Sign City

A new book on Mumbai’s signage tells the story of a city through its fonts

Written by Sharon Fernandes | Published:March 8, 2009 4:55 pm

A new book on Mumbai’s signage tells the story of a city through its fonts
Every space in a city as dense as Bombay is marked; every property has a board to it. Once you get tuned to looking,you can tell the story of a city through its signboards,” says 33-year-old Vishal Rawlley,photographer and writer who has taken over 1,500 pictures of Mumbai signage. From cinema hall poster fonts to roadside signs,hand-painted typography on tailor and barber shops to number plate and sticker art,Mumbai gave Rawlley a lot to chew on. In a couple of months,Rawlley’s collection of photographs,taken over a period of three years,will be published by Chennai-based publishing house,Blaft,in a book titled

Typocity. Detailed captions with each photograph tell the story of a city in flux,as seen through typos and typography. “I can’t and don’t propose to document every amazing sign that exists in Bombay. I am looking at signage that has value to us from the point of view of design and social history.”
Rawlley came to Mumbai when he was 19,dropped out of college and did a diploma in film and video production. That was 1995,when he discovered his love for graphic design and the city. “I was discovering Bombay as a city and found it fascinating. There was so much informal design practice everywhere from taxi stickers and hoardings to the shops’ signboards. It was very fascinating. You can almost trace the history if you start following and documenting them,” he says. So he picked up his camera,a manual SLR,and walked around the city-by-the-sea taking pictures.

In 2003,he put up his work on a website titled http://www.typocity.com with grants from different research organisations. “Bombay has the widest collection of Art Deco architecture next to Miami. This was a strong design movement that came up in the city after Independence. It was interesting not just because of its retro value but also because of its variety of design. Here you can spot the Indo-saracenic architecture and the old gothic fonts followed by the new gothic that preceded Art Deco,” says Rawlley.

Rawlley recalls days when he got off buses on way the way to his destination because a sign had caught his eye. Chatting up restaurant owners and getting permissions to shoot the signs on their doors and shop windows was a routine that lasted three years. “From the different calligraphic styles you see in Dongri to the ageing mills in lower Parel with their huge decaying gates,it is like art frozen in time,” says Rawlley.

Not all the signs that Rawlley clicked five years ago are still standing. The distinctly ‘Mumbai’ fonts are disappearing every few months. Like the signboards at Iranian cafes like Bastani,on which poems have been written. “These old Iranian restaurants were major landmarks and truly made Bombay a city with a restaurant at every corner. They had their own way of doing brisk business and keeping the riff-raff away. But that all is history now,”says Rawlley,while he searches for a picture taken inside one of these cafes.

But it is not quirky boards that are vanishing from the city. Even Rawlley is no longer a part of the Mumbai landscape with his recent shift to Delhi. His trips back to his muse have not been happy either. “I have images of signs that have disappeared. If you head out of the Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus in Mumbai on your way to Colaba,you will see a sign to the left of the traffic signal. It reads ‘Eastern Watches’. But I have a picture of the original sign that was up there since 1920. It was removed a few years back because signages were banned on the heritage buildings of the Fort area in Mumbai. They don’t realise that signage is also part of the heritage since it has existed for so long,” says Rawlley.
In a city plastered with vinyls and glow signs,the idiosyncrasies are best seen in the fonts of an old tailor’s shop or on a brightly coloured juice stall. Are you watching closely?

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