If you lived in the state of Maharashtra in India during the ’70s and ’80s, you probably had the Kalnirnay hanging on your kitchen wall — a calendar almanac that has now become the largest selling publication in the world, with over 18 million copies sold annually.
If you’ve ever had it hanging on your wall, then its distinctive lettering probably has a fond place in your heart. This ubiquitous calmanac, which often functioned as a “family notice board,” is probably the most recognizable work by Indian lettering artist and designer Kamal Shedge, known primarily for his work for music and theater during the ’70s. Shedge, who passed away in 2020, introduced the country to the nuances of typography and lettering at a crucial time in Indian design history, and in the process, he crafted a body of work that has inspired generations of creatives across the country.
Founded in 1973 by astrologer and historian Jayant Salgaokar, the Kalnirnay combined a calendar and an almanac, marking out auspicious dates, festivals, and holidays alongside daily astrology, articles on health, food and beauty, and even the times that the sun and moon would rise every day. Shedge, who was commissioned for the project by Salgaokar, designed its iconic chunky logo and the classic Devanagari numerals, which soon became an indispensable part of every Marathi household.
“For me, one of the most elegant sets of Devanagari numbers are the ones that Shedge drew for Kalnirnay,” said Berlin-based type designer Kimya Gandhi nearly fifty years after the publication debuted. “His numbers have classical proportions, but they also have a beautiful rhythm when you view them all together, which is often quite hard to achieve.” Music and design strategist Arul Kacker remembers growing up in Mumbai, where the Kalnirnay calendar had a permanent spot in his home. “It’s incredible that it has remained unchanged since the ’70s,” said Kacker. “My favorite pieces of design are the ones that quietly infiltrate our lives. If it were changed today, it would throw the universe off balance.”
Ultimately, one of the mightiest tools in Shedge’s artistic arsenal was his innate understanding of the beauty of alphabets and characters. With a sharp swipe of his pen, the Indian designer and lettering artist — who, over his decades-long career came to be known for his work with Devanagari typography — could create words that hinted at a range of ideas and emotions. Today, seventy years since Shedge first began designing, his legacy is underscored by his deft use of typography — as medium, method, and message.
A self-taught designer, Shedge began his career at the Times of India, where his father worked as a calligrapher for the newsgroups’ art department. When he joined the team in 1955, he began studying the rigorous, manual process of designing layouts for newspapers, crafting single-column advertisements, creating headlines, and cut-pasting body text on composition boards. What he learned from the senior designers and art directors who mentored him would later appear in his lettering for the mastheads of annual festival publications such as Madhuri, Dipawali, and Chandrakant, as well as the titles he designed for numerous plays and films.
Shedge first begun designing titles for local theater productions in the ‘70s, starting with the play Matsyagandha (meaning “mermaid”). This first experiment was evocative of what was to become his signature style: Shedge was generous with decorative, often suggestive lettering that would hint at the theme or the tonality of the story. For Matsyagandha, he added the symbol of a fish to replace the anusvar (a dot placed above the matra line that works as a nasal vowel marker). This ability to unleash the expressiveness of words through the way a character was designed would become a defining feature of Shedge’s body of work. In another example, Shedge captured the meaning of the word “intimate,” written in Devanagari, through form. The edges of his voluptuous alphabet blend into each other, hinting at closeness, while the two matras (vowel signs) gently touch, creating an elegant form that mimics the fluidity of a rolling wave.
It was through his many commissions for theater titles that he met photographer, theater veteran, and life-long collaborator Mohan Wagh, who had set up his own theater production company Chandralekha. Shedge went on to design numerous titles for the local Marathi plays produced by the company. “A part of my earliest memories of going to the theater were the posters for the plays that would be displayed on the notice boards outside the Deenanath Mangeshkar auditorium in Vile Parle,” said Gandhi.
This was still the pre-digital age, and Shedge would craft each of his posters — as well as the newspaper advertisements for the plays — using familiar, traditional tools. “I always sketched my letters with a pencil,” Shedge said in an interview in 2010. “The look and feel of the letters should be ‘tight.’ The letters should be well structured and compact. Till today, I use simple tools like ruler and set-square. Sometimes, I structure my letters on a graph. After a pencil sketch, I ink it out. Now the ‘artwork’ is ready. A negative is taken to try out various sizes, suitable to the size of advertisement.”
