Godna: a typeface made from tribal tattoos

The Typecraft Initiative is a self-initiated and self-funded project that aims to create — display typefaces from languishing crafts and tribal arts from each state of India. Each typeface is made by a woman artisan or tribal artist, who belongs to a specific region, material, process and context. We support women craftspeople because they help empower their children, their families and their communities.

Launched in 2010, The Typecraft Initiative, develops a range of display typefaces based on the rich crafts and tribal arts of India. The primary goal of this foundry is to help provide artisans to sustain their livelihood through the creation and sale of the typefaces. The typefaces are meant to inspire, create awareness and generate further interest in the art, history, context, and life of the people and the communities we work with. The typefaces are not only an archive of the IPR of communities that are on the brink of merging with mainstream society, but they are meant to be a celebration of their rich artistic heritage that — through the creation of a digital typeface — has been converted to a contemporary medium. We hope designers, artists from across the globe would engage with and develop new forms of expressions through the medium of typography and graphic design that contribute to continue making this a living craft. Contributions can not only be made through the work created but also by the purchase of the typeface, which will enable us to in some small way, help sustain these crafts and tribal arts and the people who make them. We also plan to work on literacy drives with local NGOs through the typefaces we create.

Godna or tattoo is an ancient artform practiced by Gond tribe of Chattisgarh in Central India. Godna has many motifs, each having a specific significance — some are curative in nature, while others are applied according to rites of passage in a woman's life — such as puberty, marriage and childbirth. The tattoos are highly valued for their powers of healing and their ritualistic significance. However in modern times, fewer people are getting tattoos done, as they migrate to cities for jobs where tattoos are frowned upon. Tattoo artists are struggling to survive in this fast-changing world. This project is then meant as a way for craftspeople and tribal artists to think in new ways — in a world where they are no longer able to sustain themselves solely through traditional networks and systems. We engaged with three tribal women artists, Ram Keli, Sumitra and Sunita to help make the typeface. Funds from the sale of the typeface will go back to help these and other craft and tribal communities. 

Your Purchase of the Typecraft fonts will enable us to work on more such project. Importantly, all money acquired from the sale of the typeface is used to fund future Typecraft projects and to help in artisan livelihood programs. Thank you for your support. To Purchase Typecraft Typefaces, visit: **THE TYPECRAFT INITIATIVE**

Rendering of the Godna tattoo letters | Ram Keli, Sunita and Sumitra | Gond tribal tattoo artists | Jamgala, Chattisgarh, India 
Type Design (concept, artisan co-ordination, vectorization) | Ishan Khosla | Partner, The Typecraft Initiative | Partner, Ishan Khosla Design LLP | New Delhi, India 
Type Design & Development | Andreu Balius | Partner, The Typecraft Initiative | Owner, Type Republic | Barcelona, Spain 

The Typecraft Initiative has been covered in blogs, print and online magazines and newspapers such as: Creative Review | It's Nice That | Better Letters | Architectural Digest | Design IndabaVerve | Mumbai Mirror | Hindustan Times | Houzz and more


The Typecraft Initiative is a self-initiated and self-funded project which is a part of our on-going mission to create typefaces out of ancient and traditional Indian craft as a means to generate livelihood among the artisans and to promote, archive and innovate these art forms. We plan to create 29 typefaces from 29 languishing crafts — one from each state of India, in order to help sustain these crafts in a small way and to generate awareness of that craft as well as the practitioners who have been associated with that craft for generations. For this edition of the project, we engaged with three tribal women artists — Ram Keli, Sumitra and Sunita — who belong to the Gond tribe of Chattisgarh in Central India. These and other women from this tribe etch tattoos onto the Baiga and other tribal women. We conducted a month long workshop at our Delhi based studio — that enabled them to understand the basic nuances of typefaces and also helped them get an understanding of some of the key aspects of type design, namely proportion and consistency. A workshop like this in a new setting can be intimidating for any artist — especially artist who have come from a very different background. For this reason, we kept the pace slow and we spent the first week just having the artists draw their own motifs, we recorded the meaning of these motifs as well as some of their songs — which were beautiful indeed. We then, slowly initiated lessons on typography proportion, style and harmony.

