Indian Graphic Design
Women & Design // WID Insights
From Mughal paintings to Adobe-aided graphic posters, we've come a long way. In early 2020, we took it upon ourselves to dig deeper and look through our roots and truly understand what makes design in India what it is today.
I used to stray away from History, thinking it purely consisted of remembering dates and things that happened thousands and thousands of years ago. Why do we need to know that now, I would wonder, how does it help us? I later realized what a naïve misunderstanding it had been, on my behalf.
As a Third Culture Kid, I was constantly moving around. As a result of my nomadic childhood, by the time I was 18, I had lived in 4 different countries — and visited countless more. It fascinated me how vastly distinctive each country (even each of the cities) I’d visited was. The rich, vibrant culture was evident even in those larger matured areas that somehow made them unique despite the mass globalization efforts. Naturally, I was star-struck when I moved back to India; the depth of culture spun across cities, plastering itself onto walls and ceilings, even on the vehicles — personalization flowed through the country in a way no other could follow.
Walking down the streets in major cities like Mumbai, Pune, Delhi, and Bangalore or even within the hidden nooks of Chennai, the evident contrast between the decorative traditional Indian signage as compared to the more minimalistic modern signage is hard to miss. Visual representations of India’s history still dawdle in plain sight; from South Bombay’s iconic architecture to the omnipresent smaller local shops across the nation. Twenty-nineteen was an interesting year of discovery, one where I’d pursued a graduate internship with a studio in Rotterdam, Netherlands, and graduated from design school in India, eventually starting my career fresh out of university. Alike any other recent graduate, it was a confusing time where I was in the process of understanding my creative identity. This was when I started to really notice the abundance of visual reminders of our history hiding in plain sight, waiting to be focused on — like a story waiting to be unveiled.
In late 2019, Ashwini (my co-founder) and I visited a friend of ours in Chennai. It was our first time going down south. On our way back to Chennai from Pondicherry, we decided to stop by the small but famous town of Auroville. It was there, in a small local owned ice cream parlour, that we found these stunning postcards with vintage graphic visuals from all across the country. They were simple in design, but they represented something far deeper for us. We went nuts! Each of us bought about 15-20 postcards each, and no, we didn’t have anyone to send it to. They were memoirs of our trip that would probably go up on our walls, or for safe-keeping. This was about the time when I was also doing a short personal project of mine; understanding what the larger globalized brands of the world would look like, if their influence stemmed from Indian graphics and visuals. I wondered how it would change the way people perceive design in India today. How would it influence the design being taught in Indian schools and colleges? So, it was really exciting for me to come across these postcards and take home more than just a memoir of our trip together, but of what design in India was like.
I wanted to break down the elements of Graphic Design in India today, to understand what makes it so unique. Through the previous Women In Design – Graphic Design post, I looked at multiple timelines of Indian graphics over the years, from movie posters and automobiles, to packaging, books and comics. There was a sense of harmony that emerged from the heavily decorative visual; an era during which negative space wasn’t the queen bee of great designs. Let’s have a look at all, shall we?
At a time when the closest thing to a modern day ‘movie trailer’ was a single sheet poster, burdened with the task of enticing viewers to watch the entire 2 hour 30 minute long film, Bollywood posters were (and still are) a category of their own. Bold display typography coupled with vibrant colour schemes and action shots depicting the plots of the movie, these posters were enough to call any and every Indian. Many artists back in the day made their livings off of painting these posters and larger hoardings of these movies (as I write this, a scene from Om Shanti Om comes to mind). Fonts were chosen based on the genre and story the poster had to depict, giving thought to structure and lines choosing carefully the emotions being conversed. More often than not, vivid colour filled backgrounds were applied with collages of the actors within, similar to what posters are like today.
Of course, the further you travel back in time, the restraints on colour and technology increase, but the essence remains the same.
This one has got to be one of my favourites. The level of personalization in India is far more than any westernized country or community. A simple comparison would be your local Auto rickshaws vs. Uber today; rickshaws are filled with hand painted graphics and colourfully vibrant textiles covering roof interiors making each of your auto rides a one-of-a-kind experience – drastically different to the monotonous Uber rides drenched in globalized minimalism. Another great example, which almost any Indian would recognize from a mile away, would be our cargo trucks with their infamous tagline; Horn Ok Please. Decorating their trucks means a big deal to these truck drivers, seeing as they spend most of their time on the road, sometimes even having to sleep, eat and live in the vehicle itself. Truck art is something so unique to India, and sadly quite overlooked. It’s only in the recent years that creatives started looking into what truly goes behind these creative outputs and understanding their value. Trucks are empty canvases ready to be filled with quotes, poetry phrases, and safety protocols brought to life with bold typography and visual elements such as culturally relevant motifs, colours, and symbols stemming from individual superstitions.
Their design language consists of a heavy overload of curved lines paired with bright tetradic colours and fonts as visual elements cluttering the once empty canvas almost diminishing the background from existence. In a way, these trucks, autos and cars have their identities painted onto them as they travel across the country. Initially, hand painted graphics was the ‘go-to’ form of vehicle personalization, however as technology and mass production progressed, vinyl sticker sheets quickly became the easier alternative. It’s not only the exteriors of these vehicles that gets glammed up for the road, but interiors too; adding plywood and laminate work with delicate patterns filling the roofs and bright colourful LED’s highlighting them further.
Comics like Chacha Chaudhary and the Common Man are the most recognizable and nostalgic comics selling nationwide in about 10 Indian languages and English! Chacha Chaudhary was created back in 1971 by Pran Kumar Sharma for Lotpot magazine, which very soon became quite popular with Indians of all ages, from young ones to the elderly! There’s no doubt that the design of the character was modified through the years, but the essence of the character remained constant; be it the subtle hinting of his mustache or the realistic shadows and highlights showing up as design styles evolve. Similarly, R. K. Laxman’s ‘Common Man’ representing hopes, dreams and aspirations of millions of Indians through tales and fables of the average Indian man was merely brought to life through simple sturdy strokes depicting form and depth. Of course there are more, from Tinkle to Supandi and Shikari Shambu!
Taking a deep dive in the depths of Indian Visual history is as tough as it is interesting, while many of the stories remain unfinished, it is up to us to join the dots and form our reality. It’s weird to think how we’ve got everything we need - all the clues are in our hands, documented, plastered around buildings which once were empty canvases, records of the years that passed us, yet the story remains unfinished.
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