The initiative creating typefaces based on dying Indian crafts

Uniting typography, benevolence and the preservation of Indian crafts and tribal arts, the Type Craft Initiative is a refreshing proposal in a sea of “design for good”-type schemes that can often veer towards the self-serving.

The Type Craft Initiative

Created by Delhi-based graphic designer Ishan Khosla, the initiative involves creating digitised typefaces based on Indian crafts and tribal arts, and in doing so raises funds for those artists and craftspeople involved in the collaborations. According to Khosla, the wider goals are to “inspire, create awareness and generate further interest in the history, context, work and life of the people we collaborate with”.

Whether the typefaces created end up making money or not, the craftspeople are always paid in advance, with the funds raised used to cover costs and initiate new projects with other tribal and craft artists groups.

“The project is meant as a way for craftspeople and tribal artists to think in new ways in a world where they are no longer able to sustain themselves solely through traditional networks and systems,” Khosla adds. “While they themselves are finding new ways — through new mediums and objects to make their work more commercially viable to new audiences — we believe as graphic designers that their skills are invaluable in creating a typographic archive of their work.

Khosla started the project having moved back to India after spending 12 years in the US, and finding himself falling in love with traditional Indian crafts and culture. “I started to think about how to incorporate those into commercials projects like book covers and posters,” he says. “But I always felt my interaction with artisans was very one-off – I’d go and make something and then we’re done and that’s it. But I wanted to do something where they’d benefit in a long term manner.

“Part of the goal was to bring awareness of communities that are on the brink of disappearing, and to get the word out there so that other people want to work with these communities as well. We wanted to make it as open-ended as possible.”

Type Craft Initiative, which launched in 2012, has so far produced two full typefaces, Godna and Chittara. The Godna typeface is based on the tribal tattoos created by the Gond tribe of Chattisgarh in Central India. “Godna has many motifs, each having a specific significance — some are curative in nature, while others are applied according to rites of passage in a woman’s life — such as puberty, marriage and childbirth,” Khosla explains. “The tattoos are highly valued for their powers of healing and their ritualistic significance.” Fewer people are being tattooed today, as migration to cities for work makes them less popular, and so the idea was to create a typeface that helped the artists see their craft in a new way.

Khosla and his team conducted a workshop, collaborating with three tribal women artists – Ram Keli, Sumitra and Sunita — to help make the typeface, which was developed with Andreu Balius of Barcelona-based Type Republic. The women drew letterforms using pen and ink, practising created proportionate letterforms with a consistent cap-height, but designing the motifs and patterns in whatever way they wanted. “This was a more balanced approach where the tribal artists had creative freedom but within a set of constraints,” says Khosla.

The other full typeface, Chittara, is based on a method of making traditional Indian flooring which uses clay paste to form geometric patterns on the floors and walls of home the entrances. It was drawn by Karnataka-based Radha Sullur, who again worked with Khosla and Balius. The Kannada word Chittara (which is related to chittra) means creating an image or drawing,” Khosla explains.

The Type Craft Initiative, Chittara typeface

Historically, the artform was been practiced by women of the Deevaru community in Karnataka’s Sagar district. Paintings would be created for home entrances to “welcome the gods,” he adds.

“In this project we had to explain the rules of type design as well as how this specific artwork can be transformed into type. We intentionally let the artist, Radha Sullur, draw and paint all the letters herself.”

Type Craft Initiative will be featured as part of the India Pavilion at the London Design Festival this September.

Type Craft Initiative, Gujarati, Ahir embroidery

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