History of Printing and Type Design for South Asian Scripts from the 18th to the 21st Century

A set of Devanagari wood type from Standard Type Foundry, New Delhi (date unknown). From the  personal collection of Vaibhav Singh.

Fiona Ross and Vaibhav Singh

California Rare Book School 2023
August 7–11, 2023 online
Application deadline: May 2, 2023

This course will offer an overview of the history of printing and type design for South Asian scripts from the 18th to the 21st century. Focusing mainly on three scripts from the Indian subcontinent, namely Devanagari, Bengali, and Tamil, the course will introduce participants to the history of design and technology for printing in these languages. It will offer ‘virtual hands-on’ engagement with some of the processes involved in the making of printed artefacts, examining their histories across changing cultural and technological backdrops.

The course will focus on typographic printing and situate the design and production of type in the South Asian context through an in-depth engagement with letterforms and their visual/graphic characteristics. We will look at a wide variety of design processes, various manual and mechanical composing systems for syllabic scripts, and technological developments spanning foundry types, hot-metal, film-setting, and digital developments that have shaped the visual and material form of the printed word in South Asia.

The course will help participants develop a broad understanding of the three writing systems covered, along with their respective typographic histories, and also to explore the application of typographic knowledge towards bibliographic purposes such as identification, authentication, comparative analysis etc. This course is intended for anyone interested in the history of printing, technology, and typography in South Asia. Attendees knowledgeable in other book cultures or those interested in comparative contexts of print are also welcome. Course materials will be in English and prior knowledge of the languages and scripts of South Asia is not required.

General outline
1. Introduction to writing systems/technologies of printing
2. Brief history of early printing in South Asia: pre-19th century
3. Movable type and lithography: 19th century
4. Mechanical casting and typesetting: 20th century
5. Film-setting and the digital era: 20th–21st century

Advertisement by Monotype Corporation publicizing their machines for various South Asian scripts. From Indian Print & Paper (1953).

Fiona Ross specializes in type design and typography primarily for South Asian, Arabic and Thai scripts, with a background in languages and PhD in Indian Palaeography (SOAS). She works as a consultant, type designer, author and lecturer; and is Professor in Type Design (part-time) at the University of Reading (UK). In addition to her published collaborative typeface design work for clients such as Ananda Bazar Patrika, Adobe, Google, Microsoft, Monotype and Harvard University Press, Fiona has co-curated seven international exhibitions, and written and contributed to books and numerous articles. Her work and research are focused on (a) Asian type design: theory, history, practice; (b) design approaches to multi-script typeface design; (c) the relationship of tools and typefounding methods to the visible appearance of typeforms of diverse writing systems; and (d) documenting type design as an often-unacknowledged collaborative process. For her work in type design and education, Fiona received the SoTA Typography Award (2014) and the Type Directors Club Medal (2018).

Vaibhav Singh is an independent typographer, typeface designer, and researcher. He holds an MA and PhD from the University of Reading, where he was subsequently a British Academy Postdoctoral Fellow. He is editor and publisher of Contextual alternate: journal of communication, technology, design, and history, and chairman of the Printing Historical Society, London. His research focuses on design, technology, and printing history in the South Asian context, situating the history of Indian-script typography within global creative and commercial networks and examining questions related to materiality, infrastructure, politics, labour, and technological innovation for text-based communication. For his research projects, he has been awarded fellowships from the Willison Foundation Charitable Trust, the Bibliographical Society, Bodleian Libraries, Smithsonian Institution, and the British Library, among others.

For more information about California Rare Book School and details of the cost, requirements, etc. for this course access CalRBS online.