In one of Old Delhi’s Byzantine lanes lives a man named Painter Kafeel. His official name is Kafeel Ahmed Ansari, but very few know of it, and almost no one ever calls him by it. His friends nicknamed him Painter Kafeel when he started painting as a child, and the name stuck.
Kafeel believes he is over 50 years old, although he doesn’t know his exact age, because, as he says, he stopped counting long ago. He is originally from Azamgarh, a small town in Uttar Pradesh, where as a child he befriended various painters. Before he turned 10, he was painting professionally, and became what is termed a ‘street painter’. With expertise in four scripts—Devnagari, English, Farsi and Urdu (a slight variant of Farsi)—he would paint the names of shops and fruit juice stalls. And over the years, he developed his own style. His letters were colourful and his ‘A’s were shaped like little minarets. In every letter he painted, he also drew a small sparkling diamond. He enjoyed his work, and business was good. Like many others in Azamgarh, sometime in the late 1970s he moved to Delhi, where his art found many takers. He met more painters, learnt from them, got more work, and earned well. He soon got married and his wife bore him five children.
However, many years later, he found the visual landscape of Delhi’s streets changing. Shop banners were no longer being painted, but rolling off printing presses. These banners were shiny, glossy and made of vinyl. “They couldn’t have been uglier,” as Kafeel puts it. But that was the way it was. Signboard painters were no longer needed. Designers with desktop computers would do. So he learnt how to use a computer and bought one to produce banners. And by 2002, like many others in his trade, he had stopped painting completely.
A new project is now trying to save this cottage industry of Indian street typography from oblivion. Called HandpaintedType (handpaintedtype.com), its mission is to document these typefaces and digitise some of them as fonts. These fonts, named after their originators, the painters, would then be made available for digital downloads.
The project is led by Hanif Kureshi, a 29-year-old art director at an advertising agency in Delhi who believes he owes it to them. As a child growing up in a Gujarati town called Taleja, he would spend his free time with a local painter. Mehta, the painter, taught him how to wield a brush, and occasionally allowed him to paint letters on some banners. In Ahmedabad, where he’d often go for vacations at his aunt’s house, he met another street painter named Salim, whose friendly guidance in the art he remembers with equal fondness.
Kureshi’s love of street painting found expression in the number plates of his friends’ motorbikes—and occasional shop banners—that he’d paint. He enrolled himself in an art school, where he got more involved with typography. After graduation, he found a job in the art department of an ad agency.
“It occurred to me one day how our cities were changing,” he says, “Very few shops had painted banners anymore. When I started looking into it more closely, I realised that many [painters] had stopped painting or were doing poorly.” Determined to preserve their legacy and sure he could find appreciators of the same, he started meeting street painters and collecting their works in 2011. Friends in various parts of the country chipped in too, as a result of which he now possesses the works of painters in places ranging from Ladakh to Mumbai, Bangalore to Rajkot. His website also has tips for those who want to be part of the project. He advises them to ask street painters in their locality to paint a banner with the entire alphabet, base numerals and symbols in their own styles, and mail the sample to him. Kureshi then reimburses the sum spent on the exercise.
According to Kureshi, the styles of painters vary vastly. Typography differs by geography too. For instance, cities in South India tend to use more fluorescent colours, while the shape of letters seen in north India are relatively rounded. Among some of the more interesting people he met during the course of this project was a former painter named Charan Chavan. Now in his late sixties, Chavan is believed to have started the ‘Fruit Juice Style’ of painting. In his youth, he painted Bollywood posters in Delhi. Later, he started getting work for juice stalls, and he adopted the large and colourful lettering of cinema posters for these boards too. “His work became a rage,” says Kureshi, “Other fruit juice stall painters emulated him. And soon, all fruit juice stalls in Delhi began to look exactly the same.” Chavan retired from painting many years ago, long before the advent of desktop publishing (DTP) software. Younger, quicker painters with similar styles had appeared on the scene.
So far, Kureshi has published a couple of street fonts, one for online purchase and the other for free downloads. The font titled Painter Umesh, after Umesh Baldaniya, a former street painter who now works at an ad agency in Delhi, has already been downloaded more than 3,000 times. The second, named after Painter Kafeel, is available for $50, and has sold some 80 copies. Under the project, half of all profits from such sales are handed over to the font’s originator.
Digitising street fonts is an arduous process. Painter Kafeel’s, given its complexity, took over a month to prepare. To make his colours richer, Kafeel painted at least nine layers over every letter, and Kureshi had to replicate that effect. Of the first time he heard of Kureshi’s plan to digitise his letters, Kafeel says, “I thought he was out of his mind. I agreed and had my doubts till the day I saw the digital fonts. I felt such a rush that day.” Now Kafeel has directly been approached by a number of expatriates living in Delhi to paint his letters on such merchandise as bags and T-shirts. He has taken up some of this work, and is back to his original vocation, thanks to the project.
Kureshi is now working on his third font, scheduled to make its online debut in a few weeks. Called Painter Suhel, it is named after Kafeel’s 25-year-old painter-son. “My son is a kalakar (artist),” says Kafeel, “What is unique about his work is that all his letters are ornamental, as though they are preparing themselves for a wedding.”
Like Kafeel, Suhel Ansari began by painting shop banners in their hometown Azamgarh, where he went in defiance of his father’s plans for his education in Delhi. But times had changed there too, and since very little work comes his way, Suhel earns his livelihood painting brand logos and the like on walls. “Such work is hard. There is no creativity involved,” says Kureshi, “A painter is commissioned to paint a Coca-Cola ad or some such brand in a set style on a wall. Many street painters sustain themselves [this way].”
Just before he started his project, Kureshi visited Taleja to ask his mentor Mehta, now in his sixties, to collaborate with him. When Kureshi told him about it and asked whether he would like to participate, the old painter refused pointblank. Says Kureshi, “He said, ‘I don’t want to touch a paintbrush ever again’.” Mehta had been pushed out of work by DTP software so long ago, it seems, he was past caring.