion of ‘nice’ that becomes the most oppressive and deceptive experience of young Camille, and later Amma’s growing years.

This ‘Culture of Nice’ is in fact the pervasive ‘Culture of Silence’ that women all over the world, particularly in India, are all too familiar with. 

It takes different forms, but always towards the same goal — to silence the not-so-nice details of what the experiences; sometimes intimate experiences of women might be. This Culture of Silence is propagated from the child’s earliest experience of being parented by society in general. Amongst the values that girls receive in our early years — apart from those of being obedient, dutiful, respectful, homely — we also receive the twin headed Chimera in the form of shame and guilt.

“Have some shame!”

“Oh for shame!”

“Shameless!”

“Shameful!”

“Ashamed.”

“Do not bring shame upon…”

Different phrases in different languages, but always with the same implication. Shameful things happen to girls who are not nice and that brings ‘shame’ on the family or everyone associated with the girl. And nice folks do not talk about these things. Nice folks go on as if nothing has happened.

It is this culture of silence that women across the world today, are calling out in many different ways. Whether it is the #MeToo movement or a show like Sharp Objects; or on a lighter and happier note, even a film like Veere Di Wedding punctures this culture of silence, quite simply by refusing to be silenced and saying the not-nice things, or depicting the so called ‘unspeakable’ things that could happen to girls. By talking about the unspeakable, you rob it of the power to shame you; you disallow the ‘Culture of Nice’ to erase your experience. You stand up for yourself and you build your own identity.

And this to me is the most liberating aspect of being an actor, and even just a girl at a time when shows like Sharp Objects and Big Little Lies (another great show on Hotstar Premium), and films like Veere Di Wedding and Anaarkali Of Aarah are being made.

The next time I hear someone say, “Nice girls don’t do that!”, I know what I’m going to say — I don’t give a shit about nice. I’m just a girl! And that’s okay!

Swara is a an award winning actor of the Hindi film industry. Her last few films, including Veere Di Wedding, Anaarkali of Aaraah and Nil Battey Sannata have earned her both critical and commercial success. Swara is an occasional writer of articles and opinion pieces. The occasions are frequent :).

Watch the trailer of Sharp Objects here:

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This article was published by the Scroll marketing team with Swara Bhasker on behalf of Hotstar Premium and not by the Scroll editorial team.