Type Designer and Diver Vaishnavi Murthy talks about how to keep ancient scripts alive and relevant.
Vaishnavi is on Twitter.
Some pictures of Angie’s NID Type Project:
Sushi: Hey everyone! This is Design Lota, the podcast where we talk about life as Indian Designers!
Angie: I’m Angie
Sushi: And I’m Sushi
Angie: In our last episode we tackled the rather awkward topic of handling feedback as well as our fellow-designers’ feelings with care.
Sushi: This week, we are going metaphorically diving again, to discover a world of ancient scripts with an expert diver and script-raider.
Angie: Script raider – that sounds really cool!
Sushi: Yeah, you know, like the game crypt raider? Except with Scripts.
Angie: Yeah, so I had this real deep dive into Indian typography and its roots with my script-raider friend Vaishnavi Murthy. By the way, she is a professional diver! Also a really cool type designer.
Sushi: This reminds of this generic movie plot where a person goes diving and discovers these ancient texts. Am I close? Is that what actually happened?
Angie: You’re swimming on the surface of it.
Sushi: So this whole thing is a lot deeper huh?
Angie: Why don’t we get to the bottom of it?!
Interview with Vaishnavi
Angie: Hi Vaishnavi, thanks for coming on Design Lota! What are you upto these days?
Vaishnavi: Hey Angie! It’s so nice to talk to you. And thank you for inviting me on Design Lota. I think it’s fantastic initiative you guys have undertaken. I’ve listened to your podcasts and it so relevant to the industry right now…it brings people together, lets us know what each other is doing. I really enjoy listening to it!
Angie: Thanks for listening!
Vaishnavi: As for me, i’m currently freelancing as a graphic designer and I also do typeface design. I study Indian scripts. My full time job however is of a scuba diver. I do design and diving together.
Angie: Diving! Wow that sounds incredible. I’d love to go into that a little later. But first, How did you get interested in typefaces – tell us about your journey.
Vaishnavi: To tell you the truth I think it has got something to do with my past life. As a kid, I remember being fascinated by the Indus valley script and I don’t know why. Somehow I figured that I need to know a lot about writing so that I can figure this out someday. With this at the back of my mind, I also came to know that my grandfather was writing in a secret script on palm leaves, back in my village in Mangalore. One summer vacation I asked him to teach me this script. Unfortunately he passed away soon after.
Angie: Its fascinating that you wanted to investigate the Indus Valley script! But what is this secret script that your grandfather was working on? Did you solve the mystery?
Yes, so it turned out to be the Tulu script. Later when I was studying design, I realised I can make a font for this secret script. This is how I began working on type. Later as years passed and my interest in this subject grew, I realised there were no good schools for me to study type design in India back then. Now you have IDC, Bombay, where they are doing some really interesting work. I had to go to the UK to study Indian type design. This was the most ridiculous part. Its shocking to see how many Indian typefaces are made by non-Indian type designers, but this is slowly changing. Today there’s money in being a Type designer in India. There are more people interested and more work is going into this field.
Angie: I saw some work by the Ek Type foundry during typo day.
Vaishnavi: They are doing some really cool work. Those interested can approach them. They have a unit called Aksharaya where they teach workshops on type and calligraphy. But back when I wanted to study type, they too were just starting out. So I got Felix scholarship to study MA typeface design at the university of Reading. In Netherlands there is another school called KABK. So these are the two well known places to study type design internationally. There’s also Cooper Union in the US.
Angie: You did go to NID to do your undergraduate course in graphic design right? Were you trying to focus on Type design even back then?
When I was studying design, it was more communication design, rather than purely graphic design. So I studied how video works, how text works, and how you talk to someone, how you communicate. And one of the fundamentals of communication is how and what you write. When it comes to how it is presented, fonts are important. I actually got interested in fonts thanks to my fascination with symbols and how they are used to communicate in the Indian context. Though we typically look at symbols from a global perspective, it changes from region to region.
Angie: You really seem to have made a lot of effort to engage with your immediate environment, and this also took you travelling to look at various manuscripts, right? Tell us how you got to doing that.
