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R K Joshi: Interview

Series on design teachers in India:



Question: Is there something in your childhood that influenced you to be a Designer?

Answer: “Childhood days, yes, well at that time who knows whether one will be a designer, a teacher, or some ‘xyz’. Actually I grew up was in a small town, from middle class, ordinary family, nothing great about it at all.
But one of the things I recall now is that I used to be fascinated by signboards, shop signs etc, and as a small child about 6-7 years old when I was in Kolhapur, I used to see so these various signs there, colorful, beautiful and attractive. I used to wonder who makes these?. Nobody told me about it and more so, none at that time even thought about asking about such things, but they continued to captivate me. At that time say about 1943-45, there was this one  sign that I saw, huge seven feet high, with thick alphabets in Devnagari,  fabricated  I guess in tin or aluminium, hung in front of a shop. I would go to the shop and stand underneath that sign and say “How fantastic this is!! Who could do this?”. 
Then further on, as I am talking about this about 50yrs later, I remember one of my teachers’ who taught us Sanskrit, Mr. K.G. Dixit from my high school days. He had a beautiful handwriting.  He used to come and stand in front of the blackboard, quietly take the chalks, take out a knife from his black jacket, chisel it and start writing.  In about 45 minutes the entire blackboard will be full of beautiful handwriting, letter like jewels.  I’d dare not ask him at that time, Sir, how do you write so beautifully?  But I used to appreciate it.  I feel these were a few instances that influenced to becoming an artist. At that time, there was nothing such as a ‘designer’, but yes these few things I guess, fuelled the creativity in me.“

“I want to be
nothing, Nobody, I
will just go ahead!

Question: How did you get into typeface design?

Answer: “Another interesting thing I’d like to tell you is, we used to have these competitions in school, this is  in about 1950s. And people in class used to get up and say I want to be a doctor, engineer etc. I would stand out there and say “I want to be nothing, Nobody, I will just go ahead! “. So one of the things was, that I had no particular family background in this area and second was that at the time, I had some problems in my speech, and I used to wonder why not do something where I don’t have to talk to anybody. So, I thought, perhaps I could paint boards. And then I went on to decide that I would join the JJ school of Arts in Bombay, which is another long story! As I was one of the brightest students in my class at school in Kolhapur, it was a shock for people and teachers that I was going on to join an art school. They had not even heard of J.J. School of art or of what all happens there. But anyway, I headed to Bombay and during my time at Art College, I always endeavoured to do all my assignments in Indian languages. So, in about 1952, I started with that and found no facilities at college to support me in it. I questioned also why there were no facilities?  but I did not receive an answer. So, I used to carry out all my works in hand in Devnagari script. Our’s was also the first batch to take up ‘printing’ as a subsidiary course and we learnt in that, the process of hot metal press printing and I wondered again, why there were no Indian language typefaces as part of course. So, I decided to learn about them, by going after school hours to a press outside college, where I figured that there were indeed many problems with the Indian typefaces and all typography was thus in the latin script. I learnt about composing the fonts, publishing of books but all of it was also in the Latin script and I questioned yet again “why we don’t have Indian typefaces?! “.

At the time as part of our diploma project we did an exhibition, the first ever on typefaces in India. So, out of the need for more Indian language typefaces, I did some at that time. But then I got introduced to a topic by accident, through books of Italian masters. The topic was CALLIGRAPHY and it changed my entire life. And I thought of exploring the calligraphic style in the Indian context. I went to various libraries and studied rare Indian manuscripts for about 3 years. Interestingly at that time one great book by an Indian author ozha. ”Bharatiya Pracheen Lipimala” opened me to the world of ancient scripts, like Brahmin, Kautilya, Gupta script. Various aspects of the historical Indian scripts influenced me a lot. So after these studies and research I designed two fonts in 1966, which have not yet been cast.

Hence,  I became a typeface designer, as there was a need for Indian typefaces.  There were many questions that plagued me, why not typefaces in Indian languages? Then, what should they be like, what form should they have? Whose handwriting should they be based on?  Why not calligraphy? How can calligraphy be used? So, then I started practicing calligraphy and tried to get a good hand at it and so on.

I feel after 50 yrs also, the fundamental idea, that the typefaces we develop should have a calligraphic mind behind them to understand form and how it evolves is essential. Still holds true. Otherwise one can’t design a typeface! To design a typeface, to conceptualize and execute it, is a long and lengthy process and I got involved in it in  a very fundamental way as there were no existing typefaces to really refer to. One would often question about the ‘Nirnayasagar typefaces’ but nobody knows how they were created as no one documented them. I therefore describe my journey as an attempt to scratch the surface and say “look!, this is the world of Calligraphy, this is Palaeography, this is Typography, and now, what I call Compugraphy !”. I wish to urge to go deeper into the subject as depth is important for any domain. I would sum up by saying that have always been concerned about everything Indian, the Indian languages, Indian typefaces, Indian history, Indian culture, Indian design, Indian design students!”

