Mukta is “contemporary, humanist” yet “modest and versatile”. Baloo has “a subtle tinge of playfulness”. Kantata Aksara “inspired by Indian culture has beautiful gestures with a touch of tradition”.
Modern typefaces can sound like Tinder bios.
When font designer Rajeev Prakash talks about the typefaces he designed in the 1990s-2000s, he uses more prosaic utilitarian terms. Ramayana was for greeting cards, Murali for marriage invitations. Dushyant was designed for television, while Prakash was a favourite of newspapers.
“There were Devanagari typefaces already,” says Delhi-based Rajeev. “But they were not stylish.” He designed fonts for languages like Hindi, Gujarati, Bengali, Malayalam. “One publisher in Bhavnagar in Gujarat asked me to design Vedic symbols,” he remembers. “At that time you had to write them in by hand.”
He saw India jump from the world of hot metal type to sleek typefaces designed on Macs and he helped India make that leap. His niece, theatre artist Shubhra Prakash, tells that story in her play FONTWALA, which premiered in New York last year.
“I knew chacha was someone who worked with art. And also computers. That was about it,” says Shubhra. She just knew him as a man whose painting of wild horses hung in their living room in the US. But as she interviewed him over three years, she was struck by how he “married his love for script and language” with “technology and design”. The world, she felt, needed to know this story because “we are talking about the digitisation of scripts and language. And language is our face to the world.”
Rajeev didn’t think of himself as an artist. “I drew good biology and botany diagrams,” he says. “Sometimes girls would ask me to draw their home science diagrams. I enjoyed that.”
His calligraphic journey really started, he says, with “papad and a jhapad”. His older brother, Indu Prakash, Shubhra’s father, who had beautiful handwriting, once wrote papad in silver paint on a green storage canister at their home. Entranced by the flourish of his brother’s brushstrokes Rajeev tried to add his own touch to it. But his artistic efforts misfired, paint trickled down, papad became papada and Rajeev’s handiwork earned him a hard smack, or jhapad.
But the artistic bent persisted. He ended up doing a BFA at Benares Hindu University, where he discovered the world of typography via foot-operated treadle machines and hot metal type. The first computer he ever saw looked like “a steel almirah”. When he encountered an Apple Macintosh while getting his MFA at the Indian Institute of Technology, Bombay, it had a “five-inch grey screen and no colour printouts”. But the IIT Bombay Industrial Design Centre (IDC) was where he met a man who changed his life. Raghunath Krishna Joshi was a pioneer in the world of Indian typeface design who had designed Indic fonts after studying ancient scripts like Brahmi.
Joshi told him, “This semester you are going to design a Devanagari bold typeface for dot matrix printer.” The year was 1988. Some 40 years later, when IDC had its golden jubilee, Rajeev designed a font he called Ra-Kru Prakash. “Ra-Kru for Raghunath Krishna, Prakash for me. I wanted to honour my guru.”
When Rajeev emerged from IIT, Bombay, India was moving slowly from typewriters to computers. Newspapers were shifting to laser printers. The quality was not as good as the old typesetting devices, 300 dpi vs 1,200 dpi, but they were much cheaper. Rajeev started working for VSS Computers Pvt. Ltd, which sold Indian language software to ad agencies and newspapers.
The Dainik Bhaskar newspaper was an early client. He designed a running text typeface and one bold headline typeface called Virat. “Around 1am, the machine at their office in Indore was printing my typeface for the first time. I was very nervous. But they approved it right away and signed the order for a set of computers.”
Soon there was a new market for customised Indian typefaces. He remembers a man wanting a new typeface for wedding invitations. “I said it’s a long process. I can’t do a new typeface for a small order. He said: ‘No, no, this is the marriage season. I need it now. I will buy four computers.’ I worked three days and three nights and designed Murali. Everyone said, ‘Rajeev, go home, your own wife will divorce you.’”