Vaishnavi: Manuscripts are handwritten documents, be it on paper or palm leaf. Anything thats engraved, we would call an epigraph. There is no standardised form of the handwritten letter shapes that are found in manuscripts…its the soul of the character. Every letter shape carries with it a message of its own identity as-well-as the identity of the group it belongs to. For example, the letter O written in English will have a specific shape that is distinct from another similar letter like the capital Q or the number zero. As a typeface designer, I need to have a good understanding of what makes these letters stand apart as individual letters and stand together as alphabets belonging to a particular language or writing style. When you study manuscripts, they give you clues about whether you can modify letters to make them more pretty or more functional.
Angie: Do you think the tools used to write in these manuscripts might have affected the letterform in some way?
Vaishnavi: Tools do affect letterforms. For example in Devanagari script, a broad nib pen is used which results in thick and thin strokes in the letter, and the letterforms are made to look balanced. But the sensibilities of the person writing took over and they chose tools based on what or how they wanted to express. Similarly in the latin and copperplate letterforms reflect the sensibilities of the person writing, and not just the materials or tools.
Angie: Do you find any interesting content in these manuscripts?
Vaishnavi: Every manuscript is a surprise. For example, if you take the Ramayana, you will find that the story, it differs from region to region with references to local rituals and people. Apart from stories, you have daily accounts, scientific experiments, philosophy, semantics. There are also manuscripts on medicine, astrology and astronomy. You find a lot of things that aren’t censored too!
Angie: How would one go about getting permission to look into manuscripts?
Vaishnavi: It’s important to know how to handle manuscripts. I was trained in palm leaf restoration at INTACH Bangalore and Odisha. INTACH is Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage. They look into culturally relevant things like perfomance, architecture, design. They look at different things based on the city or region. In Bangalore, for example, they restore Ravi Varma paintings. They have an office in Chitrakala Parishath in Bangalore. If you’re interested in manuscripts, you can volunteer to go and work with them. They’ve collaborated with National Manuscript Mission, and as a part of it, you can work with them when they work on digitising, understanding and restoring manuscripts. Conservation as a field is super fascinating and it requires many years worth of study to be really good at it.
Angie: So one part of what you do is handling and restoring the original manuscripts, but to study it you would do it on the digitised version?
Vaishnavi: I’m more than happy to keep the original manuscript wherever I go. But if that doesn’t happen, it’s always good to make a digital version to study it. Even in libraries, it’s better to look at the digital copies rather than the original, as the oils in our hand can affect it. Now, this doesn’t mean that you can’t touch the manuscripts because they do need to breathe, and some sunshine and warmth is also good for them. But it’s not good to over-handle them. Palm leaf manuscripts are quite hardy and last to thousands of years. But paper tends to get acidic over time and can become yellow and brittle within 100-150 years. This is why we do art on archival paper so that it lasts long.
Angie: Did you learn how to write on palm leaf?
Vaishnavi: I tried learning from palm leaf writers in Odisha and also from my grandfather, but it’s a difficult skill to master. So, palm leaves are inscribed on and then you smear the manuscript with ink and the ink settles into the grooves and leaves the rest of the surface clean when wiped with a cloth.
Angie: Why do you think history is so important in what you’re doing?
Vaishnavi: History as I look at it, is alive even to this day. When I speak my language, I sometimes, imagine all my ancestors who were alive at some point, speaking it. I imagine the first person who made a sound with their breath when they were alive and walking this earth and decided to give meaning to that sound. Today I repeat that same sound with my breath and connect back to the person who first made meaning of that sound. I look at that sound, I look at that meaning and try to make sense of what it means to me. It’s the hardest thing for me to do. Make sense of things like this. I do whatever I do out of curiosity of what this actually means.
Angie: It’s interesting how we’re carrying around a piece of history with us. Did you also focus on any other artefacts apart from manuscripts?
Vaishnavi: There are some very interesting things we find. In Assam, the manuscripts are made out of the bark of the Agaru tree. For inks, they collect dew and mix interesting things to it. Like the liquid that comes out of an earthworm, that glows in the dark! Calligraphy teachers in Assam taught their students on banana leaves before they wrote on palm leaves. We get insights into interesting details like this. This makes us look at people from history as normal people living normal lives.
