Sign of the times: what is to become of India's hand-painted signs?

India's sign-writing tradition is under threat from technology. So how do you preserve these beautiful hand-painted creations?


By his own admission, Kafeel Ahmed Ansari is a man whose skills belong to an earlier age. The combination of paints he uses for his striking signboards takes time to mix, the designs require imagination. It can take two days for him to complete a hand-painted hoarding for a barber's shop. Much quicker – and much cheaper – to opt for a computer-generated design printed on flexboard.

There were once countless thousands of such painters across India, working by hand to complete unique, vibrant designs for everything from juice stands to tailor's shops and butcher's stalls. Nowadays, thanks to computers, they are a threatened species.

But a project launched by an aficionado of traditional painters, yet using modern technology, has raised the prospect of recording the hand-painted fonts – typefaces – and ensuring the designs are preserved for the future.

Hanif Kureshi's aim is to collecting fonts from traditional painters and make them available for digital download online while giving half the proceeds to the painters. Mr Kureshi, who works in a Delhi advertising agency, says he has already collected 50 styles. "My aim is to get at least 100, including some in local languages," he said.

Mr Ansari, 55, usually known simply as Painter Kafeel, is among those who have already contributed several fonts to Mr Kureshi's project, located online at

Originally from Uttar Pradesh, Mr Ansari moved to Delhi in 1980 and sought out customers by cycling around different neighbourhoods with his brushes and paints. Today, he operates out of a tiny, two-room apartment, located in an ally close to the celebrated Karim's restaurant in the jostling, crunched old city of Delhi.

"Gradually, I started getting jobs, painting for Rasna juices, Thums Up [a brand of cola] and even Pepsi," said Mr Ansari, sitting alongside some of his glimmering hoardings. "I always focused on being accurate, it's very important. I have practised a lot."

A father of six, he said he can paint in English, Hindi, Urdu, Farsi, Arabic and Sanskrit. Delhi's old walled city, made up of twisting alleyways and decaying buildings, has for centuries represented a melting pot of different cultures and is one of the few places where a demand remains for such a collection of scripts.

As desktop publishing became more popular, Mr Ansari found himself getting less work and was obliged to buy a computer.

But even now, he still does some work by hand, and will produce signs for tourists who want a unique souvenir. The computer, he says, cannot do what he does. "My heart connects with my mind," he said.

Sunil Kumar, who uses the name Painter Umang, is another whose fonts have been collected by Mr Kureshi. Working from an outdoor workshop, located next to a large fig tree in whose branches had been placed painted statues of Hindu deities, the 44-year-old said he paints signs for shops and small businesses, and even the number plates of cars and motorbikes.

Mr Kumar, who has painted on a nearby wall a large portrait of BR Ambedkar, creator of India's constitution and hero of its lower castes, said he never used flexboard or computers. "Flexboard came and people used it because it saved time," he said. "But, in the long run, everybody returns to this because it is longer-lasting."

Mr Kumar, who lives in the Malviya Nagar neighbourhood of south Delhi, said the number of painters had fallen, but he was not as pessimistic as Mr Ansari. He said he had helped train several painters and watched them set up business of their own.

"Computer work is quicker but it is not as clean. If you paint something with your own hand, it is more delicate," he said, explaining people's enduring preference for hand-painted work.

Among the most celebrated painters whose work is featured by the project is Charan Chavan. Now in his 60s, Mr Chavan has two sons who have followed him in his business. According to a recent report in Open magazine, Mr Chavan is credited with developing the so-called "Fruit Juice" style of painting that flourished across north India – large colourful lettering that originally featured on posters for Bollywood films.

"His work became a rage," said Mr Kureshi, "Other fruit juice stall painters emulated him. And soon, all fruit juice stalls in Delhi began to look exactly the same."

Mr Kureshi, who started collecting fonts at the end of 2010, became interested in traditional painting as a boy growing up in the town of Talaja, in the state of Gujarat. Near to where he lived was a painter called Mehta. Sometimes he would let the teenager pick up the brush and try his hand. "You would have nothing to do so you would go and sit. The more often you went, the more he would give you to do," recalled Mr Kureshi.

To help his collection develop, he has asked friends from different parts of the country to send him fonts and has been able to collect designs from Bangalore to Mumbai and Ladakh, in the far north of India. For anyone wishing to contribute a design, he requests that people send an entire alphabet and numerals. There is a great variety among the fonts, he said, and some noticeable regional characteristics. Designs from the south of India, for instance, are more likely to use fluorescent paint. "You are more likely to get bolder colours in Chennai," he said.

So far, two of the fonts on the website are available for digital download and a third will be ready soon. One, named after a now retired painter, Umesh Baldaniya, is available free of charge and has been downloaded at least 3,000 times. The other, one of Mr Ansari's designs, costs $50 and has reportedly been downloaded by eight people. That design, simulating the depth and complexity from the nine separate layers of enamel paint that Mr Ansari uses, took Mr Kureshi one month to produce.

