Indian Alchemy is no fool’s gold

A poster campaign caught my eye recently – for two very different reasons.

Alchemy logo

The Southbank Centre is planning a five day event entitled Alchemy exploring the culture of India, its diaspora and its relationship to the UK. The festival will feature literature, dance, music, food, fashion and debates. This cultural masala was the first reason for the poster holding my attention. The sheer scope is illustrated by two of the events on the opening Wednesday: a debate entitled “India: global powerhouse? Is India the new America?” and a concert by the London Philharmonic playing works by Indian film composer AR Rahman. Events such as these are just one of reasons that living and working in central London can be a joy.

The poster also stayed in my mind for a design reason. The addition of a line above the word ALCHEMY invokes some of the more common Indian scripts. This device of hanging Roman letters from a line has been used many, many times to suggest “Indianness”.

Why is this? After all, there are many languages in India, and many scripts. [5] First, because Hindi – one of India’s two official languages (the other is English) – is written characters hanging from a horizontal bar. But there are hundreds of mother tongues spoken around India. In fact, the 2001 Census revealed there are 29 languages spoken natively by more than a million individuals.

The script used to write Hindi is Devanagari and it is also used for some other Indian languages, such as Marathi and Nepali, as well as Sanskrit (India’s counterpart to Latin). But many other Indian languages have their own scripts. So does my Londoner’s eye associate this horizontal with “Indian-ness” just because of Hindi? In fact, no. The horizontal bar is a feature shared by several different Indian scripts, such as Bengali and Punjabi. In general, the north Indian scripts deriving from Devanagari all have this horizontal bar (Gujarati and Oriya are exceptions). The scripts for south Indian languages such as Tamil, Malayalam and Telugu have a different origin – and no horizontal bar.

Finally, here is an interesting family tree of Indian scripts from Colorado State University:

Indian scripts

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