5 Digital Artists Reviving Urdu Through Typography

5 Digital Artists Reviving Urdu Through Typography

July 11, 2020 0

The Urdu Language is rooted in creativity. Born of necessity through a coalescing of Persian, Arabic and Turkish languages, Urdu holds a deep significance in the history of the subcontinent. Poets like Ghalib and Mir brought a revolution in the Urdu language through poetry back in the golden age of the language. However, in the past few decades, we have seen a decline in the use of the language. Even in our own circles, we speak Urdu less and less as English is considered more progressive and accessible. Forms other than Nastaleeq are rarely found in the mainstream, and calligraphy is usually only attributed to Arabic lettering. It appears that slowly the role of Urdu is also diminishing in society as English becomes the standardized medium of communication. It may just be cultural evolution, but nonetheless, we are losing a very rich component of our history that should rather be preserved as a symbol of our distinction.

However, a burgeoning movement of artists has been breathing new life into our cultural atmosphere. This community of artists doesn’t shy away from various art forms and mediums. While some take to the streets to express their creative prowess, others use animation to create storytelling, and still others paint their canvases to influence the world from their Instagram feeds. This new revolution has also opened avenues for exploration into our own culture, specifically in the Urdu language. A new revolution is stirring up in the art community when it comes to expressing ideas through the use of Urdu Typography. To further investigate the ideas and presumptions we’ve had about the language, Team ProperGaanda reached out to 5 artists who are at the top of their game when it comes to Urdu Typography.


Sarmad Hashmi (@kr8v)

Sarmad Hashmi is a visual artist and an Urdu typography enthusiast. Hailing from Lahore, he has an aesthetic sense of nostalgic desi with a touch of minimalistic modernism.

Tell us a bit about who you are and what you do?

I am a Karachi based visual artist who specializes in art direction and typography. Love to play around with colors and experiment in different digital media of art. My love for Urdu Typography is what makes my work notable; I dabble in creating unique styles of art based in Urdu. 

You’ve been experimenting with Urdu typography longer than most artists I have come across. Why Urdu? What draws you toward the language?

When I moved to Karachi for my studies, I noticed a few things: one of them was the billboards and how Urdu is used in mainstream communication. I was in love with typography already so I started experimenting with words like “biryani“, “Chai“, “sohni dharti” and small words that one can relate to. Urdu needs a revamp, because the younger generation is bored with the regular “Urdu Nastaleeq” and wants to see “cool content” and is interested in seeing things with a different perspective altogether.


Your 38 Days of Urdu Type Series has inspired countless artists to do their own take on it. How do you feel having started the chain and what is it that first inspired you?

My main goal was to inspire people with the project. It pushed me to experiment more and more without any consequences. I have encouraged artists to play with Urdu and experiment with it so that even if you fail, you end up creating something unique. It always feels good to see people getting inspired, whether they are Urdu postcards (yeah I kinda started that trend), or whether they get inspired by 38DaysOfUrduType.

It’s common to see at this point that Pakistani artists don’t approach with the same ownership of their language as Persian, German or Japanese artists where you see linguistic influences in their art and design. Do you think the recent spike in artists using Urdu typography in their work can lead to a similar renaissance in our culture as well?

It should definitely. One thing that is still missing is an Urdu type foundry in Pakistan that can work on Urdu fonts, like how Arabic fonts are being made. I guess the government needs to dedicate some funds and grants into this, and that will help people make a foundry and work without thinking about their finances.


Is Urdu Typography initiating a revolution? Or is the revolution already here?

The revolution is already here, on a smaller scale, but it’s happening. A lot of other artists are getting into this and being proud of their language, and I think the future generation is in safe hands.

Do you have any comments in general or about this article?

I hope it reaches out to the masses and they realize that Urdu is not just a language; the potential of this language is vast and one can reach a crazy amount of audiences with just the right type of font and design.


