Devanagari – The Makings of a National Character
The story of Devanagari type from early print to the digital age, as Indian print culture both sparked and responded to intense socio-political change and constant technological innovation.
The Devanagari script (also called Nagari) emerged in the 7th century CE as a descendant of the Gupta script, alongside the closely related ancient Śāradā and Siddhamātr̥kā scripts. It reached maturity around the 13th century CE.
Although primarily used to write Sanskrit in inscriptions and religious manuscripts, Devanagari was also used to write vernacular languages across much of northern, northwestern and western India.
As was customary in pre-modern India, these written traditions utilised more than one script. For example, the cursive Moḍī script was used for scribal Marathi, as opposed to Devanagari, used for Marathi inscriptions.
In fact, Devanagari was generally preferred for non-scribal purposes, since local cursive scripts were better suited to the task of writing large volumes of text by hand swiftly. Before the spread of print, Devanagari was almost exclusively used for formal texts, composed by scribes. Manuscripts, written with reed pens, were the primary medium of Devanagari writing.
Today, the Devanagari script is used to write three major languages: Hindi (over 520 million speakers), Marathi (over 83 million speakers) and Nepali (over 14 million speakers). Collectively, Devanagari is the most widely used Brahmic script in the world, with many millions of people using it to read and write text on a daily basis.
A map of 22 official languages of India as defined by The Eighth Schedule to the Constitution of India.
Hindi is one of the official languages of the Government of India (alongside English), while Nepali is the sole official language of Nepal as well as an official language of the Indian state of Sikkim. Marathi is the official language of the Indian state of Maharashtra and is co-official in Goa. Sanskrit, the primary Hindu liturgical language, is also usually written in Devanagari, including in regions where the local language is not written in Devanagari.
Within India, Hindi is official in the following states: Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Rajasthan, Haryana, Himachal Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, Uttarakhand and the National Capital Territory of Delhi.
In addition, Hindi is used by Indian Central Government institutions across the country, and is widely taught and spoken as an additional language outside Hindi-speaking states.
Devanagari is also used for non-standardised languages constitutionally recognised by the Indian Government: Bodo, Maithili, Kashmiri, Sindhi, Dogri and Konkani.
Graphically, Devanagari is marked by its prominent use of the shirorekha (head stroke, from which letters hang), and vertical bars (full or half) supporting most letters. Most letter forms tend to only be moderately rounded, and almost always feature elements with straight lines.
Devanagari letter form components labelled in Marathi. Shirorekha (head stroke) highlighted.
Consonant clusters can be represented vertically stacked, or linearly. Traditionally, vertically stacked forms predominated, and they are still preferred for Nepali and Sanskrit. Vowel diacritic markers can appear above, below, to the right or to the left of a consonant letter. A full set of numerals from 0 to 9 is also commonly used.
Hindi, Marathi and Nepali largely share the same set of letters, although there are some regional letter-form variants preferred by each language group. Conjunct formation, numeral and punctuation preferences also differ.
Since these languages have different phonological systems, the same Devanagari letters are not always mapped onto the same phonetic units. For example, च represents the English ‘ch’ sound in Hindi but ‘ts’ in Nepali, and both in Marathi.
Certain phonemes in these languages that are not found in Classical Sanskrit are represented by extra letters, such as Marathi <ळ> for <ɭ>.
From manuscript to print
The printing press reached India via Portuguese colonial authorities in 1556, changing forever the face of Indian literary history – the visual representation of Indian scripts, the means in which texts circulated, and the development of modern linguistic communities.
Indian literary traditions at the time were largely oral, with writing playing a secondary role. Literacy was also overwhelmingly the preserve of the social elite, and most written records from the pre-modern period appear in the form of manuscripts and inscriptions.
Given this, the circulation of early Indian printed texts was even more limited, and in many cases intended primarily for a European readership. Even so, by the early 1800s, schools, run by missionaries and colonial authorities, were opened up across British India, with some native rulers following suit. This formed the basis for public education in India, setting the stage for wider literacy.
In fact, it wouldn’t be a stretch to say that the written word first reached the Indian masses through the medium of print, made possible by universal public education. Printed texts spread with unprecedented velocity and, in engaging with written material, communities coalesced together to form larger linguistic communities bound by a shared literary language and canon.
The forging of linguistic identity through engagement with written texts, modern notions of identity and nationalism, and attempts to standardise common literary forms of languages – a crucial phase in modern Indian history in its own right – only came about as a result of the medium of print.
Writing in pre-modern Indian society was characterised by the use of a range of scripts across linguistic traditions, where languages were often written in different scripts based on considerations of author, audience, context and purpose.
When a language was written down, such as in manuscripts or inscriptions, the choice of script was dictated by socio-cultural factors on one hand, and technological considerations on the other.
These rich traditions of multiscriptal negotiation and co-existence largely remained stable over the course of pre-modern Indian history, albeit restricted to traditionally literate communities.
At the same time, printing denoted a decisive break with pre-print traditions, and completely changed the trajectory of Indian literary traditions. What more ‘traditional’ audiences are used to today may more likely reflect early print rather than any pre-print writing.
As Fiona Ross puts it, ‘the continued influences of the early established types may result from the convention of type designs being closely followed, and even copied, rather than original design styles being initiated, largely owing to what has been perceived as reader conservatism.’
Unfortunately, overheads and development costs hindered the development and usage of a wider range of Devanagari font styles on par with Latin alphabet fonts in the West.
Although major Indian languages had established and highly cultivated scribal and manuscript traditions, typography was essentially a European import to the region. As such, the technology was designed for the Latin script.
Indian language typography involved a balance between adhering to norms used in writing Brahmic scripts, and adapting these scripts to the technologies available.
One of the most persistent influences of Latin centrism was the linearisation of Indic scripts. Stacked conjuncts, and even vowel diacritics, were easier to represent linearly, and led to varying degrees of simplification depending on print technology and language.
This history of Latin centrism carries a legacy that still makes its presence felt, through conventions formalized at different stages in print history. After all, digital fonts have their basis in fonts designed for metal types.
The earliest extant sample of printed Devanagari is in the 1667 text, China Illustrata, compiled by the German missionary Athanasius Kircher. The text features samples of Devanagari, in the form of individual letters, letters with combining mātrās, and short example texts.
Devanagari samples from China Illustrata, Athanasius Kircher, 1677
Another important early print sample is a Konkani language section written in the Devanagari script in a 1678 text, Hortus Indicus Malabaricus, printed in Amsterdam.
Konkani writing in Devanagari, reproduced by block printing, in Hortus Indicus Malabaricus.
The first ever metal Devanagari type was cast in 1740, thousands of miles from India – in Rome by Indian converts to Catholicism. This was used to print Alphabetum Brahmanicum in 1771, the earliest extant text we have printed in a Devanagari font. The vernacular samples in the text reflect the linguistic variety the British termed ‘Hindustani’.
Type used in Alphabetum Brahmanicum, 1771
Although the Portuguese had begun printing in India in 1556 (followed by European missionaries printing in Tamil in the Tamil region), they neither cast a Devanagari font nor printed in the script. On the contrary, metal font casting in Devanagari was carried out in Europe, mostly by Germans and British scholars.
Devanagari printing in India would have to wait a few centuries, until the close of the 18th century.
Direct colonial British authority in India (following the 1757 Battle of Plassey) was first based in the city of Calcutta. Soon, Europeans in Calcutta began to study local culture and languages.
Although the city’s local language was Bengali – written in the Eastern Nagari script, also known as the Bengali-Assamese script – British expansionism at the time pushed further and further into ‘Hindustani’- speaking territory further west, making ‘Hindustani’ texts part of their research in Calcutta.