Angie: Tell us more about the Tulu script which is a big project you’ve been working on. You also presented this at one particular Typo Day.
Vaishnavi: I started working on this in my final year at Design School. I studied at the National Institute of design from 2001-2006 in Ahmedabad. Back then, we were encouraged to question the design practice and make relevant contribution to what we find around us. As a part of my final year project, I decided to make a font for Tulu I script. Tulu being my mother tongue, it was commonly said Tulu didn’t have a script amongst the people of my community. This script is called the Tigalari script. I’d seen my grandad write in this script that very few people used back then. This confusion between having and not having a script bothered me to some extent so I decided to investigate this further as part of my project. When I started working on this, I wasn’t prepared for the amount of complexities this project would bring. I had to look at the fundamentals of what a script is, what characters are required or not. There are letterforms that creep in from the dominant language used to write a script – like Sanskrit had on Tulu. I had to look at the fundamentals of letter shapes and their sounds. I had to look into how to standardise the script. I’m still working on this project, it’s been 12 years. I’m submitting my font to Unicode soon. I wish more design students got to work on projects like this. I’d like to tell students to find projects that make them look at fundamentals, question them and build on them, because you can do that when you’re a student.
Angie: You also think we can work on teaching methods so that our regional languages stay alive and thriving…
Vaishnavi: Yes, A for apple is not the only way to learn alphabets. As people, we engage with things we take ownership of. If I you ask me today, which language I’m most comfortable breaking down, playing around with, I’d say English. The people who are upholding the language standards for English are so far away from me that I don’t think twice about playing with it or modifying it. When it comes to local languages, however, take Kannada for example, if I do the same thing, the Kannada rakshana vedike (upholders of the Kannada language) people will be at my doorstep, saying I don’t have the right to do this. This is a fundamental contradiction that most language communities in India are having to live with.
Angie: In English, you would have people correcting your grammar, right?
Vaishnavi: In my personal space, that’s fine. If I have published something in a local language, it can become an attack on me as a person. So, I would be afraid of expressing what I say. This is not a conducive environment for a language to grow.
Angie: That’s ironic, that the pride for the language and the upholders are holding back the growth of the very language they wish to preserve.
Vaishnavi: Yes, languages need time to grow, breathe and evolve.
Angie: So, we want to preserve languages in their original, pure form while also allowing them to evolve.
Vaishnavi: There is no pure form, actually. I’m interested in just preserving the original form of a manuscript, for accurate representation and historical documentation and also so that we can learn from it and then allow it to evolve.
Angie: You had some thoughts on design education in India and how we need to take it closer to our roots, and students can be taught to engage with their immediate environment.
Vaishnavi: Yes, one of my early student projects was when I had to go to fishermen in Gujarat and tell them not to kill the whale sharks for meat and oil. My initial thought was to use posters to tell them my message. I tried using symbols like the tick mark which didn’t mean the same to them as it did to me. After staying with them for a couple of months, I realised that they look at everything very closely, be it colours or people. I then figured that my message had to be addressed and communicated through performance rather than posters or traditional graphic design approaches.
My point with this story is, as designers we need to be authentic in what we’re doing and in understanding what’s before us. This helps us to be a part of the world, share this planet better with those around us. If we can do this, and if we can teach this approach in design schools, obviously the world will be a better place.
Angie: Yes, going to design school must teach us how to get out of the way of our solutions. We must remove our biases before we understand a context.
Vaishnavi: I agree!
Angie: Your journey has been so interesting. Graphic Design, Type Design, History and Script investigator, and now diving?? What’s the story?
Vaishnavi: I think as Bangaloreans, we all function like there’s a beach nearby. That might be why I’m a diver because I grew up there. Also, my family is into diving as well, I’ve been doing this for 14 years now. I quite enjoy being in the water.
Angie: Any lessons from diving that made you a better designer?
Vaishnavi: Design makes me a better person! Diving is like meditation. Everything goes quiet and I get to see so many fascinating shapes, patterns and colours. Nothing can surprise me because something new, weird and interesting is just around the corner. When I teach diving, I get to meet a lot of people and understand human beings in a very raw way. It gives me a perspective of who I’m designing for.
