Type walking through Kala Ghoda

Published in The Hindu — June 8, 2018.

On a summer Sunday morning, the streets of Mumbai’s Kala Ghoda district are relatively silent. Dappled sunlight lights up the red Mumbai Samachar building at Horniman Circle. Type designer Tanya George, points out the curves of the wooden letters on the signage of the Gujarati newspaper building. It’s one of many stops on the walk she’s leading around the area, a crash course into the world of typefaces and signage. “The arrangement of letters to write a language is what is known as typography,” 28 year-old George explains to a motley group of enthusiasts, made up of mostly non-designers. “Good typography means something that is better readable, and that whatever it’s trying to communicate is more accessible to its reader,” she adds.

All about design

This is an exercise in looking at the familiar with new eyes. At the restored Church of St Andrew, opposite Lion Gate, there’s pause over an inconsistent sans serif typeface with the Greco-Roman structure. Sans serif typefaces would have only just been emerging in England when the building was built in the early 19th century, George tells the group. In contrast, the K.R. Cama Oriental Institute next door announces its presence in an elegant, high-waisted typeface that follows through on the building’s Art Deco style. Over two hours, George talks passionately about the use of pirated fonts on digitised street signboards, the need for a uniform wayfinding system across the city, and the need for regional scripts to be represented better.

About two years ago, George returned to Mumbai, equipped with a Masters in Typeface Design from the University of Reading, U.K. “I’ve walked these roads for around 12 years now, and I’ve always looked at the letters. After my Masters, I could understand the design decisions behind those signs a lot better,” she says.

Tracing history

Type walks aren’t new. In cities across the world, they’re an up-and-coming way for locals and travellers to get acquainted with a different perspective. In Mumbai, it’s particularly interesting because of the various languages spoken by the city’s inhabitants. “These languages inform the typography of the city, in terms of signage,” George says. “While this could be true for any urban city, what helps here is also the historical narrative of immigrants coming here to set up shop. You have Gujaratis, Malayalis and others from different parts of the country who have made Mumbai home and left bits of themselves on [the city] with their shops and establishments.” In Kala Ghoda, you can track these changes over time. “In some cases, companies have gone away but their signage is still up. With gentrification, you have newer stuff coming up—some of which is nice, some of which is not so nice,” George says.

On the walk, George points to a chai stall with bright, funky truck-art slogans plastered all over, an example of the new “not so nice” typography. This is one of many cumbersome modifications to the neighbourhood; most are being made to old structures, but they’re all red flags for the conservation of the city’s heritage. For Dr Simin Patel, city historian behind the blog Bombaywalla, there are ways to reduce this loss in the gentrified neighbourhood. “If [cafes, stores etc] maintain the original structure of the premises—for example, the doors and the tiling—and put their more swanky stuff inside, at least the structure and some history remains,” she says.

Question of aesthetics

Conservation architect Vikas Dilawari, who has spent years restoring heritage buildings in Mumbai, comes with real-life expertise on these situations. “The present trend is to have back-lit signage that is [targeted at] vehicular traffic. You see a lot of banks that have wraparound signage. For them, business is more important. The Citibank signage [opposite J.N. Petit Library on D.N. Road, Fort], for example, covers three bas-reliefs of an important building,” he explains. “The worst part is that if one wrong trend starts, everyone wants to follow [that] citing [it] as the best example. Signage should not be loud and overwhelming.”

George hopes that a sort of “type vigilantism” will help to change the status quo. “I want to get everyone to shame people into putting up nicer signs,” she says. If her two walks so far are anything to go by, her plan may already be in action. “Some people shared pictures with me [after the walk], talking about how a particular signage wasn’t great,” George says. “They may not be spot-on, but they’ve noticed that there’s something off, and that’s great, because at least they’re looking.”