In 1778, Charles Wilkins, employed by the East India Company, designed the first successful metal type font cast in India, for Bengali.
Wilkins then cast the first Devanagari font in 1786 – used in printing Sanskrit and Urdu verses in a book in 1789 – with the assistance of the English-run Chronicle Press in Calcutta. Wilkins was assisted in his typographic endeavours by Panchanan Karmakar, a native blacksmith.
Over the next decade, numerous texts were printed using Wilkins’ Nagari fonts.
The nearby Danish-controlled town of Serampore became a base for European Christian missionaries, who began printing Christian texts in various Indian languages. In 1802, the Serampore Mission Press was set up, and soon became the largest printing press in all of India. An English missionary, William Carey, was particularly active in overseeing translations of religious materials at Serampore.
Calcutta’s Fort William College, also set up in 1802, became the most important centre for the study of Indian languages and literatures. Calcutta developed into a major hub for Orientalist research, where European technology and scholarship methods came into close contact with native literary cultures and systems of knowledge, producing an entirely new body of research.
In 1803, Karmakar came to run the Serampore Mission Press’s type foundry. The Serampore Mission Press – under Karmarkar – produced a number of Nagari fonts that were in demand, across North India, Calcutta, and Bombay. Baburam, a Bengali, started the Sanskrit Press in 1807, attached to Fort William College.
The letter forms used in these Calcutta (and Serampore) produced fonts formed the basis of the so-called Calcutta style of Devanagari, in particular the ones used in Charles Wilkins’ A Grammar of the Sanskrita Language (1808). These types took three years to produce.
A Grammar of the Sanskrita Language, Charles Wilkins, London 1808.
Calcutta-style fonts featured stiffer forms than those found in scribal writing, presumably reflecting the usage of steel-nib pens to reproduce written text instead of the traditional reed pen.
According to Vaibhav Singh, ‘the Wilkins style became the model for a number of types cut and cast in and around Calcutta, but also for those in England (Figgins), France (Imprimerie Royale), and Germany (Schlegel), versions of which were subsequently widely distributed, copied, and commercially available in some form throughout the 19th century and part of the 20th (for e.g. through the Baptist Mission Press that supplied a lot of printing/publishing establishments across British India).’
European scholars at the Fort William College, primarily Wilkins, introduced Western-style punctuation and spacing into their Indian language texts, an innovation that caught on (and remains to this day).
Conjunct formation was simplified and regularised compared to manuscript and inscription forms, by re-analysing consonant conjuncts as consisting of a primary and subsidiary element that could be combined (and separated). This approach reduced the number of unique types needed, lowering costs as well.
Calcutta-based European scholars studied and printed Sanskrit texts, preferring to use the Devanagari script to represent the language. This helped formalise an already existing tendency among Indian elites and would leave its mark on North India’s Nagari movement in the coming decades.
The noted Indologist William Jones (attached to Fort Williams College) declared Devanagari to be the most ideal script for Sanskrit, an opinion shared by Wilkins, and later even by the noted German Indologist Max Müller.
During this phase, printing was almost entirely the preserve of Europeans – missionaries, the nascent colonial Indian state, and even European entrepreneurs. Indians provided labour, and received training in the various processes of typography as a result.
Despite Indian involvement in printing, it is unclear to what extent the fonts that were designed during this period in Calcutta and Serampore reflected the creative contributions of Indians and their own literary needs. The primary intended readership of these European-run presses was also European.
As Vaibhav Singh puts it, Indian scribes and scholars (the two primarily literate Indian classes) were likely seen as ‘useful informants’ that helped guide the European type designers, but were not active drivers of type design themselves. As such, it cannot be taken for granted that these fonts represented a continuity with local scribal traditions.
Reflecting this, we lack commentary by ‘native’ printers, let alone readers, on how they perceived these typefaces.
From the 1820s onwards, printing spread westwards towards the Gangetic plains, the ‘Hindustani’ region, where Persian was still the primary written language.
Lithographic printing reached India in 1822, via Europe. In North India, metal type and lithography spread side by side, and lithography seems to have been preferred locally.
Lithography was ideal, particularly for reproducing the elaborate, highly calligraphic nastaliq hand used to write Persian and Urdu (both important written languages in North India at the time), which metal type was decidedly unsuitable for. In fact, more Persian books were printed in India than Iran in the 1800s, and Indian printers even exported Persian texts to Iran.
Lithographic printing also made multilingual and multiscript printing convenient, a huge plus in reproducing Indian textual traditions where different scripts and languages routinely appeared in the same text.
Its ease, portability, suitability to complex scripts, and lower set-up costs facilitated the participation of more Indians in printing, effectively helping drive the emergence, growth and consolidation of Indian literary communities.
Lucknow’s Naval Kishore Press was the leading force in Indian lithographic printing, printing Hindi, Sanskrit, Persian and Arabic texts.
As the growth of metal type printing led to the loss of employment for traditional scribal communities, lithography offered them alternative career options. This also meant that lithographed text showed more continuity with earlier graphical conventions, variation and aesthetics.
Or, in Graham Shaw’s words, ‘there is also the deeper cultural question of textual acceptability and the aesthetics of the book. Thus, lithography was in essence, a link with the past. It combined the cultural attributes of the manuscript with the technical advantages of mass-production. Lithography made the printed book no longer an alien artefact but something visually more familiar and therefore culturally more acceptable.’
Even after lithography became less popular, the technology remained in use for printing book covers and the like.
Lithographic printing was an important phase in the history of Indian printing, especially in North India. It’s sadly all too easy to overlook its massive influence in shaping how texts were produced, and the graphical development involved.
The port city of Bombay (now Mumbai) on India’s west coast rose to prominence in the 1800s by gaining a firm place in global trade. Bombay was a major node in Indian Ocean mercantile and cultural networks, and even traded with ports further east, including Hong Kong.
Bombay lay in the Marathi linguistic zone, but was also home to sizable communities speaking Gujarati. The most important of these were the Parsis, adherents of the Zoroastrian faith who had fled from Iran centuries earlier.
Bombay’s Parsis became heavily involved in the city’s bustling global trade, and were among the first Indian communities to associate with the commercial and administrative interests of the British.
Bombay’s bustling global trade brought local Parsis much prosperity, and they began to print texts in their native language (written in what is now called the Gujarati script). A Parsi, Fardunji Marzban, set up the first Indian-run commercial printing press in 1812 with his own Gujarati font, catering mostly to his own community.
Parsi printing, headquartered in Bombay, marks the dawning of Indian print capitalism. The early 1822 origins of Bombay Samachar, Asia’s oldest continuously run daily newspaper, is a testament to the print entrepreneurship of Bombay’s Parsis.
Around the same time, Bombay-based European Christian missionaries began to print religious texts in Marathi, using the Devanagari script. The cursive Moḍī script, more commonly used by Marathi speakers, proved challenging to typeset.
Initially, typefaces for Devanagari were procured from Calcutta and Serampore, but were frustrating to work with. Devanagari fonts had also been used to print Marathi texts decades earlier by native rulers, especially in Tanjore [Thanjavur] and Poona [Pune] (before their eventual conquest by the British).
In 1835, Bombay’s American Mission Press (set up in 1817) brought equipment to cast its own types. Thomas Graham¹, a blacksmith, became the press’s type designer.
In 1836, Graham designed a new Devanagari font for Marathi, recognised for its superior legibility and aesthetic design, with letter forms more rounded compared to their Calcutta-style predecessors.
The letter forms used by the American Mission Press’s Bombay foundry under Graham form the basis of Bombay-style Devanagari type. To be sure, letter-form variation in Devanagari existed well before Graham, but Graham’s font gave the Devanagari of the Marathi region new expression, in metal type.
