Rajeev Prakash remembers being five years old, attentively watching his elder brother paint words. Great flourishes were accompanied by minute twirls of the brush, and as the word papad (cracker) emerged, Prakash encountered the Devanagari script for the first time. And so began the journey of one of India’s most prolific type designers.
Designing Indian typography is notoriously complicated. The country’s hundreds of spoken languages are composed of different scripts, so creating a typeface might mean designing a character set for five different scripts. Hindi, the (at times contested) official language of India, takes its form from the ancient Devanagari script. In our digital age, which is ever-increasingly reliant on Roman alphabet keyboards in India, some argue that the Devanagari script may be dying out, and replaced with a more “millennial” Hindi written in Latin characters. It’s within this context that Prakash has been determined to preserve and re-interpret Indic scripts for the digital age: He designed the first Anglo-Nagiri (Hindi) keyboard in the ‘90s and has published some of the country’s most prevalent typefaces for Indic scripts.
Prakash first learned how to set hot metal type during his BFA at Banaras Hindu University in 1982. He became an expert in calligraphy, and was able to handwrite ten point Times New Roman with a rotring pen. By 1990, while completing his MA at the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) in Mumbai, Prakash was creating typefaces using MacPaint on a 6” x 4” monochrome screen. “Mac paint was amazing for me. Wow! So many effects…,” says the designer today. “Of course it was in black and white, and a color printout was not there at that time. But we were very happy.” One of Prakash’s typeface, designed while a student at IIT and named Rejeev, went on to be used for the Indian Post Office.
Prakash’s first job out of school was for VSS Computers Pvt. Ltd, a company that sold Indian language software to ad agencies and newspapers. The first typeface he designed was Chetna, created for the body copy of a newspaper, followed by a headline font set in bold Devanagari, named Virat. Over a period of two years, he designed six typefaces, across Malayalam, Vedic, Bangla, and Devanagari scripts. “The highest number of characters I’ve designed for one typeface? At least seven thousand,” says Prakash.
The designer left to set up his prolific VSOFT services in 1993, where he developed custom typefaces for clients such as the Hindi magazine Stardust. 25 years ago, as India was shifting from typewriter to computer, from Linotype to electronic typesetting, Prakash emphasizes that it wasn’t always easy to convince the market that digital media was the way forward.
“I often told government offices that the typewriter takes too much time, and you cannot store your data,” he says. “If you use a computer, it will take less time, the work will be accurate, neat, and you can store it. Bosses understood the beauty of this, but operators said no. They didn’t want to learn anything new. Whenever you change technology, people only think about how much more difficult their workload will become. So it was very hard to convince people.”
Designing an efficient Anglo-Nagiri (Hindi) keyboard helped with the convincing. While the English language is composed of 26 Latin characters, Hindi is constructed from 33 consonants and 12 vowels of the Devanagiri script, which are melded together to produce different phonemes (the smallest meaningful unit of sound). Together, these make up more than 100 different characters. Although a format already existed for the Hindi typewriter, it didn’t follow the pattern of the QWERTY keyboard.
“Typing such a complex script was very tough,” says Prakash. “When the computer arrived, [audiences] asked me to make the same pattern of typing [as the Hindi typewriter they’d been using] for 35 years… if the pattern was different, the typing speed would be slower [as they’d have to relearn the keys].” Prakash got the idea for a solution from a Bollywood star who tried to use one of his fonts. “He said, ‘on K should be “Ka” and on M should be “ma” and L should be “la.” So when I type KML, “Kamal” should appear.’ I said okay, I’ll try that. That was the beginning of the keyboard.”
By assigning the Latin letters on the QWERTY keyboard to their phonetic Devanagari counterparts (sometimes four characters would be assigned to one key), Prakash allowed Hindi speakers to type their language via any Latin-based keyboard. The design rose to higher levels of fame than any of Prakash’s other work, with its users ranging from the Indian government to the Bollywood film industry.
Prakash’s wife, Aarati Prakash, has always been a close-collaborator, and served as creative director of VSOFT services. A designer herself, Aarati Prakash illustrated over 2,000 original clip art images for the company, which were sold alongside its fonts. “We never used to get readymade Indian clip-arts,” she says. “We have different festivals and celebrations, as well as our mythological history, and our deities. Usually they are depicted as sculptures in a temple, or in calendar art, but don’t have digital forms. Our idea was to make these images digitally available, so users can use them relevant to their occasion and material.”
The couple enjoyed a profitable business, offering a service that had a warm, familial feel to it. If a customer was struggling to install a font, Prakash would send one of his engineers to their home to help them, an attitude that differentiated VSOFT from its peers. But with the looming shadow of tech giants monopolizing the industry, the joy in running an independent software business didn’t last.
“Everybody started using computers and the market was ready. And suddenly, a big giant came. We were a rat, and they were an elephant. We could not face that,” says Prakash. Microsoft entered the Indian market in the early 2000s to offer Mangal, a free font designed by R. K. Joshi, which was compatible with many Indian languages. When a free option appeared, demand for VSOFT’s services dropped.
Prakash went on to become Vice President of Summit Information Technologies, developing amongst other achievements, the typeface for the popular Zee TV channel. Reflecting on the closure of the business, he explains that in the ’90s, there were lots of people creating Hindi typefaces, but one person’s font wouldn’t work with another’s software. “The codes were not common—one service provider’s code was different from another’s, there was no match. All over the world, English has the same code, so there wasn’t the same problem. But for Indian languages, we didn’t have a consortium. Everyone was running their own technology.” Microsoft not only offered free typefaces, but it standardized technology as the leading software in the market, and dominated the industry.
While some say the Devanagari script is dying out in the digital realm, Prakash believes the very opposite. “It’s actually surviving because of the digital age… When you watch the news, it is all set in Devanagiri. In India, there are not many English speakers, but when you’re in the city it seems that there are. 70% of India actually resides in villages and small cities.” Favouring Indic scripts over Roman alphabets, these are the people keeping native scripts alive.
As reporter Akhilesh Pillalamarri notes in The Diplomat, it’s the proliferation of technology such as Unicode that has allowed Indic scripts to thrive in the 21st century: “The literacy of hundreds of millions of people in native scripts makes it unlikely that the shapes of letters used by millions of people everyday for communication will change anytime soon, as that would lead to confusion and a lack of communication.” Evolving technologies, standing hand in hand with rural India, may just ensure the survival of so called ‘complex’ scripts.
Today, Shubhra Prakash, Prakash’s niece, is working on immortalising her uncle’s work through a play, Fontwala, having already staged an exhibition exploring how the Devanagiri script is being preserved in the digital age. In a country where languages have the power to carve out divides between communities, the exhibition featuring numerous typefaces, all representing a multiplicity of spoken languages, celebrates unity amongst difference.