Malayalam script needs to adapt for survival

Malayalam script needs to adapt  for survival

With an estimated 38 million native speakers, the Malayalam language has transcended barriers of its variants and their cultural import to represent an enduring, collective ethos.

In a classic track from the 1963 film Ninamaninja Kaalpaadukal, the late poet-lyricist P Bhaskaran writes about a “land” called Malayalam.

Kerala’s popular culture continues to nod to its language with varying effect; specifically in films where the spoken word with its regional tweaks and external influences also becomes a statement of identity.   Modern-day writers have embraced changes in the spoken language while mainstream media is moving away from the verbose to a more chatty, everyday tone in presentation.

As researchers continue to explore possibilities of taking a script that often blends the traditional with the simplified to a generation bred on cryptic text messages, artists and
designers have come together in Kochi to offer what they call a typographic tribute to the language.

The initiative – titled Malayalam Project – is an exhibition on typography and graphic design that views the language through its literature and script; it’s also an effort to break the barrier of language through the medium of art.

The exhibits double as studies on linguistics through the written word and art; snippets from prominent literary works over the past 100 years are exhibited along with modern artistic interpretations of words in Malayalam. A partner initiative of the

ongoing Kochi-Muziris Biennale (KMB), the Malayalam Project will be on display till March 29.

“Malayalam Project questions the identity of Malayalam; not just as a language but a landscape, a script, a culture. What is Malayalam in our current day and age? Riyas Komu, director of KMB, had seen the work we are doing in the field of Malayalam typography and approached us to do a partner exhibit at the Biennale.

As international visitors travel from various sites, Malayalam Project acts as a bridge for Malayalam to enter an international gallery scape,” says Theresa George, curator of the project.

Artists, type-setters, illustrators, photographers and graphic designers collaborated for the project. Individually, they’ve worked to create exhibits that interpret a letter, word or phrase as described in their brief. The spread is diverse: from environmental degradation to P T Usha to a cake that depicts a mad woman. The project uses the language as a metaphor for cultural influence.

“Over generations, as newer cultures were absorbed into the local, Kerala adapted and absorbed many traits and influences. One part of it is represented in words from foreign languages. Today what we think of as proper orthodox Malayalam is probably an evolution of many influences into one language. So, we can use Malayalam as a metaphor for the evolution of culture,” says George.

Passages from the writings of 20th century authors, poets and journalists pegged to the theme “women characters in published texts” are exhibited on the walls or printed on paper and cloth. Excerpts from works, including Adukkalayil ninnu arangathekku (from the kitchen to the stage), V T Bhattathirippad’s revolutionary 1929 play that took on regression in the Namboodiri community, are featured in the exhibition.

The Malayalam Project also has women reading out these passages on video. The coordinators of the project say the Woman’s Narrative was a natural choice for the typographic excerpts since the texts were a collective influence on the masses. The texts will also be translated and published online.

In the planning stages, the coordinators had difficulties in identifying partners because the project’s form and its objectives were not built on examples. But since the association with KMB, the project has hosted exchanges with many who could be future collaborators in the initiative.

The coordinators conducted an open house on January 31 that allowed visitors to interact with the project’s researchers, designers and collaborators. They are looking at organising the second edition of the exhibition later this year.

The youngsters have responded positively to the project, says George. “Young Malayalis all over the world have respon­ded to us. For a person who has lived even if just for a few years in Kerala, Malayalam is ingrained as a visual motif of what is local here.

As a traveller, driving into Kerala from another state – the script on the walls, the painted lettering, these along with the geography of the land, the water bodies and the architecture of the buildings make a Kerala identity. Malayalam is an integral part of the identity even if you cannot read it,” she says.

The long-debated need for the script to adapt to the times is reiterated in the exhibition. “The larger lesson is that Malayalam as a script needs to adapt for survival. We learn that from observing the text and roots of words.

The future of Malayalam typography is also in digital areas – we have to make some sort of organic forum for knowledge-sharing especially in the area of digital script. Newer designers should interact with technology experts to make this user-friendly and ready for the next generation,” says George.

The project is put together with the archives of graphic design studio Thought Factory and design store Via Kerala in collaboration with KMB ’14 director of programmes, Riyas Komu.

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