• Steven Heller

In-Sourcing The Signs of India

The Daily Heller’s roving global correspondent, Rick Meyerowitz recently returned from his third trip to India with a fistful of rupees and a camera stuffed with incredible photographs. His focus was on the merchant’s signs produced, it would appear, without the benefit of design school or professional design standards. But who’s to say the artists didn’t learn in their own schools. The lettering quality of Tingle looks pretty good to me; and the painting of the turbaned man elegantly dressed in his Sherwani is rather accomplished. And what about the nurses?

Whatever you call them — generic, vernacular or folk — they’re the common visual language and platform for getting what every merchant wants – attention! Some may appear crude by Western standards, but all are essentially beautiful in their unselfconscious rendering.

Meyerowitz has obsessively documented this signs during his visits to India since 2004, traveling to cites and towns from Agra to Delhi, Mysore to Udaipur. To the tutored eye these seem quaint and unfettered, but they are every bit as commercial and standardized in India as more typographically sophisticated ones here. Still, they hold a certain delight for the Westerner. So, I asked Meyerowitz, a Westerner by any other name, to answer a few simple questions.

Show me your favorite signs? I like this black and white curtain of Hindi (see below) as a counterpoint to all the English. I like “plasitc free zone.” I adore the woman [goddess] with the broken arm. And then there’s the M&Co manhole cover.

Is this the usual street signage or are there more global brand names too? This is the street but there are brand signs all over, though not as many as in a country like China which allows all kinds of foreign brands. The Indians are still painting their own signs and it was not until a decade ago that their long prohibition of foreign products was lifted. In China there are like five million Buicks (not kidding) on the road but in India I didn’t see American brand cars.

If you can answer, what is the ratio of English to Hindi in signs? In the cities it’s about even. The common language shared among Indians is not Hindi although it is the language with the most native speakers. It’s English because the speakers of all the many minority languages in India do not want to give the Hindi speakers the satisfaction of speaking their language. So a business meeting of native Hindi speakers and native Malayalam speakers happens in the common agreed upon tongue, the one that does not step on any ancient tribal toes, namely, English.

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