Textual connotation

Theresa Joseph George. Photo: Thulasi Kakkat

Theresa Joseph George. Photo: Thulasi Kakkat   | Photo Credit: Thulasi Kakkat


Via Kerala’s Malayalam Project translates the charm of the language’s typography into tactile objects influenced by all things Kerala

Cuddly purple elephants seem an unlikely metaphor for home. But then, design is activism at Via Kerala, which houses the ambitious Malayalam Project.

Launched as a partner exhibit at Kochi Muziris Biennale 2014, this project is a collaborative forum for experiments in the Malayalam language, with a special focus on typography. But that’s not all. Under the guidance of its curator Theresa George, it also explores creative and practical ways to connect with people: primarily, displaced Malayalis seeking ways to strengthen their tenuous connections to Kerala. This is why the project’s home, a deliberately and picturesquely dilapidated century-old building in Fort Kochi, is the base for Via Kerala, a brand that finds imaginative ways to translate ideas into functional objects.

When Theresa started her graphic design studio, Thought Factory, none of this was part of the plan. “I went to a boarding school outside Kerala, after which I did a degree in Fine Arts at Stella Maris College in Chennai,” she says, settling in front of a typewriter with antiquated Malayalam keys. “Over the years, while working with Thought Factory, I began to wonder where the new sense of identity is for the Malayali. Even if we don’t live in Kerala, we feel a connection to the State.” She adds, “From a typography point of view, Malayalam is a huge part of our identity. I can’t read it. In fact, lots of people — even here in Kerala — speak it but can’t read. Still, it’s becoming more and more important to us, more for its identity than utility.”

Working with a team of artists and illustrators, she realised that they were doing a lot of work in the space “where Malayalam meets English.” She explains, “When we talk, we blend English and Malayalam, but when you look at the letters physically, they don’t gel. In every other aspect of life, from the way we dress to what we eat, we have managed to combine Western and Indian ideas. In that context, Malayalam text represents everything we have always known and seen, while English text is more contemporary. Our idea is to find a middle ground.”

The project began as an experiment in 2010 in a little outlet for Via Kerala near the Periyar wildlife sanctuary. “Typography has a very small audience,” says Theresa, “so we thought, maybe we should make it into a tactile product. Then we decide to use colours and ideas influenced by Kerala.” She holds up a chubby purple elephant. “It’s the Kannur style of fabric, made by a women’s self help group.” Then, Theresa spreads out a pack of hand-illustrated cards, each featuring a different animal from the Western Ghats. Finally, she stacks up a set of sturdy wooden Malayalam letters, in bright hues of green, yellow and orange.

Explaining how they were unexpectedly commissioned to create an exhibit for the Biennale, Theresa says, “We wanted to do customised products for the Biennale, so we approached Riyas Komu.” (The Kerala-born, Mumbai-based artist is one of the founders of the Kochi Munziris Biennale.)

Over the course of the conversation, they realised that, with enough collaborators, their ideas could be turned into an exhibit. The result was a chaotic, but intriguing pastiche of poems, caricatures and posters. In short, a visual representation of an incessantly evolving language.

There are screen printed texts from classics like Indulekha, Chemmeen and

Premalekhanam. Experiments in graphic art playfully illustrating Malayalam metaphors. And that grand old typewriter.

Post Biennale, they’re still working on the project as its ideas percolate into products at Via Kerala. “Malayalam typography is challenging,” says Theresa. “Even though there are just 56 letters, you can combine two, three and even four letters to make a new one.”

She goes on to explain why she finds typography so fascinating. “I feel we have so much to learn from it. You can read into it as a metaphor. There is so much that should not be lost. We should not become homogenous. Since our alphabet is so vast, we’re are losing letters. It is not practical on a phone keyboard, for example, to have 900 permutations. But in the process, we lose the richness of language.”

She adds, “Look at the Malayalam numbers. Most Malayalis have no idea how to read them — so they’re becoming just decoration.” She admits that these are problems that the project can’t solve. “But at least we want to inspire people to think about it.”

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Printable version | Nov 19, 2018 6:24:35 PM |

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