Designers engage with Malayalam typography, as the alphabet shirt trends

Malayalam typography in design is a popular Onam motif

Updated - August 18, 2023 10:14 am IST

Published - August 18, 2023 09:25 am IST

Apparel and products with Malayalam lettering by Via Kerala

Apparel and products with Malayalam lettering by Via Kerala | Photo Credit: Mr

Marigold flowers and Manglish on shirts, Malayalam compound words on tees, the aksharamala mundu, regional micro fauna artifacts..…Onam comes with a dash of pop, especially with versions of Malayalam typography. 

The Malayalam alphabet shirt, launched earlier this year, donned by influencers, found instant connect with youngsters. Designed by SQ (Style Quotient), which has an outlet in Panampilly Nagar,Kochi, the shirts in blue on white and black on off-white combos are set to expand the colour palette. “Alphabet print in red is in the offing,” says George Thomas, founder, SQ, adding that Manglish, a combination of Malayalam and English letters, and Malayalam words written in English like, evide va (come here) will be on shirts soon. Special for Onam is their Jemanthi collection with bright orange marigold flower prints. The flower is used generously during the festival to make Pookalam or flower carpets and is used in home and temple decoration. Screen printed and in limited numbers the shirts are attractively priced at ₹1100-1300.

The Alphabet Shirt designed by SQ

The Alphabet Shirt designed by SQ | Photo Credit: Special arrangement

Via Kerala, one of the pioneers to introduce Malayalam letters on apparel and collectibles is set to launch for Onam, Malayalam compound alphabets or Kootaksharangal on clothing. “The Onam edition will have gold and cream colours. We are also bringing quirky, nadaan images or very local micro fauna that’s around but ignored,” says Theresa George, founder, whose love for Malayalam typography began with the Malayalam Project she did as a Kochi Muziris Biennale collateral, in 2014.

Theresa recalls that it was to “explain ourselves to tourists,” that prompted her to introduce the Malayali identity on clothes innovatively. “It resonated with my peer group,” she says about the instant connect of the designs with youngsters.

The current collection has colourful wood-based letters, “a symbolic connection to Kerala and Malayalam” in new colours inspired by the local street painter’s palette - energetic reds, deep blues and verdant greens. The Onam special is the gold and cream version.

Kerala kutty T-Shirts

The brand’s classic ‘Kerala Kutty’ T-shirt is back too. “The philosophy behind using the word ‘kutty’ is that it represents an ideal democratic social environment something that Kerala is an example of. It can be used as a prefix or suffix to any name —Thomaskutty or Parukutty — be it for a man or a woman,” says Theresa. Most of the products are handmade by women’s self-help groups.

Started in 2015 by industrial designer Collins S, Kochi-based Curiocity has introduced a range of tees with Malayalam lettering and calligraphy. Shruthi S, part of the design team says, “It follows the concept of place making, of giving an identity to a place in terms of design.” She adds that Malayalam typography and calligraphy is an “inside language” that attracts a wider audience to contemporary design. Besides apparel, Curiocity, interprets “Malayali identity” on stationery, artifacts, ceramic ware and retails online.

The Aksharmala mundu by Rouka

The Aksharmala mundu by Rouka | Photo Credit: special arrangement

Danny Kurian and Nimin Philip founded Firebox in 2021 and played around with the Malayalam letter , ‘A’ on t-shirts. Their concept combines science and architectural imagery and themes with Malayalam typography. The tee shirts use the famed Golden ratio and The Impossible Geometry concepts with the Malayalam letter A. Though they are currently concentrating on T-shirts, they plan to launch coasters and bags post-Onam.

“One of the reasons for the appeal of Malayalam typography is that the script already has so many complex shapes and curves, so it can be fun to play with visually,” says illustrator Tarika John who has done several pop art works in the form, adding that in the commercial space it is used to evoke a sense of nostalgia and familiarity.

A product designed by Firebox

A product designed by Firebox | Photo Credit: Aum Thiruvoth

Artist Prajwal Xavier who works with Malayalam typography and has designed for several brands like Firebox and Weaver’s Village says that “Malayalam film dialogues on T shirts were in rage after the release of the film Salt and Pepper. That’s got great commercial value but I wanted to do something aesthetic with Malayalam letters,” says Prajwal who used calligraphy to design vernacular quotes and mantras on clothing. “The lettering may not be legible but is used in abstract ways,” he says. Prajwal’s Malayalam calligraphy designs have been used on saris, dhotis and kurtis. One of the pioneers to introduce this style five years ago, he says the fashion has caught on and is peaking. “During Onam the designs reappear with re-imagined vigour,” he adds. 

Letter-oriented community

“The Malayali’s connection with words is very strong,” says designer Sreejith Jeevan, adding that the community is “letter-oriented” and has a love for literature and newspaper reading. For Onam last year he designed the aksharmala mundu with the first set of Malayalam alphabets. “It was a very quirky mundu and was an instant hit,” he says. The mundu was also worn by parents at the vidyarambham ceremony of their kids when the child is initiated into the world of letters.”

T-shirt designed by Curiocity

T-shirt designed by Curiocity | Photo Credit: Special arrangement

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