It is strongly suggested that Graham’s font was heavily influenced by lithographed Marathi printing undertaken in earlier years, which would have involved greater input from native scribes than Calcutta-style fonts.
Graham’s innovations also extended to the mechanical working of print. His font reduced letter size and used fewer conjuncts, cutting costs in half and greatly reducing the number of type matrices needed.
Graham took the existing phalā system of typesetting, and developed it into the so-called degree system. In degree typesetting, vowel diacritics and combining forms were given independent sorts, and had to be combined with the base consonant while typesetting in a three step process – one with the base character in a reduced size, one for combining diacritics above, and one for diacritics below.
Degree (left) and Akhand (right) systems of composition (from Fiona Ross, 'Invisible hands: tracing the origins and development of the Linotype Devanagari digital fonts’, Journal of the Printing Historical Society, 2021, p.113, based on an illustration in B. S. Naik, Typography of Devanagari (Bombay: Directory of Languages, 1965). Image courtesy Fiona Ross.
A new generation of local craftsmen apprenticed under Graham at the American Mission Press, began to learn the typographic arts.
One of these, Ganpat Krishnaji (who also apprenticed under Fardunji Marzban), set up his own press in 1840 and cast a Devanagari font of his own around 1846. The work of his press, mostly in Marathi, circulated among literate Marathi speakers.
According to Veena Naregal, ‘In publishing vernacular texts outside the strict realm of the colonial curriculum, Krishnaji was exploring the commercial possibilities of the new communicative medium.’
With a native readership (expanding as public education spread), printed text became a medium for debates on social reform, literature, identity and religion. Periodicals in particular circulated far and wide, with great speed.
Between the Parsis securing Indian control of the means of printing, local improvements in print technology and fonts, and printers like Krishnaji tapping into an emerging native readership, Bombay’s contribution to Indian printing in the first half of the 1800s was nothing short of revolutionary.
Developments in Bombay spread to the nearby city of Poona [Pune], formerly the capital of the Maratha state and a Marathi literary hub. A British Army cantonment set up in the city, and its proximity to Bombay helped spark technological development locally. From the late 1800s onwards, type foundries – including the noted Arya Bhushan Press – sprouted up across Poona, designing fonts for Marathi.
The official printing press (A Imprensa Nacional) of the Portuguese state in Goa purchased Thomas Graham’s Marathi font from Bombay in 1853, merely years after it was cast. The Portuguese even printed bilingual Portuguese-Marathi texts from their capital in Nova Goa [Panjim].
The Nirnay Sagar era
Another one of Thomas Graham’s apprentices, Javaji Dadaji, changed the face of Indian typography forever.
A Bombay native, Dadaji started his own foundry in 1864, followed by the Nirnay Sagar Press in 1869. In addition to the American Mission Press, Dadaji had also apprenticed at The Times of India Press.
Taking up local printing requirements, Dadaji’s perfectionism and keen eye for type design brought him – and his fonts – much recognition and appreciation.
As Fiona Ross notes, ‘the high-contrast heading types of the Javaji Dadaji type foundry skillfully display the customary stroke modulation created by the Indian reed pen, whereby the strokes of bowls thicken when meeting a vertical.’ Dadaji also continued to use Graham’s degree system for his fonts.
The Nirnay Sagar Press came to be known mostly for aesthetic and highly legible editions of Sanskrit religious and literary texts, intended for both Indian and European readers. It printed Sanskrit texts exclusively in Devanagari, continuing the conventions followed by earlier European Indologists. Dadaji also used traditional conjunct letters for Sanskrit whose usage in Hindi and Marathi had been deprecated by earlier printers.
Sanskrit was traditionally written in different local scripts depending on region, but the wide readership and influence of Nirnay Sagar reproductions of Sanskrit texts helped establish Devanagari as the primary script for the language.
In addition to the Sanskrit texts they were famous for, the Nirnay Sagar Press published a number of Marathi texts, including textbooks for school children.
Dadaji’s Devanagari typefaces, around 20, were extremely influential, and remain foundational even for digital fonts to this very day.
Nirnay Sagar Press's original typefaces.
The impact of Dadaji’s revolutionary new Devanagari fonts, with their high demand, shaped the development of Devanagari in the 1900s as well. Very significantly, fonts used for mechanised typesetting technology that would spread in the 1900s were modelled after Nirnay Sagar fonts.
Dadaji’s fonts were in demand from the 1870s to the 1960s, besides having shaped typographical development at numerous foundries across the country for decades, both small and large – an enviable legacy for any type designer.
Devanagari and the Indian national movement
Bal Gangadhar Tilak, a charismatic and highly influential nationalist leader from the Marathi region, was one of the earliest major figures to articulate India’s need for a common national script.
In an impassioned 1905 speech in Varanasi at the Nagari Pracharini Sabha, Tilak asserted the need for a pan-Indian script across Indo-Aryan languages, and chose Devanagari as the ideal candidate for such a task.
In doing so, he drew from existing debates over script and identity in North India and the emerging Hindi sphere. By asserting that the Devanagari movement was an integral part of Indian national identity, he linked the script to ideas of national unity.
Tilak cited the work of ‘European Sanskritists’ as establishing the supposed superiority of Devanagari, in particular the landmark Sacred Books of the East series. Interestingly, Tilak used the name Devanāgari instead of Nāgari², the more common name for the script at the time.
As the Indian independence movement grew and matured, Standard Hindi was a rallying point for many nationalist leaders, who envisioned it as a unifying language across India, an exemplar of Indian identity.
Standard Hindi had only been codified in the mid-19th century, in what is now the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh. The Devanagari script played a key role in this process, helping establish its distinct graphical identity from Standard Urdu written in the Perso-Arabic script.
Devanagari was given a place of prominence by virtue of its association with Standard Hindi, and nationalist discourse often referenced Devanagari’s potential role in shaping an evolving national identity. Devanagari promotion was no longer a regional concern limited to North India.
One of Devanagari’s strongest supporters was none other than Mahatma Gandhi himself (a Gujarati speaker), who spoke of the script’s unifying character as early as the late 1910s, and more extensively during the 1920s.
In a 1936 address at a literary conference, Gandhi declared that Hindi would be the national language of India, making clear the extent of his unequivocal support for the language. In the years to follow, Gandhi also lent support to literary associations dedicated to Hindi promotion.
The case for Devanagari
Of course, Devanagari was neither inherently neutral nor uniquely equipped to handle the task of representing all Indian languages.
Much of this rhetoric – such as Tilak’s – emphasised the script’s ‘scientific’ features, particularly the perceived one-to-one mapping of letters and sounds. Its widespread usage was also brought up. In addition, Devanagari was seen by some as closer to a Hindu religious identity, given its proximity to Sanskrit written traditions and contemporary usage by Brahmins to write Sanskrit across different linguistic regions.
Devanagari was also considered a link to India’s ancient past, and pre-modern inscriptions in Devanagari were often referenced.
One thing did set Devanagari apart from other major Indian scripts, however – its usage across multiple South Asian regions, for distinct written traditions dating back many centuries.
Pre-modern writing in Devanagari can be found in locales as disparate as Goa, the Kathmandu valley, Gujarat, Bijapur in the Kannada region, and Delhi. On the other hand, most other scripts were usually limited to interconnected regions or transregional communities, such as the Grantha script, used to write Sanskrit in the Tamil region.
Implications for script reform
Literary and political figures proposing script reforms across India were keen observers of the technological development of print as a medium. The various inadequacies and challenges that these scripts posed were seen as barriers to the progress of modern literary cultures, directly linked to the possibilities print offered.
Their argument was simple – a national language had to be easy to read, write and, above all, print. Just as technological innovations made print more accommodative of Devanagari, Devanagari had to evolve in order to find a firmer footing in the world of print.