My message for design students is that they should stay away from mobile phones and computers. Use your hands more. During my time in design school, we used our hands a lot more. Now, I can design in my mind, I don’t need a computer. I just need a sketchbook. I think this is quicker and I come up with fresher ideas.
I would also challenge designers to do a project in a language other than English. This will really make you stretch as a designer and question your sensibilities.
Angie: This has been so interesting. Where can people find you?
Vaishnavi: I’m going diving to Neil Island soon. The best way to contact me is by email.
Angie: Contact us and we’ll get you to connect to Vaishnavi. Thanks for joining us.
Vaishnavi: Thank you so much Angie!
Angie: So Sushi, how’s it to be back on land?
Sushi: This was such a refreshing discussion! Even with the saltwater and all! I feel like I discovered this huge treasure chest of knowledge of stuff I’ve never come across before!
Angie: Yes, there were so many fascinating and surprising things I discovered while talking to Vaishnavi. What are some things that struck you?
Sushi: I think it was really cool how Vaishnavi got into Type design in the first place..how she discovered the secret of the Tigalari script and her whole journey of putting the pieces together to recreate a written identity for Tulu.
Angie: I think it’s an exciting challenge to be able to create a new and relevant form, of something ancient. I like how she mentioned that nothing is “pure” and language, like any other aspect of our culture, needs to be allowed to breathe and grow.
Sushi: True, and while it’s important for us as designers to contribute to this growth, I like how she pointed out that before we jump in and make something, we first need to get an authentic understanding of the context, and what already exists, right?
Angie: Yeah, even if that means, not trying to get all the information from the internet, but actually getting out there, and understanding people, seeing how someone sees things differently, while coming up with design solutions. Seems to be a recurring theme with us!
Sushi: I guess this is in line with what Vaishnavi said about questioning the fundamentals, in order to contribute in a relevant way. Another back-to-basics thing she spoke about is the whole joy of designing things by hand. I think technology and software now allow you to do a whole bunch of things, but your hands and your brains can always do better. What do you think?
Angie: Well, I’ve met some people who say that they are so used to working with software tools, that they can put their thoughts directly onto it when they design. Though personally, I do feel like I need to put things down on paper first before the ideas escape my head.
Sushi: Another recurring theme I can think of is how taking time off for adventure and hobbies, diving in this case, cross pollinates with our design thinking and helps us come up with some really unexpected solutions.
Angie: Yeah, I think any activity , where you’re engaged with observing things, beyond just seeing and identifying them…being physically present with the objects or environment your observing can really be an inspiring experience. I’m sure looking at a hundred high definition pictures or videos of coral reefs can never be compared to actually diving.
Sushi: True! Not even in iMax!
I just found it really amazing to look at type, beyond just being fonts, and beyond English, which we typically use as designers. I knew that going back to hand-lettering and calligraphy as an art was catching on, as I’ve seen you do a bit of it yourself, Angie, but I’ve never thought too much about how it’s still practised in local scripts in India, whether it’s the traditional palm script writing in Odisha or the half-and-half coloured lettering that is typical of Tamil Nadu.
Angie: Yeah, it’s high time we opened our “local” eyes, as designers, beyond just the visual aspects of our art and culture, but also look into their roots, their context, their meaning. Having had our design education in English, and being mostly influenced by the western idea of design. It’s time we explored our local treasure!
Sushi: Yes! We should take on Vaishnavi’s challenge to do a project in a language other than English.
Angie: I remember a project we did in NID where we made visual compositions from letterforms of regional languages – we split into 12 teams and did this for 12 languages and made a calendar out of it.
Sushi: That sounds like a fun project, and I’m sure the results of collaboration were stunning! I’m curious to see what I can do with Indian languages, as someone who designs products!
Hey listeners! Have you challenged yourself to a project inspired by a local language or art form?
Angie: Or are you reconstructing something from the past, to make it a relevant design solution? Tweet to us @designlota and tell us all about it!
Sushi: As always, you can find the full transcript for this episode at designlota.com.
Angie: We’ll be back next week where we talk to a design entrepreneur who built her stationery business from the bottom up.
Sushi: I could use some gyaan about running my own business as a designer.
Angie: Yes, stay tuned for that. Until then, bye!