Again, we let the artists create the letters in their own way, initially — to give them creative freedom and for them to enjoy the process. Over time, we helped hone their drawings through comments and suggestions. All the drawings and artworks are completely done by them and we never drew anything for the artists except as part of the instruction. Godna or tattoo has many motifs, with each having a specific significance. Some motifs and designs are curative in nature, others are imprinted onto a women on special occasions such as weddings or child birth. They are highly valued for their powers of healing and are ritualistic in nature. However in modern times, fewer people are getting tattoos done, even in remote tribal villages and the tattoo artists are trying to find livelihood and sustenance by converting their symbols into art. The entire process has taken us more than 18 months — from the initial interaction with the artists, the scanning and cleaning of their drawings, vectorization of their drawings was a very painstaking process as was the final stage of making the typeface. There were many challenges that we had to face and decisions we had to take. The original script of the Gond people had its own script but was later used as either Telegu or Devanagari.

Interview Nakao Tomomichi, Curator, Fukuoka Asian Art Museum, Japan

1. For the project (Godna, Chittara and others), what is a vital skill/technology and knowledge needed?  I chose to start The Typecraft Initiative, as it was a logical extension of my skills as a graphic designer, and, yet I could see the potential of creating beautiful and functional display typefaces from India’s rich craft and tribal living tradition. 
 When working with craftspeople and tribal artists, in general, it is important to firstly, treat them with respect and as equal partners in the project and to remember that they are the custodians of their own history and knowledge system. Whatever they create in terms of intellectual property belongs to them. Additionally, being humble about the fact that they are far more skilled than most of us designers. And that, we are not doing them a favour by working with them  — but it’s quite the contrary. Some of them might not have a formal education — but their knowledge and belief system, which has been handed down for generations — is immensely rich, and much more valuable than a college degree. It is also important for us to understand their context — in terms of where they come from, their practices and beliefs and current social and economic situation and challenges.   As far as The Typecraft Initiative is concerned, we involve craftspersons from various parts of country — some groups are more “exposed” to working with outsiders, while others are not so. Understanding these differences is an important aspect of how much time is to be allocated to a particular group. The group that is less used to working with outsiders, needs more time to work and get comfortable with the project at hand.  Since all the people we work with have no exposure to typography, we start slowly. Sometimes we don’t even work on typography for the first week of our exchange. In the case of the Gond tribal artists, who create godna tattoos — we began by documenting their existing motifs and designs, and, interviewed them about these motifs and their tradition and belief system. We also recorded some of their songs. This made them feel more at home.  In the subsequent weeks, we slowly introduced them to working with typography. Giving an understanding of the project and yet being able to not burden them with the technical aspects of typography and type design is important. The designer must be sensitive to the both the artistic and aesthetic considerations along with the practical realities to type design and usage. The more complex the letters, the less usable they are. Conversely, the more simple and neutral the letters are, the less unique and authentic they might be to the original art or craft form they have come from and represent. Collaboration with Spanish type designer, Andreu Balius, was an essential step for us to transform the letters into a workable typeface.  As an aside, I am saddened to see many designers and designs students brazenly create some form of craft or tribal art, on their own — without involvement of the group that owns that craft or tribal art — and claim ownership of the designs or concept. They have in effect stolen the IPR of the craftspeople and tribal artists, and used it without their permission. 


2. For the project, what is a vital cycle?
 All the projects that have been a part of The Typecraft Initiative, thus far, — have been made in collaboration with women. “Sangam” lettering with Sajnu ben (Dhebaria Rabari tribe); Mithila Typecraft with Mamta Jha (Madhubani); Chittara Typecraft with Radha Sullur and Godna Typecraft with Ram Keli, Sunita and Sumitra (Gond tribe). 

Rites of Passage
 In general, women have a strong connection with the idea of a “vital cycle” not only as life givers, care-takers of children and the home; and their own monthly menstrual cycles. Some women, especially those from the tattoo community within the Gond tribe have a strong connection to the rites of passage — which are marked by the application of a certain godna tattoo motif on a specific part of the body — to mark the entrance into a new phase of life (such as puberty or pregnancy), for a woman. The motif and the placement varies according to the tribe they are inscribing the tattoo on. Baiga tribe motifs vary for instance, from Bhil tribes. That the tattoos are mainly done by women on women is another strong connection they have to the cycle of life. Similarly, both Chittara and Mithila art was traditionally painted on the walls and floors outside the home — according to the season, festival or special occasion (for instance, marriage) by the lady of the house. The motifs (in the case of Chittara) and the subject matter (in the case of Mithila) reflect the changing of seasons and represent the different stages of life — from birth to death. 

