The signs they are a-changin'

Art director Aradhana Seth’s book, SADAK, spotlights the dying profession of the artist of hand-painted signs whose whimsical and often uneven art, made alive the truck between goods, people, and spaces on Delhi’s streets.
Artist Aradhana Seth
Artist Aradhana Seth

Of the multiple layers of a city, hand-painted street signs are one. They shout, warn, invite, promise, sell and show the city’s innards. They express how the city wants to be known by others. ‘Delhi, the World Class City’. ‘Sarvodaya Vidyalaya No 1’. Doctors, nurses and the media painted as warriors in the fight against Covid-19 on flyover walls.

Signboards of electricians’ numbers advertised at the underpass, of `50 chicken-rice thalis near student hangouts, 10-rupee kulfis drawn as if they were rockets about to take off from the lid of a hand-pulled cart, export-import services drawn onto shop shutters—these typical examples of the Delhi hustle are a window into the dreams and desires of its residents, arrivistes and strugglers. This is the Street talking back; the signs, a mutter of what is going on.

Artist Aradhana Seth’s book SADAK (Humboldt Books) on such signs has just been nominated for the 2024 Author Book Award at the prestigious Les Rencontres d’Arles, the first international festival of photography in France.

The Bata trigger

Seth, along with her brothers, author Vikram Seth, and Shantum, a Buddhist teacher, spent their early life in a big compound of the Bata factory in Patna, where their father was posted to revive a sick unit. Her obsession with street signs and logos began young. “I travelled with my father to multiple Bata stores across India, all, of course, using the same logo.

This made me realise from an early age how the familiarity of a font can lure you in. They were hand painted, so as I noticed the different brushstrokes on them, the seed was sown. Of course, contemporary brands like Starbucks also rely on logos, but it is not the same because they are mass produced.”

She was constantly aware of street signs while filming during her studies at Jamia Millia Islamia. “While making documentaries and creating film sets, it became apparent to me that these signs place one in the context of one’s environment and I began thinking about them while shooting documentaries and designing film sets,” says Seth.

Traces of a city

These signs are, as the book shows, interesting traces that the painters leave on the material they handle. For instance, ‘I.Like.Tailors’, is a sign featured in SADAK. Chances are it is not a case of the tailor-proprietor of the shop preening, but who knows, possibly a thank you by the painter for getting the sign-painting job.

The kind of lettering used on a sign or its odd, whimsical phrasing, may also come out of an interaction of the painter with his patron. There may be patrons who think the design of their signboards will pop with fatter fonts, while others may not. Some patrons might like their signs with double shading, some may not.

As art director and production designer of films such as Wes Andersen’s The Darjeeling Limited and the Matt Damon-starrer The Bourne Supremacy (which was partly set in India), Seth would share such images from her ever-growing archive of street signs with her team as reference to create the sadak (street). “I wouldn’t want such images touched up. Even when the metal signs begin to rust, I wanted to show that – the rust on the fan or lines on the wall.

Things need to be shown for what they are,” she says. In her book celebrating painted signs, nothing is glossed over—the rough edges are allowed to remain. “It’s okay if signs get painted over, or in an image the handle of the door is gone. For me what is important are fonts, language, the painter’s individuality forming the brushstrokes of a city.

It’s important to feel the textures of the surfaces: when it’s whitewash, paint, concrete…. When a sign is fading or has been papered over in part, it’s very important for me that it stays that way,” she says during a short conversation when we meet in Delhi before she heads back to Europe.

Death and reinvention

SADAK showcases Seth’s photo archive of hand-painted signs over the years, together with biographies of Raza Abbas, Praveen Chauhan, Prashant Janardhan Dehlvi and Delhi’s Shakeel Ali, some of the artists who created the paintings; accompanied by a critical essay by visual culture lecturer

Kajri Jain; and an autobiographical text by artist Francesco Clemente.

Seth mentions the case of Prashant Dehlvi, a signboard artist of Mumbai, to underscore her fear of the disappearance of this street art. “Earlier the street was his studio, now he works on film sets. If I have to create south Calcutta on film and make it in Bombay, that’s where Prashant will come in. We give him visual references and ideas and he paints streets for celluloid. So, while he has kept his form, he hasn’t kept it on the street. Now he has to do his work, not for someone who is selling ‘goods and services’ but for an imagined sadak,” she says.

The 184-page photography book is a homage to this form. Aradhana sees that along with the changes in our time, these street signs are fast disappearing and the patrons are changing. “Digital prints on vinyl with computer-generated typography, flex boards, and light boxes are inhabiting the streets. The governments are now one of the patrons of sign painters whose mandate often is ‘to beautify the city’,” she observes, thus eroding the give and take that existed between a signboard painter and the small-time trader, grocer, cloth merchant, hotelier, renter of rooms who gave him the job.

Sign of the times

But signboard patronage is not cheap. For a hand-painted sign, the painter charges between Rs 1,000 to 3,000. Vinyl banners come for a fraction of that price. “Just like STD booths look rundown because now everyone has a cell phone, the changing messaging on signboards show how a city is evolving,” says Seth. Once upon a time, every small-town street had a signboard on matrimonial ads.

Now that has been replaced with computer classes, she adds. Shakeel Ali admits that hand painted signs are just “five per cent” of his income now. These signboards tell us what is around but that there has been a certain amount of homogenisation in the way they are interpreted.

For Ali, not all deals made on Delhi’s streets have, however, been a one-off. Delhi still has some faithfuls of hand-painted signs, he says. Every year, Dilshad Ahmed, one of his patrons, gets him to do another version of his product, Khushdil Kulfi. “Even if all the painting jobs dry up, I will always have this,” he says.

Sadak: Hand Painted Street Signs in India is available on artisanscentre.com

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