".... multilinguality has stunned me in India, and I believe it is a powerful tool to express India in various domains."
Question: So, what were your endeavours regarding the Indian typefaces as a professional?

“Even as I got out from art college, I was confronted yet again with a completely english language dominated scene. You think in english, A-Z has to be in english, you write in english, do everything in english. And for somebody like me from a small town, it was difficult to breakthrough this mould. I said that campaigns for the farmers, housewives had to be designed in hindi, they do not understand english! So the first campaign I planned in 1962 was completely in Indian languages. There were many questions like who will write the text? Who will do the calligraphy? But it had to be me so; I did all of it by hand. I planned and executed the entire campaign by hand and felt at the time that there has to be a way out to do this more professionally and on a larger platform.

These were exciting and exhaustive times in my life, to be pursuing these endeavours almost single handedly without any support from the seniors or the commercial world. These campaigns would feature in some small newspaper in Bihar etc. and people would question me “ Why?..R.K. joshi!, why are you wasting time thinking about these farmers; their languages, do something in English, it will come in the Times of India!, we’ll earn more money”. I also planned a family planning campaign in Indian dialects, after collaborating with people from all over the country. All along I have very strongly believed “jo apna hai who apana hai, so one has to think about our needs”. So I tried to bring together people from Bengal, Assam, Kerala, all over the country and tried to explore the notion of multilinguality. I first insisted “NO ENGLISH”! We looked towards developing campaigns in Malayalam, Bengali and other Indian languages.

And one interesting endeavor I took up was staging multilingual happenings on the streets of Bombay. In one year we staged 16 happenings, done nowhere in the world. It was to expose the common people to the rich heritage we have in our languages, scripts and how beautiful they look and sound. It was to urge them to come together sing, dance and interact. So I went cross media, to music, theatre, dance. It was a theatrical fantasy when people from different regions conversed simultaneously in their languages completely understanding each other. Such an event could have happened only in India. Rehearsals for the street theatre happenings were carried out for 3-4 months to get the diction and timing correct. Such efforts were put into producing the multilingual environment.

So multilinguality has stunned me in India, and I believe it is a powerful tool to express India in various domains. Today we detest multilinguality and find comfortable convenience in English, but its important to own up to it to recognize India and its culture. And this has been the one common thread in all my activities as it is multilinguality that has to used as a powerful tool we already have in our hands. We should device the teaching aids all creative works based on this. There is huge scope in exploring multilinguality in India in every field. Researches and studies need to be carried out in Indian typography itself, in terms of column grids in Indian language newspapers (why do they have to conform to the grids and column layouts to the english newspapers), scanning ranges of Indian languages etc. There have been no significant efforts in these fields and much more needs to be done.”

Question: Which project has given you lots of pleasure?

“I was very excited when I collaborated with CDAC on designing and developing a software for designing typefaces. That is ‘Vinyas’. It is a calligraphers tool. I wanted to wipe out this notion that calligraphy is an ancient old art, an old people’s tool and that one can do it only with dead old peoples’ handwritings. So I worked here for 3 years and it gave me immense pleasure to be collaborating with the software people and develop the software which gives typographers so many options to create typefaces.

Another project was a campaign called the Ashok Jain campaign. At the time it allowed only 4 ads in a campaign for a special cause, but I put forth that I will have to do 16 ads as we had 16 languages a the time. So I put together the campaign and through those ads I opened up the cultural parameters of each of the languages including Sindhi, Urdu, Kashmiri etc. I went beyond my domain and it was an interdisciplinary effort and hence it excited me a lot. I interacted with people, collected information and carried it out in totality. It was the first ever campaign done at that scale. I referred to it at various forums of the time and also carry out updates of it.”

Question: Were any of the projects a disappointment for you? In terms of implementation, etc.

Answer: “Well, I would infact say yes. The India Post campaign. I did the entire corporate identity manual, but the execution was a little disappointing. I see now, I should have been more assertive at the time, but these I feel are big organizations and they have their own set of issues and problems to look at. I feel it could have been very successful if implemented well. Another was one with the Indian railways, but anyway, its all history now!”

