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A new book focuses on street signs from the past

Aradhana Seth’s ‘Sadak’ is a meditation on the dying art of handpainted street signs, as well as a trigger for nostalgia

All photographs: courtesy Aradhana Seth

By Rahul Jacob

LAST PUBLISHED 08.03.2024  |  02:30 PM IST

A large ship, all ominous grey and brooding, looks as if it might be about to sink, seemingly like the Titanic. A locksmith’s frontage features two gigantic keys suspended in Surrealist fashion. A painted sign for a barber’s services is both minimalist and maximalist. It features only a hair clipper and a dryer, but the hair dryer is so large, giants might use it.

Sadak: Hand Painted Street Signs In India, an extended meditation on a dying art, by Aradhana Seth is somehow, simultaneously, an exercise in time travel, optical illusion and a trigger for nostalgia. There is an outsized bottle of a cola-like beverage called Jal with red flourishes for a logo that suggest a bird in flight. A couple of pages earlier, the spartan sign for chaas (buttermilk) is done in an uplifting bright yellow and carries a price tag— 5—that underlines it is from another era. There are perfectly white teeth in Technicolour, again huge, to advertise a dentist’s office while eyes, half the size of the roll-down shutters they are painted on, are signs for sundry opticians.

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In an introduction to the photographs of street signs, some of which were shown in an exhibition by Seth and a photographer from the Dominican Republic that was part of the India Art Fair in February, Kajri Jain, a expert on image culture in India and professor at University of Toronto, writes, “At once flamboyant and banal, these painted exhortations, seductions, instructions, announcements and warnings to the world at large gently spectacularise the mechanisms of everyday life: eating, cooking, habitation, learning and grooming…Here intimate details and impersonal structures alike become everybody’s business."

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The book is the distillation of more than 20 years of minute observation by Seth, but Sadak (or street) is also a historical record and archive of a particular kind of advertisement. These have given so much colour to the streets of the developing world, but are now dying out as digitally made signage takes over.

'Sadak' does not show a glorified, embellished view of the past, but is instead a gritty yet beautiful take on street art

In an afterword that also doubles as an obit of sorts for these advertisements and shop signs, Seth interviews a few of the men who worked as painters of this unique form of urban art. Raza Abbas speaks of once being so busy he worked for six hours without a break, especially ahead of a film’s release on Friday. Multiplexes phased out this form of handpainted art for films about two decades ago and now his income comes from installing vinyl cinema hoardings. “The next generation in Raza’s family have adapted to changing times," Seth observes matter-of-factly. Raza’s son, in a stroke of poetic justice, is an animator for video games.

Another street sign painter, Praveen Chauhan, has had to let go of many employees and now manages sporadic assignments. He makes the point that handpainted signs last about a decade even in the sun. By contrast, contemporary PVC flex hoardings usually fade within a year.

The book’s lens roams widely from interviews that capture the challenge of artists reinventing themselves to a section of photos of animals and of nature. The latter also conform to signage but are not visual advertorials as the overtly commercial signs are. Seth includes these signs in nature parks and aquariums, one guesses because they are so colourful that they suggest a newly unearthed Indian variant of the Fauvist movement (that included the artists Henri Matisse and Paul Gauguin) at the beginning of the 20th century.

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Sadak is patently not a coffee-table book. It does not show a glorified, embellished view of the past, but is instead a gritty yet beautiful take on street art of a kind that is yielding to a more easily made and less expensive medium of advertising. The mostly thoughtful, elegant introduction, in one of its occasional flights of bombast, glibly puts the blame at the door of economic neoliberalism for this impending extinction of handpainted street signs. Yet, like the signs themselves, what is happening is both routine yet profound: Technology has made these signs redundant, but their replacements seem unoriginal and unexciting by contrast.

'Sadak' is also a historical record and archive of a particular kind of advertisement. These have given so much colour to the streets of the developing world

This is not a criticism anyone could level at Sadak. Few books of photography take on technological obsolescence, changing fashions, nostalgia and unconventional art at the same time. The production values are reason alone to buy the book; the cover is unadorned by photographs and has simple lettering of turquoise on a cream background. The publishers and Seth have, using matte paper and French fold book-binding techniques, created the unique sensation of shuffling cards of diverse images. They thus come at you, without captions or explanations beyond the introduction, afterword and moving interviews, as if you might be walking or driving past them on the street. Viewed through Seth’s distinctive lens, these commercial handpainted signs often seem more art than advert.

Rahul Jacob was travel, food and drink editor of the FT Weekend between 2003 and 2010.