My First Impressions About Typography

My first impression about typography is set in my birthplace which is a village near Dhule, Maharashtra called Dondaicha. It was the place my maternal grandparents stayed at. My father had a job which required him to travel a lot and whenever he went away he put me an d my mother on a bus to Dondaicha. My grandmother was a primary school teacher then. She taught me my first songs, introduced me to Devanagari writing and was a part of many of my first acquaintances with lots other things. One of those things is Rangoli.

Every morning my grandmother would wake up and after freshening up come in the courtyard of the house near the Tulsi plant. My grandfather would have cleaned the courtyard already and even sprinkled water. The wet soil has a beautiful fragrance that reminds one of the rains and monsoon. That smell, the morning cool breeze created a fresh and soothing ambience to the village weather which was otherwise hot and dry. My grandmother would then take out her rangoli box which was an old round tiffin box with lots of colours of rangoli in tiny bottles, paper bags and plastic polythenes- many of those colours were mixed by her, making them so rare that it felt like a box of treasure. She would sit near the tulsi plant and I used to sit beside her, watching her actions, as she effortlessly drew a clean straight line holding white rangoli between the pinch of her fingers. I was awed by the act every time she did that and still am. On the straight line she would write ‘Shri Ram prasanna’ in beautiful Devanagari script, which was meant to say with blessings from lord Rama, and then she would start drawing her design. Her rangoli was always simple and based on dot grids of 8 X 8 or 10 x 10. She didn’t have much time for elaborate patterns but her designs never felt incomplete or rushed. Once the line drawing with white rangoli was done she would pick one colour from her palette and highlight certain parts in her design. The last finishing touch would be of adding ‘haldi-kumkum’ on the lettering on the top and somewhere in the design. I would ask her why she did that to which she used to tell me that anything we do has to be worshipped with haldi-kumkum. Since childhood I’ve been trying to draw rangoli as beautiful as my grandmother draws… but the ease and simplicity she has, is something I haven’t been able to master.

My grandmother taught marathi at her school. Her handwriting was beautiful and had a good understanding of the structure of Devanagari characters which reflected in her precise and clean lettering of rangoli. Her letters also had that effect. All her curves are natural and have a slight tilt to either direction depending on the position of the letter in the word. For eg. the counter of ‘श् is inclined towards the right direction and the loop is small, but the loop above ‘म’ is prominent and inclined towards left. Now these two are different parts of a type but she has drawn them with similar weight to make the words look balanced. ‘क् being a complicated letter that too joint with मी would have been a tricky thing but she has reduced the size and the stroke width to make it look clean. My grandmother’s way of giving the dand (full stop) was peculiar. She writes them a little like the superscript so that it doesn’t merge with the stem of the letters.

Rangoli drawing is an art almost every woman from my grandmother’s generation would practice. To some extent even my parents’ generation has kept up with the tradition. It was like an everyday ritual if one had a courtyard in front of their house. Generally a rangoli would be drawn in front of the tulsi plant (the plant is considered as a goddess) as a welcoming sign for guests.

A particular symbolic rangoli is drawn at the doorstep which consisted of shapes denoting the feet of Goddess Laxmi entering the house. This symbolized the never-ending prosperity of the house. This rangoli was also decorated with haldi-kumkum. The third form of rangoli would be at the temple area in the house- ‘deoghar’- meaning the house of god. Here again there would be lettering indicating some name of a god or goddess (depending on which god is going to be worshipped that day) and some other symbols which represent various godly objects like- conch, chakra etc. These were also worshipped with haldi kumkum.

The many gods and goddesses in hindu culture have different salutations and many variations for each god and goddess. They have a specific day of the week allocated for their worship: for example monday is lord Shiva, Thursday is for Gurudatta, Friday is for goddess Durga etc. These salutations are written in different styles in front of the shrine before or after doing the puja every day. On certain days when there is a special puja, relevant text is written along with the regular one which highlights the specific god that has been worshipped that day.

Even with the white rangoli, there can be many variations in terms of application. Lettering with dots, making wavy lines on the top, using flowers as a base and drawing rangoli around it, having a colour in the background and then writing on top are some of the styles.

Once the basic design is over, my mother uses an agarbatti stick and traces the lettering done in rangoli to make it more prominent. The effect is even better when multiple colours are used. She even makes design in the letters by making diagonal lines, zigzag lines over the rangoli. The result is a 3 D looking lettering due to the displacement of the rangoli powder which looks quite cool!

Diwali festival is the time when rangoli steals the show. I used to draw rangoli in my corridor on all the festival days. Watching the rangolis drawn by neighbours was also a favorite thing to do. I’ve seen people wishing best wishes for the occasion in their lettering of rangoli. It feels warm to read such messages rendered in front of flats as you come home after a tiring day. Certain special occasions when there is no religious context, slogans relevant to the day are written with the rangoli. If there are guests arriving- ‘suswaagatam’- meaning welcome is written with the design. At such times the lettering is done with special care to express the happy feeling. Lettering in rangoli is not an easy job. One who can draw well need not be an expert at drawing rangoli.