“I would just say ‘ENJOY IT’. But enjoy what is yours, what belongs to you and is part of your culture, enjoy it, don’t ignore it. The ‘it’ you enjoy is the most important thing. You have to decide for yourself and be particular towards it.”
Question: What have been your inspirations or are there any designers/works do you appreciate a lot?

Answer: “Self-exploration was at the core of most of my works. I maintain that my book are my gurus. I owe a lot to books, I am not a good writer, but I enjoy reading. There are about 3-4 books that have created me, I can say. The first book is Gauri Shankar Ojha’s “Bharatiya Prachin Lipimala”, then off course the second one is by the Italian masters Arrighi, Taliente and Palatino, just a small paperback but its fantastic. The third book is called ‘Siddham”, its on the art of Siddham calligraphy. It has turned my life around, it has disturbed me a lot, made me think a lot. It has showed me how to look at calligraphy and to look at calligraphy as life! The fourth one, well, I am sure it is in some corner and I will get inspired by it someday.”

Question: What message do you have for students of design?

Answer: “I would just say ‘ENJOY IT’. But enjoy what is yours, what belongs to you and is part of your culture, enjoy it, don’t ignore it. The ‘it’ you enjoy is the most important thing. You have to decide for yourself and be particular towards it.”

Question: What are your opinions on design in the context of India?

Answer: “Oh! this is my favourite question.(smiles) You see, India is a very complex object. Everyday, every minute, everything is changing. It is full of diversity, dynamism is constantly surrounding it. There are so many problems around, but still people have an urge to live, to fight with the odds. The Indian designers have not captured ‘this’ India. We can design beautiful chairs, layouts in Latin script or other languages, but we have to realize that India, take it in and express it through our works. The whole life here is bubbling with enthusiasm, ‘woh kya hai? That keeps India alive?” Every time I’ve gone abroad, I have come back becoming more Indian over the time. Even though my inspirations, exposures are also western, but every time I study I see, how to apply it back home. So I feel Indian designers should be true to that real India. To define the India is very difficult and it’s a challenge for the Indian designer to accept and express it through his works. I have nothing against the English language. Please, do not take me in that respect, but we cannot accept all that is western at the cost of our Indianness. It is complex, we have so many beautiful languages like english, we have a strong and complex philosophy, tradition, culture, we need to therefore imbibe and take those forward.”

Question: What readings or looking around do you recommend?

Answer: “We must really look around to realize ourselves. We will read, But an understanding of the self is most essential for the designer. You also ask me about readings. I think its important to first come up with a vocabulary in Indian languages. Who is going to take that up? I am struggling for the last so many years to get all the design and art related terms in all the Indian languages. One needs to create them if they do not exist. Students come up with snappy terms for simplest of things in english, but why not in Hindi. Why say SMS for short message service and not Sa, Ma, Sa. The point I am trying to make is that young designers must take the onus of creating the vocabulary in their own Indian languages, coin their own words and contribute to the profession in a small way. This will help you young people to create your own readings.”

Question: A comment on the upcoming trend of technology within the arts.

“Let me admit to you, my association with CDAC has been from 1976. They invited me to have interactions about calligraphy and developing the software. Until then I had not even touched a keyboard. There are many creative people here and I got an opportunity to exchange ideas with them. So this interaction of creativity and technology is very essential. Earlier there were no facilities such as these, so universities that have such opportunities must have this exchange in terms of technology and art, technology and design, technology and architecture and so on. And, In my own mind what I dreamt of was when I was at IDC that the technology umbrella we have today, should actually be a design umbrella. But we don’t have that, we have design as such a wonderful tool, which is a human centered activity, technology only helps. Parents look at their children today when they are 3 years old and say ‘oh god!, he doesn’t know how to operate the computer ! How is he going to go ahead like this.” They should instead be worried if their child doesn’t know design. They should say, only if he knows design he will be fit to live on this earth, under the sun! Design should be inculcated from the grass root levels, from the very fundamental beginning. People should learn to see things in that way, appreciate them. Then most of our problems of bad architecture, bad products, and bad visuals would get solved automatically. Design has the power to be that umbrella and that ought to have been achieved. And I still have the faith that it can be achieved provided we have faith in ourselves as designers, we create our domain so strong, we make ourselves interdisciplinary in a large way and we show that design is involved in each and every part of our activities. Technology is great, it helps and we should salute the people who invented it, but at the same time we must also salute the guy who first drew that line on land and when sun falls on it a play of shade and light was created and he exclaimed “oh it looks beautiful! ”

All the best.”

Interviewed by Shruti Agarwal and Chetan Shastri, Mumbai, November 2007




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