Because of my unofficial standing as a fan of so many things Calcuttan, so that I have to take them at my own (slowing) pace, I’m hardly apt to pen anything like an academic treatise when pondering any. Yet, so many subjects here cry out for further research, discovery and explanation. Happily, a growing multitude of bloggers and enthusiasts are doing just that. Consequently, this is the perfect time to zero in on more specialized, if not esoteric, topics within Calcutta’s local universe.
The city has long been famous/notorious for its massed hoardings, and I’m one who thinks they do no service to the city by covering it with dreary digital graphics. On the other hand, commercial signage, those proclaimed identities above the entrance to any self-respecting place of business, are every bit a part of Calcutta’s heritage of merit – based on their qualities, certainly.
All types are on display, but I mostly focus on the astonishing array of custom-crafted signs featuring raised wooden letters, supremely stylish, embossed, modelled, and painted with strategic colour schemes. They number in the hundreds, and most are in good condition. If some are a bit ramshackle or even derelict, a sign is infinitely easier to restore than the building to which it is attached. In some cities, avid collectors have rescued such items from neglect, with many gracing museums after restoration.
But most of Calcutta’s heritage signs (to use a term of convenience) are still hard at work, because they’re still doing the job they were meant to do. Each and every place of habitation in India naturally has its own collection of commercial signage, but in my ramblings from Srinagar to Quilon, Jaisalmer to Sasaram, I find that the fonts employed here in the big city have an extra sort of zest, and a flair for conspicuous artistry, even flamboyance. I include the state of Bengal in this assessment for good reason, though it’s been too long since I’ve been to Burdwan or Ghoom, or other Bengali-speaking localities of interest in the mofussil, so as to generalize further.Obviously then, the source of inspiration is the Bengali script itself, with the æsthetics of Rabindranath Tagore’s handwriting added in. That most elegant of the great Indian scripts is also the most decorative, and its charms can transfer readily to renditions in Roman-type fonts. The curves, swoops, and built-in calligraphic style have always offered rich possibilities to sign artists, from which thousands of fine works have resulted.
No, I can’t read Bengali (and fortunate are they who can), but I well and truly admire its form and variations, especially when a mundane item like a sign is so clearly a work of art.
There are too many exemplary signs to mention, and they’re best appreciated via photos. Some favourites of the raised-letter variety: the magnificent Chuckervertty, Chatterjee & Co. Ltd. sign on College Street (best seen from a Presidency College classroom); the ultra-wide spread of letters for Newman’s, now vanished, bookshop; and the brilliant, individualist sign for the long-gone with the wind Madras Cafe on Kiran Shankar Roy (ex-Hastings) Road has a special place in my concepts of Calcutta’s heritage.
This is not to shortchange the vast number of wonderfully creative signs painted on sheet metal or other backings. Paintings, not bas-reliefs, they are worth noticing just as much as their 3-D companions. I especially like the depiction of Writers’ Buildings in Olde English script, while just below, the Bengali version is sleek and sophisticated. Numerous examples of the more homemade/hand-painted kind – the Rangoon Saloon comes to mind – are delightful in their charm and sincerity.
As befitting my own preferences, on just about any sign-spotting stroll, it’s always rewarding to discover how many signs still proclaim the city’s name as spelled with a ‘C’, though most of the ‘K’ versions are now successfully aged enough to look original (and thus, less noticeable!)
To be sure, the usual imperatives of Preserve, Protect, Appreciate apply. To be an aficionado of Calcutta’s signs, fonts, and their artistry is a joyful and easy pursuit.Highly recommended for its pleasure factor alone.
Stay curious, have fun, and be sure to come when Calcutta calls!