Scores of Devanagari script reform proposals cropped up in the first half of the 1900s, particularly in the Marathi region. Bombay- and Pune-based leaders took the lead in many of these efforts, a legacy of Bombay’s typological innovation and cosmopolitan status.
Different nationalist leaders proposed script reforms that ranged from superficial to radical, mostly used idiosyncratically by individual groups.
One of the more truly radical proposals was a completely linearised Devanagari, without the characteristically Brahmic consonant-vowel combination forms, meant to make the script drastically easier to typeset.
Some reforms also sought to take cues and influences from ‘regional’ scripts, to accommodate them and their users, a compromise in the interest of national unity. A unified script had to accurately represent sounds across distinct languages as well. Diacritics for existing letters, as well as the replacement of Devanagari letters with their counterparts in other scripts, show up in these proposals.
For example, in a 1937 essay, Jawaharlal Nehru (later first prime minister of India) envisioned a composite script based on Devanagari and which incorporated features from other Brahmic scripts used for Indo-Aryan languages. He went further and even imagined adopting Devanagari for the literary Dravidian languages.
The scope of Devanagari reform encompassed both the political and the technological, and points to how technological innovation was very much seen as a national concern.
Mechanised type and the late nationalist period
Mechanised typesetting, or hot metal typesetting, reached India in the 1920s, sparking further advances in Indian printing and publishing. Mechanised typesetting allowed printing at scale, in much larger volumes, with greater speed and efficiency.
Monotype and Linotype machines, introduced for Devanagari in 1922 and 1933, drove these developments. The mechanisation of Indian scripts was focused on Devanagari, since it was India’s ‘national script’.
As Ulrike Stark writes, ‘Devanagari’s political ascendance was paralleled by significant script reforms, improvements in type design, and mechanised typesetting with Linotype and Monotype.’
Mechanised type, with its ability to fuel large-scale printing, was seen as a necessary marker of modernisation. Demand for mechanised typesetting grew among local intellectuals and nationalists, including Tilak, who even submitted proposals to Monotype himself. (These were based on Tilak’s collaboration with Nirnay Sagar Press on a simplified and linearised Devanagari font called ‘Kesari type’, used in his Pune-based newspaper Kesari from 1904.)
A specimen of Tilak’s 1904 Kesari Type, housed at Tilak’s ancestral residence, Kesari Wada, in Pune.
Devanagari fonts designed for Monotype and Linotype by Shankar Date and Hari Govil respectively drew heavily from Nirnay Sagar fonts, spreading the press’s visual conventions and innovations even further.
At the same time, mechanisation required more drastic changes to scripts, bringing a wider range of local intellectuals into script reform debates.
Or as Vaibhav Singh puts it, ‘exploration of, and encounters with, the issues of Devanagari typecasting turned into script reform initiatives. The difficulties of setting Devanagari type, and the technical limitations of mechanical composition in particular, spurred the need for reforming or modifying the script in the majority of cases.’
Linotype machines, for example, used a 90-key keyboard, insufficient for Indian scripts (although Govil designed a system that enabled users to represent a wider range of characters, including combined forms, with the 90 available keys). Its lack of kerning meant that vowel diacritics had to be positioned at a distance from their base consonants, resulting in a ‘broken’ Devanagari.
Traditional stacked consonants became even trickier to represent, meaning reforms also sought to simplify vertical consonant conjunct rules and represent them in a more linear fashion.
Mechanised typesetting also led to greater homogenisation in written texts, since fonts were supplied by manufacturers and were not designed in-house by printers. Decision-making was centralised, leading to fewer parties having a say in the form the fonts took.
Publications often used a variety of printing technologies within the same text, for different sections.
Devanagari standardisation in India since Independence
Hindi standardisation and promotion, as well as Devanagari reform, continued to be subjects of immediate interest for nationalist leadership after Indian Independence, with one critical difference: they became institutional projects under the newly independent Government of India.
After Indian Independence, language planning at the central level primarily concerned itself with building and maintaining a unified national identity, articulated through Hindi.
The Constitution of India, drafted in 1949, states that ‘The official language of the Union shall be Hindi in Devanagari script.’ Hindi was originally intended to be the sole official language of the Government of India, but stiff opposition from non-Hindi-speaking regions (especially the Tamil region) ensured that English remained co-official as a more palatable, neutral option.
Regardless, Hindi occupies a place of privilege in Indian language policy, and its development has been undertaken by the Central Government directly, as opposed to other languages, which are limited to individual states and their institutions.
Language policy post-Independence mandated the usage of Standard Hindi in writing at Central Government institutions across the entire length and breadth of India, giving Devanagari a visual presence in virtually every corner of the country – even where the script was not used for local languages.
The Lucknow Conference of 1953, the first major institutional attempt at standardising Devanagari, was driven by the need for uniformity in written language across India, and for Hindi to be easier to use on typewriters.
Standardised Devanagari letter set proposed at the Lucknow Conference. Letter forms intended to be replaced are crossed out.
Interestingly, the conference recommended that many Calcutta-style letters used in Hindi be replaced by their Bombay-style counterparts, a choice likely influenced by both Bombay’s status as a major centre of technological innovation and the influence of the seminal Bombay-cast Nirnay Sagar fonts.
Over the next decade, the Lucknow Conference’s recommendations were fine-tuned and subject to critiques and improvements. The culmination of these deliberations came in 1966, with Mānak Devanāgari Varṇmālā [Standard Devanagari Letter Set] published by the Ministry of Education, codifying preferred letter forms, conjunct rules, punctuation and numerals.
Despite this, local printers and publishers continued to use the same fonts as always, meaning that entrenched Hindi conventions – with a preference for Calcutta-style letters – remained in active usage alongside the new government standard. This new standard was primarily used by government bodies communicating in Hindi, typeset on Monotype machines.
Ultimately, updating technology and stock would require too much capital investment and labour for most individual publishers.
The state of Maharashtra was formed in 1960, as a state for Marathi speakers, following the Government of India’s linguistic reorganisation of states.
Although the Lucknow Conference of 1953 was intended to propose a Devanagari standard for usage across Indian languages, the Government of Maharashtra chose to devise its own standard for Marathi.
This standard, presented in 1962, continued to follow local conventions, and rejected the push to bring Marathi writing more in line with Hindi. This can also be seen as the assertion of a graphical identity distinct from Hindi.
In contrast to the shift towards Bombay-style letter forms in Hindi (where they were not traditional), the Government of Maharashtra did not replace any letter forms used in Marathi with their Calcutta-style equivalents. This ensured a continuity in Marathi letter forms from the earliest days of Bombay-cast fonts into the digital era, unlike the more decisive shift in Hindi away from older print conventions.
In the Maharashtra Official Languages Act 1964, the Government of Maharashtra defined Marathi as ‘the Marathi language in Dev[a]nagari script’, formalising Devanagari as the sole script for Marathi. The cursive Moḍī script had finally been phased out of official usage and was no longer taught at schools from around 1959 onwards.
Devanagari for other scheduled Indian languages
During the drafting of India’s new Constitution (1946–50), Hindi was proposed (primarily by North Indian nationalist leaders) as India’s official language, in continuation with pre-Independence Hindi promotion.
The Report of the Official Language Commission (1956), headed by B.G. Kher, then Chief Minister of Bombay state, echoed earlier nationalist rhetoric and recommended that all Indian languages, especially Indo-Aryan languages, be written in Devanagari.
Although further attempts were made in 1961 and 1967 to design a unified Devanagari script across Indian languages, they were solely on paper, and never implemented.³
This reflected India’s political shift from unitary national identity to the consolidation of regional political-linguistic identities around the same time.