The skill lies in the pinch of the fingers with which the rangoli is held and carefully released. The alignment of the thumb with the forefinger decides how thick the line of the lettering would be. My grandmother released the pinch by moving the thumb forward. While doing that she rubbed the rangoli between her fingers in a way that created a neat, uniform thin line. A firm control on the powder in the pinch is a must for a clean lettering. When I was a beginner, the rangoli often slipped through my fingers and spoiled the surface. With practice and patience, I understood the optimum amount of rangoli I can hold in my pinch without letting it slip. Keeping the rangoli container at the appropriate location also matters a lot. It is just like the positioning of the ink bottle while inking or placing the cartridges while printing! Orientation of the hand and the pinch of fingers is the primary tool of drawing rangoli and hence it is extremely crucial. No two strokes can be drawn in the same orientation of the h and. The forefinger and the thumb held together form a pinch in which the rangoli is held. It acts like a flat nib of a pen which can be aligned to whichever angle required. Thus, it needs to be aligned to the axis of the respective letters which are to be drawn. For example, the knot in the letter न cannot be drawn in a single stroke unless we want a filled knot. 
The pinch will have to be rotated as the rangoli is released in order to get a proper clean knot. The verticals become thin and horizontals tend to become thick if the pinch orientation is not changed.

The following rangoli design shows the variations in the stroke that can be achieved. Thus, to speak in terms of typography, high stress can be obtained in the lettering. But it needs to be modulated too as otherwise the knots become very bulky, might even get filled up.

A lot depends on the quality of rangoli as well. The white rangoli is powdered stone or sand which has a texture like roughly grounded flour. Any change in the size of the grains will affect the quality of line. If the grains are too thin or the rangoli powder is too soft (very soft and minutely ground), it would stick to your fingers and fall down unevenly which will not produce a desired effect. The coloured rangoli comes in such minute powder which is difficult to use as it is. For such finely ground colour, usual practice is to mix it with the white rangoli in order to get the right texture that will make it easier to draw. The reason why rangoli lettering is tricky is this very granular structure of the medium. The type becomes the composition of a million miniscule white dots. It is similar to pixels but not as systematic as the size of each granule differs. The traditional rangoli patterns are based on a dot (grid) structure. When I was small I used to try creating letters through the letters. It looked as shabby as the crude attempt in the image below. But if given thought, rangoli lettering has a lot of scope to become more systematic. I wonder why this same grid is not used to do the typesetting in rangoli lettering.

The background of the rangoli plays a crucial part in the appeal. In the olden days rangoli was drawn in the courtyard which had soil and thus provided a natural dark brown -red background. White rangoli lines drawn on this created an effect similar to the warli paintings. However as the families moved to smaller houses, courtyards vanished but the art of rangoli seeked refuge in the verandas and corridors between the flats of buildings. During festivals a small portion of the corridor would be coloured brick red using a stone- geru and used as the background for the rangoli. I’ve also seen small granite slabs being used as the base for the rangolis in front of the devghar- shrine of god in the house.

With change in lifestyles the tools of drawing rangoli have changed as well. I was very fascinated to see a thick pen with which one could draw rangoli as easily as if drawing on a paper. It worked on the principle of a fountain pen. The rangoli was to be filled in the belly of the pen through one end and a tiny hole was at the other end of the pen. The task here was to control the flow of the rangoli with the black pin that controlled the hole.

Recently I saw extremely minute lettering at a relative’s house and I was astonished at how detailed it was at such a tiny scale. When I asked about it I was shown a stencil of rangoli! It was simply a circular strainer, in which some parts were blocked so as to not let the rangoli pass through it. The design of the rangoli and the lettering was made in negative and corresponding holes of the strainer were blocked. This is so much similar to the old days of printing on paper.

Rangoli lettering is mainly done using the white powder which creates a white coloured lettering. This inverted manner of writing (normally we write with dark ink on light background) has a different impact on us. The white colour makes the letters look bigger. While writing on paper, dark lines look sharper and crisper as the white space around them appears to shrink them whereas the white letters draw more light and seem wider. This might be a reason why white chalk on blackboard is the most popular way of teaching in school till date.

That brings my second focus of the essay: Blackboard writing at home. It was brought to help me study and practice my answers. Eventually it became a means to remind each other about chores we had to do or shopping lists and messages for one another. An interesting thing was that I could make out which was my father’s message and which was by my mother. My mother had roundish characters (an influence of my grandmother’s handwriting no doubt) whereas father wrote in a geometric style. His type size was also huge by default. Sometimes he made wavy lines on top which had nothing to do with the content!

