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Wall writing in India is so inventive that it could bag typography, colour and composition awards anywhere in the world.
Wall paintings screaming Devicha rogi kalwa (" inform about patient with smallpox" ) are firmly etched in my mind from bus journeys in the '70s across Maharashtra. Those were indeed very powerful letters. Once believed to be the curse of the angry goddess, smallpox has been eradicated from India for over 30 years. The WHO regional director says that it was a "remarkable feat".
Public health campaigns in India have used the most far reaching medium of wall painting across every state, every village, in every Indian script to create awareness about malaria, polio, family planning, safe sex, sanitization and have seen reasonable success too. The latest, another favourite, says, "Don't marry your daughter into a home without a toilet!"
Mass media should be the obvious choice for such messages, but India has low newspaper penetration, print advertising could be expensive and would have the shelf life of just one day. So the walls and local painters come in cheap and handy, with no expiry date.
In a country with literacy issues, someone out there has been quietly planning the most basic messaging... few words, no illustrations, no decoration, and no flourish. Thousands of local signboard painters using just a whitewashed wall;indigo or red oxide paint and very basic lettering have got across effective communication that has changed the world for rural India.
Fonts or lettering in these messages are almost always in a single colour and have very little weight or mass. There is no attempt to make them aesthetically appealing. The letters have a function to do, a credible message to deliver and they do just that, no more.
The same painters, who undoubtedly are greatly skilled and creative in their own way, express themselves very differently when it comes to shop signs and truck graphics. The unforgettable "Horn Ok Please" or "NP for national permit" has been written in every colour, style, size and order on the back of trucks by these artists who would easily get top awards in typography, colour and composition anywhere in the world.
Shop signs are still hand painted in older markets, even in a metro like Mumbai. Rural India is absolutely comfortable with hand painted signboards in local languages. Names on the boards are universal, like National Hair Cutting Salon or Om Market. Can anyone imagine "Mewar kulfi" written on a flex signboard ?
India is a unique market for global brands where media plans include an item called "wall painting" even in the age of apps and portal banners. Wall is such a leveler. You would see a global cola brand next to very stretchy underwear or weatherproof cement, all in a span of just a few square feet. Here, the challenge to the wall artiste becomes multi-fold. For him, this is no place of creativity or originality. He gets a "design" and he has to replicate it to the best of his ability.
Older lanes around Karol Bagh in Delhi or Dhal ni Pol in Ahmedabad still bear testimony to rampant brand promotions from the last decade. But now, most of this happens only in rural India because towns, big and small, have been taken over by the flex mania. There is no place for hand painting anymore.
At such a time when most street artistes are giving up their profession for lack of work, I have come across two wonderful projects.
One is called The Wall Project of Mumbai, led by Dhanya Pilo. This is not necessarily for the existing street painters, but for those who want to paint, have something to say and want a blank wall to express themselves. The project treats the entire city as a canvas and has been running since 2007. The team wants to promote graffiti & graffiti tourism.
Other one is called HandpaintedType project. In order to preserve the work of street painters and give them an alternative source of income, Hanif Kureshi has set up the HandpaintedType project. The idea is simple. It is an attempt to create fonts out of hand painted styles that will soon vanish from our walls.
I was doing my typography studies at NID in the late '80s when a chance train journey to Delhi introduced me to "Pro" Arora's matrimonial advertising. Every single wall by the tracks was painted with "Rishtey hi rishtey. mil to le..." that would loosely translate to "so many relationships out there, find yours". We were spending weeks over display type, kerning, spacing, ascenders and negative spaces of a font at the studios when "Pro" Arora had gone right ahead and got the perfect match!
There is something out there with those artistes that needs to be discovered, documented, preserved and learnt from, before it's too late.
(The writer is co-founder director of strategic design consulting firm Elephant that works out of India and Singapore)
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