That being said, linguists and government officials devised Devanagari-based orthographies for numerous unwritten languages across India, following the ‘default’ (i.e. Hindi-oriented) Government of India Devanagari standard adopted in 1966.⁴
Some of these languages, notably Bodo, now have wider written usage.
Devanagari standardisation in the digital era
In 1991, the Government of India released a short-lived 8-bit encoding standard named ISCII (Indian Script Code for Information Interchange), where Devanagari forms correspond to those adopted by the Government of India in 1966. The ISCII forms in turn seem to have influenced the choice of Unicode’s representative Devanagari glyphs.
This is important, because it shows how the visual specifics of a seemingly ‘neutral’ Devanagari, intended for Hindi, ended up being perceived as default and unmarked in the digital age. Digital fonts have tended to stick to these ‘neutral’ forms, in contrast to ‘marked’ Devanagari letter forms that represent other conventions.
Ironically, the switch to digital fonts also seems to have finally consolidated these standardised Devanagari forms for Hindi, with older Calcutta-style letters rapidly diminishing in print usage as older technology was phased out.
Early Devanagari printing
Visual elements and conventions from the pre-digital printing, especially before Independence, continue to have an influence on lettering choices.
Some of these conventions derive from approximations of pre-print writing, while many others are results of the inherent limitations of print technology and metal font typesetting. At the same time, many other conventions and concepts of text arrangement and formatting such as word spacing and bold text derive from Western traditions, and lack parallels in pre-print Devanagari writing.
Their distinguishing elements are potentially also adaptable to digital fonts, and can work well with establishing hierarchies.
Broken shirorekha (head stroke)
Earlier fonts often produced text where the shirorekha was broken and interrupted, leaving words with gaps across their upper form.
This has parallels in pre-print writing as well, with one critical difference: pre-print writing lacks spacing, meaning that gaps in the shirorekha are consistent, without the contrast between word spacing and shirorekha gaps in early printing.
As a function of fonts themselves, text containing broken shirorekha is extremely common.
Gaṇit Mārg On Mathematics, 1826, one of the first lithographed Marathi books printed in Bombay. The text reflects traditional manuscript writing conventions, with no spacing and broken shirorekha.
Older fonts were typeset with individual metal type sorts for base letters and mātrās, assembled together to form the final combined letter. As a result, mātrās often ended up appearing disjointed or distanced from their intended base letter, especially in older fonts.
This was both unintentional and undesirable.
The School Boy, 1850, American Mission Press, Bombay. <ū>, <o>, <ī > mātrās appear detached.
Uneven print/ink levels
In many older texts, printing is often uneven and manifests as light patches with less ink. Strictly speaking, this was more a result of faulty print than a conscious design element.
Nevertheless, it is sometimes mimicked in lettering.
Dnyanprakash (Marathi periodical), 1949. Small white spots in the printed text offer a minor visual contrast. Image courtesy of Rājya Marāṭhī Vikās Sansthā.
Devanagari in the Hindi region
The Hindi language shares a particularly politicised relationship with the Devanagari script.
Unlike most of modern India’s written languages, Standard Hindi can only be traced back with certainty to the early 1800s, when it began to emerge as a literary language in the British Indian United Provinces, what is now the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh.
Local administration and learned culture were, at the time, primarily in Persian. Other literary languages were in circulation, including a Persianised vernacular written in the Perso-Arabic script and cultivated by local courts, which would later be termed Urdu.
European orientalists and missionaries had already printed texts in ‘Hindustani’ using the Devanagari script, in collaboration with native scholars. Fort Williams College in particular produced a number of important ‘Hindustani’ texts, including Prem Sagur (1804–1810). These texts used the same linguistic base as Urdu – i.e. Khaṛībolī, the local Indo-Aryan language variety of Delhi and its environs – but eschewed its highly Persianised vocabulary, and of course, used a different script.
These Calcutta texts and other joint British-native literary efforts, combined with changing local perceptions of identity, led intellectuals in the United Provinces to cultivate a similar ‘Hindustani’ literary variety, one that they called Hindi and which embodied a different set of identity markers from Urdu. They envisioned a Hindi oriented towards Sanskrit, a Hindu religious identity and a pre-Sultanate Indian past, and, very crucially, written in Devanagari.
In fact, graphical allegiance to the Devanagari script became a defining feature of Hindi.
Local intellectuals and literary organisations across the United Provinces and Bihar were instrumental in shaping Hindi’s budding linguistic identity and in promoting the Devanagari script. The most important of these was the Nagari Pracharini Sabha Society for the Promotion of Nagari set up in Varanasi in 1893, to promote Hindi written in Devanagari with a Sanskritised vocabulary.
Book printed by the Nagari Pracharini Sabha, bearing their name.
These groups began printing books and periodicals in Hindi using both metal type and lithography, building readership for the new literary language, and by extension, a Hindi linguistic community.
Devanagari in the United Provinces grew at the expense of Persian and Perso-Arabic script, but local scripts and languages as well.
The cursive Kaithi script was used by scribes in the United Provinces and Bihar, and was more commonly used and understood than Devanagari. It was rejected as a script for Hindi by local proponents of Devanagari, including the Nagari Pracharini Sabha, for being less legible, unsophisticated, and hard to print – in short, unfit for the task of representing a modern language.
On the other hand, local languages – like Awadhi, Bhojpuri, Braj and Bundelkhandi – were recast as ‘dialects’ of Hindi. Braj in particular was a popular language for poetry in the United Provinces and beyond, with a tradition reaching back to medieval times. Advocates of Hindi were firm on replacing Braj with Hindi as a medium of poetry.
While Standard Hindi spread as a literary language through other regions over the next few decades, more languages suffered the same fate, their speakers even shifting away from their local ancestral languages towards Hindi.
Eventually, in 1900, British officials made Hindi written in Devanagari official in the United Provinces. Government bodies and public education now used the script, cementing its presence in the region.
Strictly speaking, the modern Hindi linguistic region encompasses numerous communities from distinct socio-cultural and historical backgrounds spread over a vast geographical stretch of land. These communities now share a common literary and linguistic tradition, but have historically spoken a range of languages, many quite different from Standard Hindi.
In fact, the adoption of Hindi as the dominant spoken language is still an ongoing process in many of these communities, and in others the language shift to Hindi is a fairly recent phenomenon. The monumental Linguistic Survey of India (1903–1928) records many of these local languages before their modern supplanting by Hindi.
For example, Bhojpuri speakers in Bihar and Mewari speakers in Rajasthan (at opposite geographic ends of the Hindi region) both use Hindi as their formal language, but Bhojpuri is linguistically much closer to Bengali than Hindi, and Mewari is close to Gujarati in many regards.
These disparate communities often share very little history in common, meaning that visual cultural markers are frequently only relevant in localised contexts, rather than carrying meaning across the Hindi sphere.
In contrast, most other standardised Indian languages are localised to specific regions, usually with one dominant ethno-linguistic group, making for a more unified vocabulary of cultural markers.
Technological development in Hindi printing – and by extension, typographical development – seems to have followed the lead of innovations in Bombay and Pune. Towns across the Hindi sphere were small, lacking the technological and industrial excellence of Bombay, a global mercantile metropolis.
Letter form evolution and variation
Hindi shows marked letter form variation across texts, primarily as a function of the period of publication.
For most of printed Hindi’s existence, fonts cast in Calcutta and across North India used letter forms corresponding to those used by the earliest printing presses set up in Calcutta. These letter forms showed continuity with those in earlier local manuscripts (which lithography replicated more faithfully) but were influenced by the limitations of print technology at the time.
Most of these letter forms are virtually identical to those found in Bombay-cast fonts, but a small set, used only in the Calcutta- and North India-based tradition and not in Bombay, stand out. These are the so-called ‘Calcutta-style’ letters.