Muhaddissa Shahzad (@muhaddisashahzad)

Muhaddisa Shahzad is an award-winning designer and the founder of YAR Collective – a community bringing together local artists, designers and writers. She currently acts as an independent creative consultant, and heads the YAR Design Lab which offers design services to brands to help them stand out.

Tell us a bit generally about who you are and what you do?

I am a creative entrepreneur who is totally obsessed with design and typography! At the YAR Design Lab, I create unique visual identities for brands and clients that dare to be different and edgy, and want to enter the market with a bang! My work not only includes the design and creative aspect of things, but it also involves solving business problems using design. Each brand has a personality and a face and using research, collaboration, discussions, and creative brainstorming, I decipher the brand’s unique presence and help market it! YAR Collective has become a platform that identifies, discovers, and documents brilliant local creatives every day. YAR’s Instagram community helps hunt for creative talent, and each day we find new artists and innovators creating remarkable things and talking about issues that really matter, and need to be addressed. Our directory that contains creatives from all over Pakistan will be made available soon to clients hunting for creative talent.


I’ve noticed your art radiates a very positive and colorful vibe. Why did you adopt that style and how do you approach it?

I’m a lively person, always wanting to look at the brighter side of things, and I guess that comes off in my work! There’s so much to be grateful for, and I love how color can instantly make you feel an emotion or feeling, and make you smile! I always want my typographic Urdu posters to add some vibrancy, fun, and laughter to people’s lives.

Given that there are so few sources of inspiration to be found on the internet when it comes to Urdu, where do you draw inspiration from? What are your influences?

I believe inspiration can be taken from anywhere – it doesn’t just have to be Urdu. Paula Scher has been one of my earliest and biggest influences, since she uses playful typography in many of her projects. Ishq Urdu, an initiative by designer Nasheet Shadani, has been one of my major inspirations. Other than that I closely follow Irani graphic design, which has really explored linguistic boundaries and western influences. I follow design blogs, books, publications, and independent designers, which inspires me to create work that puts the spotlight on the Urdu language, in a sea of visuals.


I remember the preview of YAR Magazine that you guys were planning to do and there was a bunch of content in Urdu. Could you give us some insight into that?

YAR Magazine is a collective of creative art, design, poetry and writing, and after the open call, we received many submissions in Urdu! We didn’t want to restrict the language of the content received, and we were happy to see quite a few Urdu submissions coming in.

Your artwork has inspired a bunch of artists to take up Urdu as a medium of artistic expression. What advice would you give to those starting out with Urdu type?

My love for Urdu and typography made me start my Urdu poster series, and at the time I had no idea it would inspire so many young creatives to start exploring Urdu. When I started, there were very few designers working with Urdu type, and I wrote a few research papers on the use of Urdu language in the design, to study the reasons behind it. But now, I am so glad to see how designers are taking ownership of the language and having fun with it. The advice I would give to those starting out with Urdu type is, don’t hesitate to have fun with the Urdu letters and phrases, and explore as much as you can. You don’t only have to use premade fonts; get a pencil and sketch your own!


It’s common to see at this point that Pakistani artists don’t approach with the same ownership of their language as Persian, German or Japanese artists where you see linguistic influences in their art and design. Do you think the recent spike in artists using Urdu typography in their work can lead to a similar renaissance in our culture as well?

Language is the foundation of a culture and identity; it is deeply rooted in us, hence if we are to ever find confidence in ourselves as a nation, we need to make peace with the Urdu language. The recent surge in Urdu type being introduced in local design definitely adds to a brighter future and can lead to a more self-confident society.

Do you have any comments in general or about this piece?

I am delighted to see authors and platforms like ProperGaanda highlighting an issue like this – it will definitely inspire more creatives to start exploring Urdu in their art and design.


Shumyle Haider (@shumylehaider)

I’m an Illustrator, a Designer and a Typographer. I’m currently happily married to an Alienware laptop and regularly upload photos of my children (they’re out of this world) on Instagram. I spend most of my time trying to download and read every graphic novel that exists (I understand piracy laws but just can’t help it).

