The painter of signs

Hanif Kureshi  

Even as a child, Hanif Kureshi knew his destiny lay in the dusty streets of India. More specifically, on its walls, and in the native fonts they held. Hanif, who hails from Talaja, Gujarat, used to watch fascinated as neighbourhood painter Mehta transformed ordinary walls into canvases filled with colourful fonts and types. He decided he wanted to become a street painter.

Years after he graduated from the Faculty of Fine Arts, M.S. University, Baroda, and entered the field of advertising, his old love beckoned. Hanif listened to his heart. The result is, a website devoted to the fonts created by painters of signs.

“Since I never became a street painter, this is my tribute to them,” says Hanif, 29, who now works with Wieden+Kennedy, New Delhi. “Also, these fonts are nearly disappearing from our walls, hoardings and posters. They are so unique, so Indian, unlike the fonts we see day in and day out on digital boards and our monitors. It is vital to preserve them for our next generation,” he adds.

Painters lend a local flavour to their work. For instance, painter Kafeel's fonts are redolent of old Delhi, with its minarets and sweeping arches. His leitmotif? A tiny diamond shape in all the fonts. On the other hand, a 3-D effect and extensive layering are the trademark of former street painter Umesh, from Dhoraji, Gujarat. Sixty-year-old Charan is the father of the ‘Fruit Juice Style', which fuses seven colours to announce the presence of a juice shop. Shabbu has done more than a thousand utterly colourful fruit juice hoardings, incorporating the images of all possible fruits. And, painter Vaghela from Junagadh has come up with a typeface with fish and bones as its concept.

Digital conversion

The first thing that Hanif does is get painters to replicate the keyboard on canvas. Then, with the help of Bombay-based Sarang Kulkarni of WhiteCrow, a design firm, he converts them into the digital platform.

“I want to take the fonts to the digital space where they will live eternally. It provides the painters great exposure and gives them an international platform for their creativity,” says Hanif.

The conversion is a time-consuming effort (it takes at least 10 times the duration of drawing a font), because most of the fonts are multi-coloured. So, the final typeface will have to feature the shadows and highlights intrinsic to the fonts, and be set in relief so that it stands out.

Through this project, Hanif hopes to put online at least 15 to 20 fonts. “I thought it would be an easy task. I know better,” he laughs. Half the trouble is getting the painters to understand what the project is all about. “Some are not professional, but some put their heart and soul into it,” he recalls.

Hanif has also made a short film “Painter Kureshi” on the project. It is being shown at the Paris Delhi Bombay show at the Centre Pompidou in Paris. It will also be shown at the Association Typographique Internationale (ATYPI) annual meeting in Iceland, on September 17.

In the next phase, Hanif wants to target regional language painters too. “That way, I'll get the best of both worlds. People work best in their local language.”

What is his favourite font? “For the moment, Kafeel's. For his singular style,” smiles Hanif.

You can contribute

If you find an interesting hand-painted sign in your area, look for the painter's name and number in the corner. Tell him about the project and get him to replicate the keyboard on a 3ft x 8ft banner cloth. Before couriering it to Hanif (Hanif Kureshi, Wieden+Kennedy, B10, DDA Complex, Sheikh Sarai Phase 1, New Delhi 110017), take its photographs. All Hanif asks is that you trust him to pay you for the cost incurred within five days of receiving the courier.

The fonts are priced at $50, half of which will go to the painter. However, Painter Umesh is a free font. So far, quite a few designers from abroad have bought the fonts. Very few Indians have opted for it, though. “We are not in the habit of buying fonts,” explains Hanif. Visit him at or mail

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Printable version | May 10, 2021 7:38:43 PM |

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