India's premier luxury lifestyle women's magazine
July 26, 2019

Analysing Mumbai’s Distinct Signage And Its Underlying Sociological Factors

Text by Tanya George

Roaming across the city, Verve analyses the cosmopolitan capital’s multilingual typographic landscape

Take a walk down any street in Mumbai, and you will see lots of letters. Letters on shopfronts, on the sides of buildings, on bus stops and billboards. Some hand-painted, others printed on materials that can withstand Mumbai’s climate, and the neon backlit ones that come alive only at night. All these signs essentially help in identifying establishments and defining spaces. Few, like wayfinding signage, help to do both. The explicit job and function of signage is to respectively communicate with prospective patrons and let people know more about a venue — the name, address and if a shop, what it sells and perhaps other details like its hours. When a shop owner puts one up, they are making an investment to attract more buyers. Subliminally, a sign communicates a certain tone and voice, and it creates an identity for the establishment by communicating its salient features such as, how expensive a place might be, how modern a brand is and whom they see as their potential customers.

Today, in Mumbai, these could be a diverse range of individuals. As the economic and entertainment capital, the city draws people from the rest of the country. They move here not only with their hopes and dreams, but also their languages, and they usually gravitate towards those with whom they can communicate and form communities.

This social phenomenon can be traced back to the 1600s, when the East India Company moved its headquarters from Surat to (then) Bombay and invited traders from all over to come and set up shop. The shift from Surat brought with it those Gujarati tradesmen who were already involved with the Company or saw business potential in Bombay. Even today, you can observe the evidence of this legacy as you stroll through Bora Bazaar — a mixed-use locality comprised of residences, a marketplace, homes and offices. Not only is this area in Fort named for the Bohra Muslims who moved here from Gujarat, but many of the signs on its shops and residential buildings are in Gujarati as well, which keeps the historic legacy of this community alive. The Parsis, who were monetarily and linguistically wealthy, also moved to Bombay along with the traders. Originally from Iran, they fled to Gujarat during the height of the religious persecution in their home country. When they came to Bombay, they constructed houses of worship that reflect both heritages. The Godavara Gamadia Agiary in Fort has both Gujarati and Persian lettering inscribed on the entrance wall. Parsi priest and scholar Fardunji Marzban, is responsible for establishing the first Gujarati-language newspaper, Bombay Samachar (now Mumbai Samachar), whose sign still hangs on its red building. It remains in print, now the oldest published newspaper in Asia.

More places, where you tend to see signs in languages other than English or Marathi, are restaurants that serve regional or international cuisines. In most cases, the signs are transliterations: the same words written in different scripts. In some instances, as with this South Indian Hotel, the English signage just says ‘South Indian’, but the Telugu letters below it read ‘Andhra Bhojanam’, as if to signal to a Telugu-speaking crowd that it serves authentic Andhra meals — a regional script is often used for legitimacy. It is a certificate: everything sold and served here is reliably sourced. Dynasty, a Chinese restaurant in Santacruz, has a sign in Chinese characters, between the ones in English and Marathi, but for some reason, it reads ‘Government Restaurant’.

Multilingual signage has the added advantage of helping one pronounce foreign or unfamiliar words more easily, and this can be useful when you have international brands stepping into India. Especially so for people who are not fluent in English as well as those who may have never heard these of these names — like the hard-to-master ‘Hermes’ or ‘Christian Louboutin’ for instance.

You may have noticed that the texts across different scripts don’t visually ‘match’ or ‘fit’. Letters are sometimes spaced out so that they can fill the selected spot for the sign or be read easily from a distance. When this is done to Devanagari letters, it can actually hinder readability; the script requires that the letters be connected through the shirorekha, the horizontal straight line that runs on top of some of the letters. Sometimes, serifs — those tiny pointy things you see at the end of letters in English fonts — are forced onto the tips of Devanagari and other scripts. This happens if the designer is not familiar with the script they are working with. In the Devanagari part of a sign, on occasion, the shirorekha may also be placed incorrectly, which makes it harder to decipher. These issues are mostly seen in printed signage because with handwritten signs it’s easier to control the placement of the shirorekha. The improper positioning of letters may be due to printing technologies being inadequate for scripts that are connected by the shirorekha. Improved and better quality fonts are available now, but it’s hard to tell from the evidence at hand. If the letters are unreadable then a sign fails in its function — to communicate. And no matter how visually exciting it might be, it could deter possible patrons. Young designers need to be educated, and they need to keep updating their skills, but we also need more designers and typographers to design for the regional scripts they have grown up with and know well. It’s only then that this typographic mismatch can begin to be resolved.

We have to bear in mind that all scripts are not the same and the qualities thatmake one ‘modern’, may not do the same for others. They are products of function and use, and when signs are used effectively, there is a payoff: a store could gain new customers, a bakery could broaden its base of regulars or a library could widen its membership.

So, the next time you are on the streets of Mumbai, look up, look around, and think about which signs make you feel more welcome and why. Ponder what their letters are saying both implicitly and explicitly. And that is the power of a sign — to make a space, any space, feel accessible for the audience they cater to.

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