Often, Shedge’s Devanagari lettering would also reference his interest in Latin typefaces and typography. “Back then (also much like today), the advertising industry was highly influenced by western typography and lettering. Lack of resources and the industry requirements pushed Shedge to adapt Devanagari lettering according to the Latin visual structure,” said Sarang Kulkarni, co-founder of Ek Type, and a core member of Aksharaya, a non-profit that documents, promotes, explores, and creates awareness around Indian scripts. A telling example of Shedge’s interest in Latin typography was his use of stylized serifs in Marathi lettering.
Much of the designer’s fluency in Devanagari typography was marked by a sense of playfulness, unfurled in his use of symbols or dramatic flourishes of the brush. This adventurous facet of his oeuvre is also felt in his Latin lettering, seen across scores of his record covers designed in close collaboration with Wagh.
At the time, movie posters and album covers in Bollywood were loud and literal, and hinged on the type treatment to hint at the mood of the film. As Kacker described, Sholay (meaning “cinders”) had cracks and fiery embers in the typography, Shantranj Ke Khilari (“The Chess Players”) had letterforms that look like chess pieces, while Angoor (meaning “grapes”) has bulbous typography that look like hanging fruit. While Shedge worked with the same mediums of photography and type, his album covers were neither loud nor literal like these popular film posters, but instead suggested a more pared-back, light-handed touch, while also tapping into the same expressiveness of the typography that was familiar to the industry at the time. His ability to create compact and balanced title designs was a trait he extended beyond his work in Devanagari typography, as seen in his Latin lettering for the covers.
“He understood letters in such an intimate way that he was able to move beyond the hyper-literal and make things that were evocative instead,” said Kacker. “In the cover for Charanjit Singh’s 1974 Instrumental Film Tunes, he used beautiful art deco style-lettering in tandem with some really psychedelic texturing that screamed into the future.”
Kacker also pointed to the cover of the 1967 repress of the soundtrack for Anmol Ghadi (meaning “a precious moment”) released by Columbia and designed by Shedge, which stands out for its abstract design (featuring fluid waves, perhaps hinting to the passage of time) and crisp typography. “Shedge’s cover for Anmol Ghadi is underscored by the beautiful Helvetica-like type and the setting. It reminds me of the type used for the legendary poster for Rosemary’s Baby. But it predates the release of Rosemary’s Baby by a year, which is truly amazing,” said Kacker.
His title designs for other albums are equally fascinating: curling, elegant letters are set within a circle for the soundtrack of Anamika (1973), a film that tells the tale of charming woman who forgets her identity after meeting with an accident; sharp, edgy title lettering sit alongside five bullet holes for the cover of Paanch Dushman (1973) (meaning “five enemies”) hinting at the film’s edge-of-the-seat action; while his designs for records for children flaunted fun, playful notes, like a simple title design for Minoo (1976), which looked like letters drawn by a child with a piece of chalk, or alphabets made of dots and lines for Ata Khela Nacha (1975), an album of Marathi songs for children.
His ability to root his designs in a specific context catalyzed his range as a designer. “While I was working on a recent project — a heavy, graphic typeface called Fit Devanagari — I was referencing Shedge’s book Chitrakshar to look at how he re-interpreted a specific letter each time he drew it for a different purpose or with a different intent,” said Gandhi. “It’s joyous to study his boundless creativity; his book always acts as a repository of references and ideas whenever I’m working my way through a creative challenge.”
Shedge was hailed as the “Akshar Samrat” (the Emperor of Letters) by his contemporaries. For decades, he revolutionized the way India perceived typography, lettering, and design at large, with the sharp, skillful gestures of his hand. His legacy continues to be defined by his ability to capture the nuances of a story, and allude to the complexity of ideas and emotions — all through an inimitable mastery of the humble alphabets.
All images courtesy of Lokesh Karekar were originally published in an article written by Tanya George for Fontstand.