In the image on the left, my father has written above the line and mother has written the message below. The type above has small counters and incomplete loops. The letters often are left hanging from the shirorekha. Mother’s handwriting is uniform and condensed . This might not be the best example of typography I’ve seen so far but it was this blackboard on which I experimented with type. I used to draw words made entirely out of flowers to wish happy birthday to either of my parents. My mother was also creative in her messages. Unfortunately I don’t have examples to showcase.

The next interesting influence would be the nameplates of bungalows and buildings. Pune has a rich heritage of old wadas (buildings) which had unique nameplates unlike the machine made ones made today. My school, Jnana Prabodhini lies in the old and central part of Pune. A small detour around and I would get to see various kinds of nameplates involving several styles like etchings, engravings, paint, stone mosaic lettering, two and a half D mural style, some name plates were moulded out of iron in the gate itself! The fonts were handcrafted with care. I cannot recognize them but I also doubt if they were any established font. I believe the artists or designers made those letters especially for the name plates. The lettering did not stand alone but was accompanied with a border and some motifs. The name of this building:गणेश सदन has worn out now but one can imagine it in its glorious form when it must have been newly crafted. The sky blue-green coloured building has been complemented with beige coloured horizontal brackets in which the lettering is made in dark olive colour. This lettering blends with the architecture in a way the nameplates today don’t. To put it in a blunt way the nameplates we find today are ugly. They stand out awkwardly and look alienish in the surrounding. We can see the comparison in this very image.

The ‘साठे-गोडसे’ nameplate is an example of etching technique in marble surface. The typography done here is delicate, with high stress and axis of approximately -30 degree. The knots are filled due to the high stress. It has big counters making the letters- ठ , ड and प look bigger than the rest. The ascenders on top of the shirorekha i.e. the maatras have slight variation in them to balance the letter below. The maatra of गो being of the highest weight. The second line has been done with a slightly smaller font size and almost equal points of leading is given. It helps in setting the hierarchy for the two texts yet enables us to read them together.

In this nameplate we can see the characteristics of every letter highlighted. The style is ornate yet simple, something that will suit the person living in that house. The anuswaar (dot above the shirorekha) is like the bindi on a girl’s forehead. It feels apt for the name इंदु even though I haven’t seen the person who might have got this name plate custom made. This makes me think of the semantics part of the typography.

The visual form of the word should feel right for
the thing it represents.

The thickness of the stems vary according to the positioning of letter. For eg. if the kaan of त and its stem had been made as equal to the kaana of द the result would have made the word thick and too wide.

Thus, a judgement call needs to be taken in such matters instead of following rules mathematically. The address written below is of smaller size. It would have felt bulky and crowded if their weight hadn’t been reduced.

Lastly I would like to talk about the influence of typography I’ve had since past 6 years. My husband (then boyfriend) and I wrote a lot of letters to each other. I had the habit of filling the paper with text and visuals and drawings that would make the reader turn the paper in all directions to read. My husband wrote letters which were simple and beautiful specimens to look at. His letters made me aware of the white space around the letters, lines and paragraphsthe breathing space of margins (which I never permitted in my letters). To be able to appreciate type, it is of utmost importance to provide empty space around. While I’m writing this, I’m thinking how this very principle applies to the big tree between the main building and IDC building on our campus. The tree is huge and remarkable because of its girth and spread out branches but the reason why it looks magnificent is the neat lawn around it which gives it the space to become the great tree it is. The same applies to relationships too. This is making me understand what reason GD Sir gave for learning typography. He said it is to understand way of life. Practicing good typography can lead to a way of living a good life. The letter I’ve presented here has been written in ink. Using blank sheets keeps the lines open like a printed document. In such a case, the handwriting itself gives a structure to the page. The letters are wider in proportion. There is a dynamism in the way the letters have been scrawled on the page- a flow that cannot be achieved in a digitally printed document. Being able to write in a consistent handwriting from beginning till the end is a skill. Although the letters should be ideally uniform throughout the page, the slightly deviation in the forms brings an organic feel. The dots are particularly bold which could be because of the inkpen. The ascenders, kaanas are longer and have more powerful strokes which is why the entire text has an inclined nature. It could be another reason why the letters seem wide. The more than normal amount of leading guides the reader back to the left side. If it was less, the maatras and ascenders would’ve made it difficult to read further. The loops and counters are round and closed-open without a consistent value. But overall the piece of text feels dynamic yet composed. It matches the content (talking about the continuously changing state of mind).

In conclusion I would say that although I’ve been looking at types all my life, it is only now that I’m actually seeing them.
I hope that what seems to be my understanding at this point comes into being through my work in the coming years!