Last year, the Delhi Typerventions group put up a Devanagari-Bharati Braille installation at Amar Jyoti School, an institute for the visually-impaired, in Delhi. I, of course, was in faraway Cupertino then, but it didn’t stop me from making a small contribution—designing the Devanagari lettering and composing it with the Braille.
The most challenging part of this project turned out to be figuring out how to accurately convert the Devanagari poem that had been selected for the installation to Bharati Braille. Tried as I did, it was impossible to find any comprehensive resources online or a converter that would let the lay person convert short texts (most converters I did find were proprietary and prohibitively expensive). I shared my woes with Nirbheek, who helped me a great deal in doing this conversion. Pretty soon, we were discussing the idea of making our very own Bharati Braille converter. A few months of work, a lot of research and many hiccups later, we are finally ready to release the first version.
Introducing Devanagari to Bharati Braille Converter!
The converter is fairly basic at this stage—it can only convert text, and not mathematical content, for instance. We hope to make it more comprehensive with time, and also add support for more Indian scripts. What’s more, it is free and open source. Please do give it a try and spread the word to those who you think can benefit from a tool like this!
Since I got back to India a couple of months ago, I’ve spent a lot of time going through boxes in my parent’s house and sorting old books. In these boxes I’ve found a lot of unexpected things (the highlight, a 1893 edition of Chambers’ etymological dictionary) and some old favorites, like this set of two books called “Tales from Indian Classics”. I grew up reading these over and over again. One of the reasons I loved them as much as I did were the illustrations—bold and expressive, and in just two colors, black and orange. It is only today while flipping through them did I realize that they were drawn by Pulak Biswas, an illustrator I have come to adore in adulthood. Who knew I had been a fan for twenty years!
These books were first published in 1965 by Children’s Book Trust, cartoonist Shankar’s children’s publishing initiative, and my copies are a reprint twenty-four years later. Along with Amar Chitra Katha and mythological television shows on weekends, they were my source for stories from the Hindu epics. In my imaginary box of things in which I collect things I’d like to pass on to my future children (or nieces and nephews), these books are right on top of the pile!
After weeks of not being able to make it, I finally spent a day at the Computer History Museum in Mountainview. It was one of the places I really wanted to visit before I head back home after the internship. The museum is currently home to a working model of Charles Babbage’s Difference Engine No. 2, and has an exhibition about the history of computing called Revolution on display. Here is a collection of images of some of my favorite objects from the museum:
Analog computing machines such as the Difference Engine, and a great collection of slide-rules and mechanical calculators.
1. Printing apparatus from the Difference Engine No. 2
2. J. Amsler-Laffon’s Mechanical Integrator, 1883
3. Coptometer, Felt & Tarrant, 1890
4. Monroe LA5-160 Calculator, 1940s
And early digital computers like the UNIVAC and ENIAC, and a charming display of robotics.
1. UNIVAC I Supervisory Control Console, Remington Rand, 1951
2. UNIVAC Unimatic Terminal, 1970
3. SAGE, IBM, 1959
4. Omnibot 2000, Tony Kyogo, 1985
The late nineteenth century in north India was a fascinating time. In a matter of a few decades, a language dichotomy emerged. While it was almost unimaginable at the beginning of the century, it became one of the strongholds of the region’s politics. Hindustani split into two. (Modern Standard) Hindi became more Sanskritised, and Urdu Persianised; both in the attempt of finding a more clear, eloquent and differentiated identity.
A recent article on Kafila that discusses the fate of Hindi made me dig out this fascinating chart from Ashok Kelkar’s Studies in Hindi and Urdu: introduction and word phonology that traces literary traditions in Hindi and Urdu [click for a larger image]:
Literary traditions in Hindi and Urdu: Where the script is not mentioned, Devanagari is to be understood. A broken line indicates pioneer beginnings and late attritions as the case may be. The heritage of Hindi is indicated by thick lines; that of Urdu by hollow double lines; the rest by thin lines. The chronological overlap between old Gujarati-Rajasthani on the one hand and Middle Gujarati (1400–1800) and Middle Rajasthani on the other is due to the conscious cultivation of the archaic language by some authors long after it ceased to resemble anything spoken.
A few weeks ago, the Indian Ministry for Tourism launched The Hinglish Project, a new hybrid typeface that combines Latin and Devanagari letters to can help foreign tourists demystify the Devanagari script and make them feel more at home. There has been a lot of positive chatter about it on the internet; it has won the Gold at Cannes in the Design category; but I’m not a fan!
The project claims that the font can help one “tell the phonetic sound of a Hindi character by looking at the corresponding English alphabet superimposed on it”; only it is not as simple as that. Take the welcome text on the website, for instance. The Latin letter “o” represents different sounds in the words “go” (gō) and “something” (ˈsəmθing), and ends up being correlated only with the Devanagari ओ (oː), which represents neither sounds. There are more than a few pairings that I would be willing to argue against. The fact is that one letter can not only represent more than one sound, there is no one-to-one correspondence. The linguistic premise of the project is pretty shaky.
The project might have started with noble intentions, but I’d be hard-pressed to believe that this typeface is a good solution to familiarize a non-native reader with the Devanagari script. Linguistic inconsistencies aside, the typeface isn’t very legible. The letter-shapes are constrained by a geometric grid, and must match up with their counterparts. That doesn’t leave much of a canvas to make easily recognizable letters, which I would think is essential for a project with these aims.
The project fails on both linguistic and typographic counts. At best, it ends up being gimmicky—too concerned with making an attractive image, and removed from function. While my criticism in this post is limited to the rationale and execution of the project; I’m equally, if not more, distressed by the reception it has enjoyed. There has been little critical thought in the reviews I have come across so far. This does not make a good case for design in general, and especially not for design and design thought coming from India.
The rupee symbol was a big bother when I was working on my MA project. Every time I thought about drawing it for my typeface project, I would end up confused, and give up even before I’ve put a single point on FontLab. I tweeted about my distress at the time, and Dan Rhatigan put the problem in much better words than I had managed.
The new rupee (symbol) is a conundrum, because it asks to be two different things at once. Elegant idea, but a design hassle. [source]
The new symbol for the rupee was announced close to two years ago. It was designed by Dr. Udaya Kumar, who described his rationale behind the design as follows:
My design is based on the tricolour, with two lines at the top and white space in between. I wanted the symbol for the rupee to represent the Indian flag. It is a perfect blend of Indian and Roman letters: a capital ‘R’ and Devanagari ‘ra’ which represents rupiya, to appeal to international audiences and Indian audiences. [source]
The shapes of the R and र while similar, don’t have to be the same. What happens when they are not? The perfect blend that Udaya Kumar talks about becomes less-than-perfect as soon as one moves beyond the logo-like symbol he had originally designed. Is the rupee symbol a modified R or a modified र? The answer to this question ends up in the hands of the designer. The way I see it, a modified R might suit a Latin typeface, and a modified र a Devanagari one. Especially, when the typefaces have strong modulation and distinct angles of stress. I am not even beginning to think how it would best fit scripts other than these two.
My personal struggle with this question is a result of my project including both Devanagari and Latin scripts. Not only is the design modulated (which itself makes the letters look different), the R and र in the design are not quite as similar the “perfect” rupee symbol would demand. After agonizing a long time over a common solution, I ended up with two versions—one for each script. I am still uncertain if this is the ideal solution (I can imagine a text with both scripts, what would one use then?), but I do not know what else can be.