Calcutta-style letters were the norm in Hindi printing until the digital era. When they were in use, a text could be identified as Hindi or Marathi simply via the presence of Calcutta-style letters. These letters in a sense gave written Hindi a different visual identity.
These forms are still employed in handwriting and lettering, and are widely recognised, especially by older readers. Digitally printed texts do not include older Calcutta-style letter forms, unless specially designed to (which is rare).
Some of these older forms, such as <ņ>, <a>, <9>, stand out more than others, since they resemble their standard counterparts less closely.
1841 Hindi text, printed in Serampore, with a locally cast font. Calcutta-style letters visible throughout.
Hindi text printed in Varanasi, early 1900s. The font is more legible than earlier Calcutta and Serampore cast fonts, but inferior in comparison to fonts cast in Bombay or Poona.
Hindi text on linguistics, printed by the Nagari Pracharini Sabha in Varanasi, 1946. The locally cast font, clear and legible, uses Calcutta-style letters.
Bombay-style letters incorporated
Bombay-style letters appear in Hindi texts in an inconsistent fashion – sometimes Bombay-style <l> would appear alongside Calcutta-style <a> and <ņ> – with no real pattern. Bombay-cast fonts were superior in legibility and offered a wider range of styles, and Hindi publishers used them for headings from the early 1900s onwards.
Not all Calcutta-style letters were done away with, and the Government of India’s standardised Devanagari letter set from 1966 did little to change the situation. It was only with digital printing that Hindi printing finally discarded ‘outdated’ Calcutta-style letters, after decades of flip-flopping.
Hindi text from c. 1954, featuring Calcutta-style <a>, <8>, <l> alongside Bombay-style <sh>.
Local cursive scripts
The traditional vernacular languages of the modern Hindi sphere were written in different local cursive scripts. These individual scripts were specific to certain regions and languages, and there is no traditional cursive script that can be said to represent the modern Hindi sphere as a whole.
Their letter forms can differ significantly from Devanagari, although this depends on script and the letters in question.
Visual elements from these cursive scripts can be used to reference a traditional cursive aesthetic. The same principle applies to Moḍī script-influenced Devanagari, used for Marathi.
At the same time, an intended audience would ideally be from a particular cultural region, just as the cursive scripts themselves were localised.
Printed sample of the Ṭākrī script, from The Book of A Thousand Tongues, 1938. Ṭākrī was used to write local languages in what is now Jammu and Himachal Pradesh, and is related to the Gurmukhi script used in Punjab.
Sample of the Kaithī script in A Handbook to the Kaithi Character, 1899. Kaithī was used to write local languages across what is now Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, including Bhojpuri. Kaithī was sporadically used to write Hindi in those regions before being displaced entirely by Devanagari. Image courtesy of Bayerische Staatsbibliothek.
Lithographed Hindi texts, mostly produced in small towns across what is now Uttar Pradesh, are of special interest because they exhibit letter forms and writing composed by native scribes, without the limitations of metal type hindering expression and design.
In addition, lithographed writing is closer to how local manuscripts would have been written before print, with letter forms more faithful to their pre-print forms. Letters in lithographed texts are strikingly defined and fleshed out in comparison to their contemporary Calcutta-cast fonts.
Lithographed text uses Calcutta-style letters (since they were traditional), but with more visual variation than in metal type print.
The longevity and ubiquity of lithographed printing in North India offers type designers a large body of reference outside the confines of lower-quality, less legible Calcutta and North India cast metal types from the late 1800s.
At the same time, lithographed texts conform to traditional styles and lack the stylistic innovations of metal type printing of the late 1800s and early 1900s. Fonts with Calcutta-style letters intended for more traditional contexts can draw from lithographed Hindi.
Oriental Penmanship, 1849. Exquisitely precise letters, reproduced by lithography. The clear scribal hand’s attention to detail, and the font size, highlight the shape of the letters.
Urdu Adarsh, 1854. Lithographed text, with letters shaped in a manuscript-esque style. Calcutta-style <ṇ> and <a> visible, but defined differently from that found in metal type print.
Tulsidas Ramayan, Naval Kishore Press, Lucknow, 1900. Lithographed book cover text strongly resembles pre-print manuscript writing, with blocky forms. Image courtesy of Universität Heidelberg.
As we’ve seen earlier, not much technological innovation seems to have happened in the Hindi sphere. Hindi texts from before the early to mid-1900s resort to larger font size and heavier font weight for emphasis, but lack the range of graphical options available to publishers in Bombay and Pune.
From the early 1900s onwards, stylistic features and emphasis styles used in Hindi printing largely followed those designed in Bombay and Pune. In fact, in many cases Hindi texts seem to straight up use Bombay and Pune cast fonts for headings and large-size writing.
A few stylistic elements appear more commonly in Hindi printing, however. These seem to reflect the original Calcutta-style tendency of taking stylistic cues from small-nib-based writing as opposed to traditional reed pen strokes.
Older texts printed in Calcutta feature mātrā forms reminiscent of mātrās in Eastern Nagari, used to write the city’s local language, Bengali. This could also be an influence from Devanagari written in Bihar, a region bordering Bengal where both Eastern Nagari and Devanagari were used in different contexts.
This feature became less and less common in the early 1900s, as Hindi printing moved away from Calcutta.
The New Testament in the Hindi Language, 1841, Serampore. <ī> mātrās reminiscent of Eastern Nagari forms.
Rounded letter loops are represented as smaller and more closed, giving the loop a bulbous appearance. This is a feature that reflects handwriting, rather than traditional writing with flat strokes.
This is mostly found in hand-lettering and stylised lithography.
Sarasvati, April 1916. Curved strokes in <s>, <r> overlap on themselves to form bulbous loops. Image courtesy of Universität Heidelberg.
Survey results for Hindi
Findings from our survey about regional preferences show variation across audiences for Hindi, depending primarily on age and education. Younger audiences appear more in line with the official Devanagari standard.
Devanagari in the Marathi region
The history of the Devanagari script in the Marathi region, or bāḷbōdh in Marathi, is more linear, and can be traced all the way back to the earliest days of a distinct Marathi linguistic identity.
In fact, Marathi was the first vernacular language to be recorded in Devanagari, around the turn of the first millennium CE.
From the 1400s onwards, Devanagari co-existed with the cursive Moḍī script, used by scribes. Marathi-language land records and personal communication from this period are in Moḍī. The script is particularly associated with the cultural legacy of the Maratha rulers, who used it extensively in their administration and letters.
Missionaries in Portuguese Goa printed texts in Marathi in the early 1600s, but used the Latin script, since they lacked Devanagari type sorts.
Some of the earliest natively run Marathi printing in Devanagari comes from Thanjavur in the Tamil region, far from the Marathi region, the capital of a local Maratha state. The kingdom’s royal press was set up with British assistance.
The development of literary Marathi in the 1800s, as well as a modern Marathi linguistic identity, is tied up with the growth of Bombay as a global city.
Marathi literary culture was able to develop and modernise rapidly through modern Bombay-based institutions and engagement with European literature, and local literary experimentation paralleled the technological innovation in the city.
Throughout the nationalist period, a Marathi linguistic identity was secure and had no internal rivals. On the contrary, Marathi exerted influence on other Indian languages, especially Kannada. Marathi was even printed outside the Marathi region, in towns like Dharwad and Baroda (in the Kannada and Gujarati regions respectively).
Around the same time, Marathi intellectuals moved away from Moḍī, which was seen as difficult to print. Its cursive letter forms were better suited to paper than metal type sorts. Devanagari was preferred instead, making it Marathi’s primary script.
In 1964, Maharashtra declared Devanagari to be the sole official script for Marathi.
