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?

Andrew Buncombe
Sunday 28 October 2012 23:00 GMT
Sunil Kumar, who uses the name Painter Umang, whose hand-painted fonts are among those collected by a new project designed to save one of India's traditional skills
Sunil Kumar, who uses the name Painter Umang, whose hand-painted fonts are among those collected by a new project designed to save one of India's traditional skills

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."

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