When he started his own software services company, VSOFT, in Mumbai in 1993, his wife Aarti played a key role. She designed some 2,000 clip art images to illustrate Indian culture—Rana Pratap, Shivaji, Akbar, the mythological Ram and Krishna, Lata Mangeshkar, cricketers. Those were loaded on CDs and sold with the typefaces. Business boomed. The bank offered a line of credit.
“First, newspapers like Saamna wanted the typefaces. The Indian Express’ Loksatta was redesigned based on our typeface. Then came book publishers. The big jump came with desktop publishers doing visiting cards and ads. Finally, government offices like ONGC and Reserve Bank of India started using us,” says Rajeev.
“They were actually teaching people how to use the computer for their business,” says Shubhra. “People were realising they needed to know English just to use a computer.” But it was cumbersome. The typeface was stored on a card. The font would run only when the card was present on the motherboard. Each office that wanted to use his font invested in a computer loaded with the typeface. He assigned the characters using his own intuition. “K would correspond to ka, Shift-K to kha. You pressed the option key and typed in a code to get a conjunct character. Some jugglery was there,” he admits.
As the juggler, he had to go and train customers on how to use his typeface.Then he met a Hindi film director and actor who told him flatly: “This is too technical. Find an easier solution.”
Rajeev wondered what to do as he took the bus back to office. “In that one hour, I conceptualised the whole keyboard without pen, without paper,” he says. The company’s programmers said: “Yes, sir, this can be done. Let us sit tonight with some beer.” Thus was born the Anglo-Nagari keyboard. The Latin letters from the QWERTY keyboard got assigned to their phonetic counterparts in Devanagari script, though sometimes one key toggled between four letters to accommodate Hindi’s 33 consonants, 12 vowels and their conjoined versions within English’s 26 Latin characters.
At first his clients, many of them starchy government concerns, were sceptical. Rajeev had to turn from juggler to showman. “I used to tell a decision maker, please type your name. He would say he didn’t know the Hindi keyboard. I would say, just try.” If the client typed a K, then an M, then an L, he would see, to his surprise, KAMAL on screen in Devanagari font.
Rajeev wowed the decision maker but the operators baulked. They were used to a Hindi typewriter keyboard.They complained their typing speed would drop with the new keyboard. Rajeev had to design multiple keyboards to keep the peace. “Clerks still wanted the old Remington keyboard but the officers used Anglo-Nagari,” he says.
Then everything changed. Microsoft entered the market and bundled free software that included Devanagari fonts, including, ironically, ones designed by his old professor, R.K. Joshi. This David vs Goliath story didn’t end in David’s favour.
“It was very good technology. I could not understand how to deal with it,” rues Rajeev. “I should have converted my typefaces to Unicode and taught my users to see the difference between my beautiful typeface and the free typefaces.” Without Unicode compliance, one person’s font would not work with another person’s software. “In 2005-06, I gave up,” he sighs.
Now he is with a publishing house which brings out magazines and books in eight languages. He says: “See my situation. My own fonts could work on Macs. And here I am using the computer suite which I used to say was not as good.”
But Shubhra says her uncle’s work is still everywhere, even though most of us do not realise it. “We will be somewhere in Benares (Varanasi) or on the Delhi Metro and he will point at some ad and say that is the Prakash typeface. Or that’s Dushyant. And that’s Murali. Sometimes he will scold the shopkeeper for ruining the title by putting a model’s face on top of it.”
“It’s the happiest moment for an artist when I land in any city and see a hoarding with my typeface,” says her uncle. “I went to Vaishno Devi and saw the whole aarti was written in my typeface. I was about to cry. I don’t need big things. I just need this.”
FONTWALA will be staged as a solo play alongside a calligraphy workshop at the American Center in Delhi on 31 March. A Hindi ensemble version of the play will be staged at the Akshara Theatre in Delhi on 7 April. For details, check In.bookmyshow.com.
Cult Friction is a fortnightly column on issues we keep rubbing up against. Sandip Roy is a writer, journalist and radio host.