Even after Indian Independence, small communities outside Maharashtra (usually bordering it) continued to use Marathi for written purposes. The state of Goa even had a political movement aimed at ‘unifying’ local Konkani with Marathi, a move that was defeated.
Devanagari as used for Marathi can be distinguished by a number of graphical, orthographic, and stylistic conventions. Underpinning and shaping these choices are a range of socio-cultural, literary, and historical factors that, when put together, reflect a collective visual and literary heritage of the Marathi sphere.
To draw from this pool of influences is to graphically articulate the linguistic identity and cultural expressions of the Marathi language and its speakers.
Letter form evolution and variation
The graphic representations of Devanagari letters are relatively consistent for Marathi across time.
In fact, the ‘Bombay-style’ letter forms that came to distinguish Bombay-based printing can be traced back to the pre-print era, some even back to medieval coinage and inscriptions issued by the kingdoms of the Marathi region.
For example, on the seal of the medieval king Shivaji (1674–80), the glyphs for <ś>, <ṇ>, and <l> on the seal show an immediate resemblance to Bombay-style print variants.
Early moveable type printing in Marathi used Calcutta-made fonts and featured Calcutta-style letters, including books printed by Thomas Carey at Serampore. This changed with Thomas Graham’s influential Bombay-made fonts.
Today, no letter-form variation is current in Marathi, with one exception: Calcutta-style glyphs for l and ś (often with a large loop overlapping the shirorekha) are often used in some forms of hand-lettering to allow for stylistic variation. Bombay-style forms are preferred for their closer visual association with Marathi and for their distinctive nature, however.
Marathi printed using a Serampore-cast font. Calcutta-style glyphs for <l, ṇ, ś, a, ā, o> can be seen. A Grammar of the Mahratta Language, 1803, Mission Press, Serampore.
Text featuring Graham's seminal 1836 Bombay-cast Devanagari font. This was the foundation of later Bombay (and Poona) cast fonts. The School Boy, 1850, American Mission Press, Bombay.
1888 Marathi text from Nirnay Sagar Press. Highly legible Bombay-style font, of much higher quality than Graham’s original, with precise typesetting.
Promotional material for a Marathi movie, Kamal Shedge. Stylistic variants of the same Marathi text, with both Bombay-style and Calcutta-style <l, ś> forms.
Pre-print writing and Shivaji’s legacy
The Marathi region was home to established Devanagari writing traditions long before print, in both Sanskrit and Marathi. Inscriptions and manuscripts form the bulk of pre-print Devanagari writing.
The Maratha state and its founder in particular, the warrior king Shivaji (1630–80), represent Maharashtra’s golden age in popular consciousness. Cultural markers and visual references to this era are associated with the Maratha state’s legacy, and by extension, a romanticised vision of the Marathi sphere’s past.
Visual elements from symbols of this era are commonly incorporated into both designs and lettering. They may not directly reference specific cultural aspects of the Maratha era, but they do draw from a larger Marathi cultural consciousness.
Manuscript-style Devanagari features thick, flat and straight strokes (especially for the vertical bar) and thinner, more rounded curved strokes – a result of reed pen writing. The overall appearance is one of blocky letters, more pronounced contrasts in stroke thickness, and elaborate initial and final stroke points.
The shirorekha is usually broken and restricted to single characters as well, as opposed to continuous across words as in modern text. Of course, individual manuscripts display these features to different degrees.
Manuscript-style lettering is usually limited to emphasis and titles, and is not necessarily suited to larger volumes of text given its higher degree of elaboration and detail.
Block-printed Gītā, Miraj, 1804, reflecting pre-metal type manuscript writing. Text with broken shirorekha, and no word spacing.
The Moḍī script
The Moḍī script, used to write Marathi alongside Devanagari well into the early 1900s, was widely used by the institutions of the Maratha state.
Historically, Devanagari was not used for scribal purposes or cursive writing in the Marathi region, which was the preserve of the Moḍī script. Moḍī literacy is now rare in the Marathi region, but the script provides a visual reference to Devanagari lettering, resulting in an almost hybridised style, according to noted calligrapher Achyut Palav.
As a scribal script, Moḍī features looping strokes, with letters written flowing into one another. Long, unbroken lines are first drawn across paper, and letters are written hanging from these lines. This is different from the usual head strokes of Devanagari, and is more akin to having ruled lines across a text.
Devanagari lettering that references Moḍī uses similar looping strokes, and employs unbroken head strokes to emulate Moḍī’s ruled lines, even maintaining them across spaces marking word boundaries. Strokes extend all the way back to the shirorekha.
Letter forms do not draw from Moḍī.
The choice of Moḍī-inspired lettering seems to be preferred for text and titles related to cultural works, but is not limited to them. It is also widely used by cultural and government institutions in Maharashtra. It is mostly restricted to hand-lettering.
Sample of Moḍī writing from the Maratha kingdom, 1696 CE. From Indian Calligraphy Diary (1980), RK Joshi. Image courtesy of Letterform Archive.
Lettering art, Kamal Shedge. Ruled lines as shirorekha and looped letter forms are reminiscent of Moḍī script writing.
The Rājamudrā (royal seal) of Shivaji, an octagonal medallion containing Sanskrit text written in Devanagari, is a visual motif often used in Maharashtra’s civic spaces and the political sphere.
The medallion’s octagonal shape serves as a frame for the writing inside it.
Shivaji's Rājamudrā used on the flag of a local political party, the Maharashtra Navinirman Sena.
Social, intellectual, and artistic movements in Bombay and Poona from the 1900s onwards ushered in new ideas of modernity, which extended to print and script reform as well.
Print technology offered new ways of conceptualising and representing Indian scripts, in large part thanks to physical limitations. This period saw numerous innovations to letter forms and orthography, as well as visual forms and design.
Of particular interest are more ‘analytical’ letter forms, consciously differentiated from handwritten forms, and with no real precedents in pre-print writing.
Just as the Latin script influenced orthographical conventions such as linearisation, font designers experimented with adapting conventions used in Latin to Devanagari.
While modern in the sense that they are not traditional, many of these styles are not necessarily common or current today, and may in fact appear old-fashioned.
Non-traditional stroke thickness
Traditionally, stroke thickness in Devanagari was a function of reed pen writing. Straight, flat strokes tended to be thick, while curved strokes would start thin and thicken as the stroke rounded.
Some modern fonts and lettering did away with the contrast in stroke thickness, producing letters with even stroke thickness throughout.
18 Point Govind, Prakash Type Foundry. Light, even stroke thickness, particularly apparent in क <k>.
‘Analytical’ heights and widths
Traditionally, Devanagari letter forms followed defined, systematic proportions. Some fonts and styles ignored these proportions, reimagining letters as evenly proportioned instead.
These letter designs give a radical look. Interestingly, similar styles were used in English language lettering on art deco buildings in Bombay (from the 1920s to around the 1950s). Such styles are not common today.
Book title written with non-traditional letter proportions, for emphasis. Curved strokes that traditionally join the vertibar at its midpoint extend further below instead.
These are styles with elaborate, ornamented modifications to letter forms, for purely aesthetic reasons. A few fonts were designed with such ornamentation.
Such styles are more common in headings and titles.
Exaggerated, stylised letter forms used in a book title. Image courtesy of Tanya George.
36 Point Bhishma, Mouj Type Foundry. Stylised, ornamental font with non-traditional forms, suitable for headings and titles.
Different publishers and fonts employed various methods and conventions of marking emphasis and establishing hierarchies within texts. Although these different markers of emphasis came together within an individual text, they were not consistently used across different published works.
Emphasis in pre-modern texts was more often marked through punctuation, rather than contrasting graphical forms within a text. Arranging patterns of contrasts for organising hierarchies within a text seems to be a print-era innovation.
