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A peek into Panaji's history through its unique signboards

The city’s disappearing hand-carved, hand-painted signage is a reflection of its cultural history

The oyster-pane windows are a unique characteristic of Goan houses. (Photographs by Chryselle D’Silva Dias)

It’s no secret that Panaji has some of the most Instagram-friendly streets in the country. Vibrant primary colours broken by borders of eggshell white, frame-worthy wooden doors and windows, long stretches of street, the background blurring in a rainbow of hues. Goa’s little capital city and its colonial-era streets have a special vibe that attracts tourists from all over the globe. Many, however, see only the colour, completely missing the history told through its shop signs.

Just before coronavirus sent us all indoors last year, I went walking with Panaji-based graphic designer Vishal Rawlley, who takes a keen interest in city typography. In the 2000s, Rawlley and design researcher Kurnal Rawat had set up the Typocity project to document Mumbai’s cultural history through its typography.

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We headed towards Panaji’s Head Post Office, an area I call home. I was eager to explore the by-lanes of our vaddo (ward) São Tomé and take a closer look at the distinctive hand-carved and hand-painted signboards that are losing out to mass-produced, impersonal signage. For several years, I have been fascinated by Alexandra Horowitz’s guide to noticing, On Looking: Eleven Walks With Expert Eyes. She explores familiar blocks of streets in New York with 11 different companions—including a typographer. “Part of seeing what is on an ordinary block is seeing that everything visible has a history. It arrived at the spot where you found it at some time, was crafted or whittled or forged at some time, filled a certain role or existed for a particular function. It was touched by someone (or no one), and touches someone (or no one) now,” she writes.

Near the whitewashed chapel of São Tomé, Rawlley pointed to a wooden signboard for a family-run jeweller, an establishment that has been around for decades. “Notice how the signage matches the building,” said Rawlley. The swirl and flourishes of the font and its typeface, somewhat Baroque, somewhat Art Deco, indeed try to keep up with the beautifully adorned windows on top, now in a state of disrepair.

Old shops—like this one selling hardware, paint, cement and other building materials—often retain their names and descriptions in the original Portuguese.
Old shops—like this one selling hardware, paint, cement and other building materials—often retain their names and descriptions in the original Portuguese.

“Heritage is not just about buildings,” says Rawlley. “It’s also about signage, typography, the craft that went into making these signboards.” We talk about the Portuguese conquest of Goa and its influence over 400 years. “When the Portuguese travelled across the oceans to a strange new land, they came prepared to stay a while when they reached their destination,” says Rawlley. “They knew they would be away from home for a long time so they carried with them seeds, plants and trees. They brought fruit which they would miss.”

The Portuguese influence is evident everywhere. They built a city that reflected their own, with streets on a grid. Our cuisine would have been very different without potatoes, tomatoes, chickoo, cashews, capsicum, chillies.

On that walk, Rawlley pointed out something I hadn’t really given much thought to. “Panaji has unique signboards that tell you the year that the shop was established (unusual in other parts of the state). It gives you an idea of what businesses were flourishing at the time and what kind of trade happened in certain areas.” The oldest date he has been able to spot is on a shop established in 1885, belonging to a family from the neighbourhood, Bento Miguel Fernandes. The front has the family’s name in the beautiful wooden letters that adorn many old shops. Each hand-cut letter is precise in formation, the font sharp and angular.

The rotary telephone on this signboard indicated that the store had a telephone, one of the first in the city, and a matter of pride.
The rotary telephone on this signboard indicated that the store had a telephone, one of the first in the city, and a matter of pride.

Such signboards are increasingly difficult to find. There is now just one carpenter who makes these and business is fast dwindling for him as well. R.R. Sawant’s shop has been shut since March 2020. Just around the corner from his battered storefront, a busy shop prints out cheaper, easy-to-maintain flex, vinyl or LED-backed acrylic signboards.

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I am happy to see several of the old guard holding on to the charming, multicoloured wooden signage. “Serif fonts have a little line or stroke at the end. When letters were hand-painted, the extra brush stroke becomes an interesting way to tidy up the letter,” said Rawlley, explaining how signboards reflect the times. When machinery began to be used for making signs, it was easier to use Sans Serif fonts that had straight edges. The typeface also reveals the era when the shop came up or the fashion for lettering at the time.

Panaji has a few stunning examples of Art Deco lettering—like the signage at stationers J D Fernandes, near the Jardim Garcia da Orta (the Municipal Garden). The letters are thick and curved, looking like gears slotting into each other—resonant of that popular design style of the 1950s-60s.

Rawlley rues the lack of sensitivity in use of signage these days. “In the earlier days, you can see how signage was an integral part of the façade. The names of the buildings and establishments were either built into the façade or complemented it. Now signs are put on any available surface,” he says. A particularly glaring example was a shoe store with a logo jutting out far from the façade of the otherwise charming old building.

They all lament the changing nature of the city, the unrecognisable streets. In many old shops, the walls are lined with vintage prints of gods and grandfathers, and sepia-tinged photographs of the shop and the city. The images of wide, tree-lined avenues with no traffic in sight linger as we dodge motorcycles careening in every direction, many against the flow of traffic.

On the way back, Rawlley pointed to the graffiti on city walls. “This is also a new type of typography that we need to pay attention to,” he said, pointing to a painted “CasiNO” and a stencilled portrait of the slain Fr Bismarque Dias, both anonymous works of art that remind us that a city’s story can be found on its walls and on its signboards, “touching someone now” or in the future, if we only remember to look up and see.

Chryselle D’Silva Dias is a Goa-based journalist.

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