3. What is art for you? In my opinion, the three — art, craft and design — have a very tenuous and problematic relationship in many ways. The classification of art as done by the West is — in the Asian and contemporary context — a bit limiting as it tries to put the visual arts into neat boxes. In reality, there are and were, varying degrees in which “beauty” and “utility” coincided in every object made. This makes the idea of classification a moot point — especially on the basis of beauty vs. functionality (form versus function). For instance, isn’t there beauty in an iron implement such as a tong or a scissor, and not “just” functionality? Does not a beautiful votive sculpture have an intrinsic function that is rooted in prayer, devotion and faith? Is then, a votive sculpture not functional?  An earthen pot for instance, has evolved over thousands of years to suit the local conditions of soil, how and where it is stored in the home, how women carry it (on the hip or head), how water is collected — whether by bring thrown into the well or from the river — and how smoothly, the water pours out of the spout. This is in my opinion, “high design” and “user centred design” as it has matured over eons of time — based on observation and re-use. However it is also a craft — made by a potter by hand or on the wheel, where each piece is unique. Additionally, it has artistic value not just from the perspective ornamental beauty, but also, how it is so timeless and yet so simple, and essential. And lastly, and most fundamentally, the earthen pot is also a functional object. In resource scarce societies in India — utility and not beauty, was essential to the object. However, even in such societies, some element of ornamentation — no matter how sparse — would find its way into the utensil as beauty was highly valued. Yet, on its own, beauty would have been seen as wasteful. 

4. How do you want to develop the project?  If you have a vision for an ideal final form (if not, the next stage), please let us know. The long-term vision for this project, is to create a non-profit foundation to be able to give back to the communities we engage with. I believe that while this project is already beneficial to the tribal artists and craftspeople we work with — there is little long-term impact to their day to day lives. For this project to really make a difference, would mean giving back to the artists beyond just the payment of their fees.  The needs of each craft or tribal group can be very different. And the foundation would need to be able to support the specific needs of the people we involve in this initiative. For instance, while one group may need their home to be rebuilt for the monsoon, another may want to be able to sell online, and, yet another needs funds for tools and raw materials. My long-term vision for this project as well as other projects that engage with tribal and crafts groups is for them to have a palpable benefit to their standard of living. The foundation will also provide interest free loans to the groups it engages with. This can be of tremendous assistance in hard times. As far as the near-term goals are concerned, I would like The Typecraft Initiative, to be more involved in creating Indic typefaces in scripts such as the devanagari and dravidian systems. This is far more challenging than creating typecraft in the Latin script, due to the number and complexity of the glyphs in Indic scripts. We will have to re-think our approach and how to simplify the letters to make them functional and yet embed the “DNA” of the craft into the letters — so that they represent the particular tribal or craft community involved in their creation.  

5. Do you have anyone in mind who you want to work with sooner or later? I am interested to explore a 3D Devanagari script with a more sculptural artform such as the metal work of the Bastar tribe in central India. The typographic sculptures when created in 3D can be rendered using 3D software and then either used as individual vector letters or as a 3D typeface. Some of these forms can be made into a 2D typeface as well. Three-dimensional typefaces are still a very nascent area in type design, and one would have to look at the technical challenges of realising this. Additionally, I am also keen to work in Ikat and other forms of weaving from the East and the Northeast of the country, and to create typographical forms out of that.  The over-arching idea for each new typecraft, is, to challenge both the craftsperson and ourselves as designers. The aim is to be able to engage and work with a number of forms of craft and tribal art from all parts of the country — that are made with varying materials for different purposes and a diverse set of meanings associated with the craft or tribal art. Since I work a lot in the cultural sector, my goal is to include the completed typefaces from, The Typecraft Initiative, into these projects and also have more and more people and state governments use the these typefaces. It is only then that the project will be successful and can make a bigger impact.