Type and the City

Discovering narratives of Delhi city, culture and history through the mirror of type


A team from Lopez Design went out to discover typography in the environs of Delhi: Ruma Dhingra knits together the narratives of the city’s history and culture through the mirror of type.

There is a tendency in people to look for novelty outside of cities where they live, bypassing the invigorating experiences the city itself offers. Often a walk outside our usual haunts can present completely fresh material, which we have never noticed before. In fact, even on our regular beat, we may board a certain bus everyday, not paying attention to how a word or phrase is written behind the bus due to the hustle bustle of our fast paced lifestyles. Have you ever wondered why a particular word or phrase you pass by is written in a specific fashion? Our team from Lopez Design went out to photograph various samples of typography in the Delhi environs. The intent was to reflect on the finer nuances that have shaped the language of type in a city like Delhi whose history is both rich and complex.

Much of the history of Delhi is unrecorded and authentic records can be traced around the 12th century when it was Delhi Sultanate. Yet, Indian epics bring in references dating back to the time of the Puranas. The city of Kurushshetra not far from Delhi in Haryana, was the stage for the war in the Mahabharatha. The city of Indraprastha where the Pandavas lived is believed to be where the Purana Qila stands. From the 10th to 17th century CE where Delhi stands was the site of seven cities that kept morphing. Shahjahanbad with the Lal Qila and Chandni Chowk, founded by Shah Jahan, is now designated as Old Delhi. Delhi witnessed some major political turmoils over five centuries, including the rule of the Khiljis in the 13th century and the Tughlaqs in the 14th and 15th centuries. Most significantly, the Mughal dynasty, which ruled northern India from early 16th to mid 18th century left a deep impact on the culture of Delhi as a whole. We are well aware of various kinds of Mughlai delicacies available on the streets of Delhi. Likewise, we can trace a definite Islamic influence on type within the city.

Arabic, English and Devanagiri scripts fuse in a sign for a local business

Some of the reflections in the type of Delhi also appear to be a result of the numerous migrations into its precincts over the years and this continues into the present day. While it is true that one can find a mini Bengal in the heart of the city in the form of CR Park, ever thought about why so much of Bengali in public text is seen in other parts of the city as well? The connection between Delhi and Bengal is extremely old and a part of it goes back to the “Uttarapatha” (Road to the North), which existed from the time of the Mauryan Empire (322 to 185 BCE). Extended by Sher Shah Suri and then the British as the Grand Trunk Road, this served as an important route for not only trade but exchange between people of Delhi and Bengal. Bengal was equally important to the Mughals, even though Mughal officers stationed there detested the humid climate since they depended on Bengal for supply of luxurious goods such as raw silk. Later, the connections became stronger with the East India Company being set up in Bengal and the British ruling from Delhi. Also, Delhi did see a wave of Bengalis coming in with the partition of Bengal in 1947. Today, not only Bengalis are visible in the city, but also Bengali culture and so their typography.

A sign sporting gorgeous calligraphy in Bengali

It is also interesting to see how design and type have been increasingly used as a form of expression.  While graffiti began in the West as vandalism and a symbol of rebellion, today it takes the shape of a new art form used by the youth as propaganda for social issues. One can find such art forms in many areas of Delhi including Shahpur Jat, Khirki and Okhla. Artists have also taken a strong stance coming forward to protest some of the most obnoxious crimes committed against women in the city. Typography on the street is not only used to air views on social issues but also to express one’s emotions. One such example is the typography on the wall of the Tihar Jail which showcases poems written by the inmates.A pertinent observation here: the means of expression which is finding its way on the streets does not have a defined form nor does it constrict itself to rules of graphic design. 

(L) Art and type on walls as a way of expression; (R) Street art expressing world travel and Delhi through typography

One of the first graffiti artists in India who calls himself Daku, creates work that majorly comprises of writing his adopted alias ‘DAKU’ in different fonts. He is in fact the first such artist to use Devanagari script in his work. According to him, his works are less about dissent against establishments, and more a protest against the established lettering and typography used regularly by most painters.  Type as a form of expression in the modern age has become bold, direct and impactful. One may call it a form of rebellion or expression, but type is definitely all over the city.

(L) Sign creatively encouraging people to cycle across Delhi; (R) Type used to express the emotions of an individual or a society

Moving to the design scene,  designers and brands try to create logos in a way that they appear modern in terms of language but also have some element of traditional connect. For years we were trying to ape the West but more than ever today, we find the need to relate strongly to our own culture. Realizing the potential in our indigenous art and visual sensibility, designers are also fusing English and Indian fonts, leading to new identities altogether.

Fusion of styles merging Indian and Western in signs for stores

Some light also needs to be thrown on the fascinating quotes and graphics behind the trucks that ply Indian highways. Quirky phrases written in English tell us about the aspirations of these truck drivers who spend most of their time traveling with their faithful “companion”. The vehicle becomes a medium of their expression.

Some of the most innovative punch lines written on trucks are reflected through their own versions of type

One must not forget the small attempts made by people to bring reminders to city dwellers. “Thookna mana hai” (Spitting is prohibited), “Yahan na mootiye” (Do not urinate here) and “No parking”. As also the advertising for plumbers and painters that render the city quixotic through their own individual type language.

Creative advertising by small time professionals

Finally, some of the very common sights – in Delhi at least!

This is Ruma Dhingra signing off from Shahpur Jat. 

Written by Ruma Dhingra, Images courtesy: Lopez Design
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