Yet for all his effort, Mr Kureshi said he realised his undertaking had its limitations. "The project is not designed to save the painters," he said. "It's to preserve their styles and to learn from the masters, so that the next generation can learn and use those ideas in its own way."

peoplePerformer had recently been diagnosed with prostate cancer
The surrealist comedian at the Q Awards in 2010
The comedian, 42, made the controversial comment following the athlete’s sentencing to five years for the culpable homicide of Reeva Steenkamp on Tuesday
Life and Style
Could you tell the difference between this and an organic alternative?
food + drink

Culinary experts in The Netherlands thought it was 'fresh' and 'tasty'

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Today's Liverpool Echo back page
Life and Style
Six of the 76 Goats' cheese samples contained a significant amount of sheep's cheese
food + drink
Russell Brand arriving for the book launch in East London
peopleRussell Brand cancels his book launch debate due to concerns about the make-up of the panel
Arts and Entertainment
JK Rowling will not be releasing a 'romance' novel anytime soon
Arts and Entertainment
Contestants during this summer's Celebrity Big Brother grand finale
tvBroadcaster attempts to change its image following sale to US
Life and Style

Of all the computers Apple has ever made there’s only one that Steve Jobs had to sell his car to finance

Arts and Entertainment
Sarah Dales attempts to sell British Breeze in the luxury scent task
tvReview: 'Apprentice' candidates on the verge of tears as they were ejected from the boardroom
One of the 'princesses' in the video
videoYouTube reinstates sweary video after takedown for 'violating terms'
Call me Superman: one of many unusual names chosen by Chinese students
newsChinese state TV offers advice for citizens picking a Western moniker
Arts and Entertainment

Marvel has released first teaser trailer week early after it leaked online

Arts and Entertainment
Awesome foursome: Sam Smith shows off his awards
music22-year-old confirms he is 2014’s breakout British music success
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Business Intelligence Consultant - Central London - £80,000

£65000 - £80000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Business Intelligence Consultant - C...

SEN Teaching Assistant

£70 - £85 per day: Randstad Education Group: SEN Teaching Assistants needed in...

Year 4 Teacher required for 2 terms

£21500 - £35000 per annum: Randstad Education Cambridge: Randstad Education ar...

Accounts Assistant - Sales Ledger, Sage Line 50 - St Albans

£20000 - £22000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: A highly successful and w...

Day In a Page

How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?

A crime that reveals London's dark heart

How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?
Meet 'Porridge' and 'Vampire': Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker

Lost in translation: Western monikers

Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker. Simon Usborne, who met a 'Porridge' and a 'Vampire' while in China, can see the problem
Handy hacks that make life easier: New book reveals how to rid your inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone

Handy hacks that make life easier

New book reveals how to rid your email inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone with a loo-roll
KidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day

KidZania: It's a small world

The new 'educational entertainment experience' in London's Shepherd's Bush will allow children to try out the jobs that are usually undertaken by adults, including firefighter, doctor or factory worker
Renée Zellweger's real crime has been to age in an industry that prizes women's youth over humanity

'Renée Zellweger's real crime was to age'

The actress's altered appearance raised eyebrows at Elle's Women in Hollywood awards on Monday
From Cinderella to The Jungle Book, Disney plans live-action remakes of animated classics

Disney plans live-action remakes of animated classics

From Cinderella to The Jungle Book, Patrick Grafton-Green wonders if they can ever recapture the old magic
Thousands of teenagers to visit battlefields of the First World War in new Government scheme

Pupils to visit First World War battlefields

A new Government scheme aims to bring the the horrors of the conflict to life over the next five years
The 10 best smartphone accessories

Make the most of your mobile: 10 best smartphone accessories

Try these add-ons for everything from secret charging to making sure you never lose your keys again
Mario Balotelli substituted at half-time against Real Madrid: Was this shirt swapping the real reason?

Liverpool v Real Madrid

Mario Balotelli substituted at half-time. Was shirt swapping the real reason?
West Indies tour of India: Hurricane set to sweep Windies into the shadows

Hurricane set to sweep Windies into the shadows

Decision to pull out of India tour leaves the WICB fighting for its existence with an off-field storm building
Indiana serial killer? Man arrested for murdering teenage prostitute confesses to six other murders - and police fear there could be many more

A new American serial killer?

Police fear man arrested for murder of teen prostitute could be responsible for killing spree dating back 20 years
Sweetie, the fake 10-year-old girl designed to catch online predators, claims her first scalp

Sting to trap paedophiles may not carry weight in UK courts

Computer image of ‘Sweetie’ represented entrapment, experts say
Fukushima nuclear crisis: Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on - and may never return home

Return to Fukushima – a land they will never call home again

Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on from nuclear disaster
Wildlife Photographer of the Year: Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize

Wildlife Photographer of the Year

Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize
Online petitions: Sign here to change the world

Want to change the world? Just sign here

The proliferation of online petitions allows us to register our protests at the touch of a button. But do they change anything?