Many of these styles are commonly used for lettering, especially on book covers, for standalone signage text, and in posters. Some feature in titles and headings within printed texts.
Manuscript-style blocky lettering is often used to highlight titles and headings, for reasons outlined in an earlier section.
Manuscript-style lettering used in the title, with broken shirorekha and elaborate strokes, reminiscent of reed pen strokes. The thickness contrast is less apparent, and strokes extend and taper off beyond or before the baseline.
Disjointed shirorekha and spaced letters
Words with broken, disjointed shirorekha, when combined with larger font sizes and spaced letters, can mark emphasis.
These styles form a contrast between normal-sized text with a continuous shirorekha and words written without spaces between letters. It also suits vertical alignments of text, or even non-linear alignments.
This pattern is extremely common and can be found in some form or the other in virtually every other pre-digital printed text.
Neat hierarchy with spaced letters for title and subtitle (differentiated by font size), and a bolded letter with an extended lower stroke for the paragraph start.
Variations in stroke thickness can also convey a sense of differentiation. The contrast can be between even stroke thicknesses, or a contrast between a style with stroke thickness variation and a style with even stroke thickness.
Signage at Nalini Kunj, art deco building in Matunga, Bombay. Even stroke thickness, highlighting each individual letter.
Looped letter forms
Looping elements and strokes within letter forms are drawn out and emphasised, making them more apparent than is usually the case in print. In some contexts, this is more akin to handwriting.
However, the loops are often drawn out and defined more than they would be in actual handwriting, for added effect.
Looped strokes in letters drawn out and stylised, sometimes with traditional letter size modified, as with ग <g> and प <p>.
Straightened letter forms
Letter forms written with strokes that are less looped and rounded, and straighter. This style is markedly unlike handwriting, and is found in both print and lettering.
32 Point Keshav, Prakash Type Foundry. Blocky letter forms, with curved strokes presented straightened, giving an almost robotic feel.
Extended lower strokes
In some styles, stroke endings for lower letter elements are drawn out and extended, usually with a flourish.
Generally, only letters with angled lower strokes are written with the extended stroke, such as <s>, <r>.
Poster for Mother Marathi, by Kamal Shedge. Curved downward strokes extend beyond the baseline for effect.
Letters with flat slab serifs extending from the base of vertical strokes. They do not seem to extend from other strokes or positions within the letter. These are non-traditional forms and do not appear in handwriting or pre-print text.
Usually used in conjunction with bold strokes and even stroke thickness. Especially pronounced in lettering.
Poster for a play and a movie, Kamal Shedge. Flat slab serifs emerge from strokes ending at the baseline.
Strokes overlapping shirorekha
Letters with vertical bars are designed with the top of the bar stroke descending from slightly above the shirorekha.
This style is especially common in signage and is everywhere to be seen in Marathi-speaking cities.
Poster for a cultural programme on letter writing, Kamal Shedge. Upper portions of letter strokes intersect with the shirorekha and extend slightly above it.
Letters designed with shading/shadows behind them. Today, these styles primarily feature in signage and lettering, but earlier fonts included shaded elements as well.
Sign at a commercial establishment in Dadar, Mumbai. The upper text attempts a 3D shading pattern radiating from the stroke centres.
36 Point New Style Anant Shading, Gujarati Type Foundry catalogue, Bombay, 1937. Dark strokes contrast with light, outlined shadows. Image courtesy of Letterform Archive.
Survey results for Marathi
Findings from our survey about regional preferences reflect the general cohesiveness of Marathi graphical form usage, and their continuity over time. [la2] and [sha2] are preferred by Marathi audiences, and since these forms are no longer current in Nepali or Hindi, their usage marks a distinct Marathi graphical identity. In all other cases, Marathi preferences correspond to the Government of India’s standardised Devanagari.
Devanagari in the Nepali region
The trajectory of the Nepali language in print provides some challenges, and does not fit neatly within the timeline that holds good for Hindi and Marathi in India. This is largely because the Kingdom of Nepal was a traditionalist, isolationist state with a tight grasp on public expression for the entirety of the 1800s and the early 1900s.
In fact, in stark contrast to burgeoning print capitalism across the border in British India, private individuals were not allowed to own printing presses in Nepal in the 1800s. The state set up the Giddhe Press in 1851, the first press in Nepal.
Instead, Nepali print culture developed across the border in British India, where political exiles from Nepal and local Nepali speakers took the lead in contributing to a public literary consciousness.
The Hindu holy city of Benares [Varanasi] in North India was home to a Nepali community. Nepali printing presses were set up in the city, alongside Hindi presses. Nepali journalism in particular flourished in Benares. Darjeeling, a small Nepali-speaking town in British India’s Bengal Province, became a centre for missionary activity, and another centre of Nepali printing.
Restrictions on public expression in Nepal eased in the wake of political reforms around the mid-1900s, and privately owned printing grew in the kingdom.
Nepali printing – both in Nepal itself and in Darjeeling and Varanasi – followed the Devanagari conventions used in North India, corresponding to those in Hindi, and meaning that Calcutta-style letter forms were preferred.
Intellectuals in Nepal did not play an active role in script reform and typological innovation, as their Indian counterparts did, probably since modern print technology was not readily available to them. Disconnected from script reforms and typographical developments in Independent India, Nepali users continued to prefer original Calcutta-style forms, and this preference has survived into the digital era.
At the same time, as a small country, modern Nepal has long been shaped by cultural and technological developments in its much larger neighbour to the south.
The modern Nepali language for example took many cues from Standard Hindi, including in the field of grammar. Older Nepali texts sometimes feature ornamental and bold Bombay- and Pune-produced fonts for headings and titles. With the advent of digital printing, it appears that standardised Hindi letter forms have exerted an influence on written Nepali.
Older Calcutta-style letters
Older Calcutta-style letter forms for <jh>, <8> and <9> seem to be strongly preferred by Nepali users, even today. Other Calcutta-style letter forms were once common in printing but seem to have diminished in the digital era, perhaps because fonts designed for Hindi end up being used.
Pūrṇimā, 1964. Older Calcutta-style forms used for <ṇ>, <ch>, <jh>, <kṣa>.
Traditional stacked conjuncts
The modern linearisation of consonant conjuncts that took place in India didn’t catch on in Nepal, where traditional stacked conjunct forms and even independent nasal + stop sequences continue to be used in writing.
Pūrṇimā, 1964. <ñc> and <ṅg> conjuncts in the word pañcāṅga> are represented as stacked forms.
The Ranjana script
Texts in Nepal Bhasha/Newari (a Sino-Tibetan language spoken in the Kathmandu valley) use the ceremonial Ranjana script for headings and titles, as do some local government bodies. This is a blocky manuscript-style script, reminiscent of the Tibetan script.
Inap, September 1986. Nepal Bhasha/Newari newspaper. The masthead of the paper uses the Ranjana script, with the actual text – body and headings – in Devanagari.
Survey results in Nepal
According to our survey, Nepali audiences broadly show a preference for [jha2] over [jha1], [one2] over [one1], and [eight2] over [eight1]. [jha2] in particular appears to be marked as distinctly Nepali. Older readers prefer [nine2], [cha2], [kha2], but this preference appears weaker with younger readers. The outdated Calcutta-style [a2], [nna2], [ksha2] forms are still recognised, but are no longer preferred.
1 — Graham seems to have been a Bengali Eurasian rather than a European.
2 — Deva is Sanskrit for ‘divine’.
3 — In 1962, Jawaharlal Nehru even proposed that the ‘tribal’ languages of Northeast India could be written in Devanagari, a script with no history of usage by these communities.
4 — Somewhat reminiscent of Soviet linguists devising Cyrillic-based orthographies for unwritten indigenous languages across Siberia, the Urals, and the Caucasus.