Tell us a bit generally about who you are and what you do?

I’m a Visual Communication Design graduate. I love illustrating and working with type. I find both to be meditative in their own ways. One helps me express myself and the other helps me be nit-picky. I was the Graphic and Type Designer for Shehr e Tabassum, Pakistan’s first cyberpunk hand-drawn animation. Apart from that, I designed a user manual for people wanting to get started with Urdu typography for my thesis. It’s a work in progress and I’m hoping to update it regularly. It can be read here:


Your work in Shehr-e-Tabassum was phenomenal. I rewatched the short-film multiple times to spot the hidden easter eggs in Urdu. How did you approach making that? What have your inspirations been?

To be honest it was mostly me trying to do justice to the amazing visuals drawn by the animation team. I needed to uphold my end by coming up with a type that communicated the essence of the film as well as the visuals did. Films such as Akira and Bladerunner served as inspiration for the direction I wanted to take Urdu in. It included a lot of forecasting on my end. I had to chart and represent the evolution (and devolution) of Urdu over the decades that preceded the events of the film. I chose Nastaliq and Naskh as the primary scripts that would appear in the film. The facades of the city areas are robbed of emotion as the people. The beautiful and dynamic Nastaliq that was once a visual manifestation of the rich local culture is now a rigid monoline locked in a grid system. This represents the devolution. The evolution can be seen surviving in the alleys deep inside the city in the film. 


For artists just starting out with Urdu Typography, I feel that there isn’t much inspiration to be found on the internet as there is for English. How do you think that can change in the future? And how can this generation of artists pave the way for Urdu to be used more in a mainstream sense?

By making it easier to work with Urdu typography. We could get on that by compiling resources and making them easily accessible. Being unable to find resources and not being able to figure out how to type in Urdu when you’re just starting out is intimidating. It’s a steep learning curve.

I’ve witnessed a rise in experimentation in the past couple of years though; a lot of young designers are now working with Urdu and that’s a really good sign.


It appears to me that Urdu is slowly being replaced by English. Do you think that is the case? If so, how can we bring about a renaissance of this rich language and prevent this from happening?

I feel bad for saying this but a certain part of me isn’t opposed to the idea of it being replaced, honestly. Change is change. I guess that’s how cultures work. Things that lose their significance/usefulness just… fade away. You can’t force people to speak a certain language if it doesn’t add value to their lives. You can’t force people to respect something they feel no connection to. To this day I can’t figure out for the life of me why swaad, toyein, and quaaf exist when we can just use seen, tey, and kaaf.

Another part of me feels like we need to hold on to it because deep down, we know it wasn’t treated right. We’ve, and I’m guilty of this too, always looked down upon Urdu in a way. We’ve coined terms such as “paindu” for people who struggle with English, a language that isn’t even ours but then again, is Urdu even ours? Where did it come from? Why do we speak it? Urdu is a nuanced language and maybe if I spent enough time trying to understand its intricacies, I’d find it to be complex instead of complicated like I do right now. Maybe deep down, I’m ashamed of it and I don’t even know it. If I can’t even tell someone I love them in Urdu, what does that say about me?

I envy my Persian friend who only listens to Persian music. The two instances where I heard him listening to English songs, the lyrics of the first turned out to be Rumi poetry and the other one? Creep by Radiohead. Nobody’s perfect lol. Maybe we could learn a thing or two from the Persians. They value their language. Maybe that’s part of the reason why Persian Typography is one of the most evolved ones in the world. Maybe we could start by valuing Urdu more for a change.


Rawaz Hammas (@rawazhammas)

Disclaimer: This interview was conducted entirely on voice notes and in Urdu language. The following responses are transcribed and later translated with the permission of the artist. Some details may have been lost in translation to keep the structure of the article.

Tell us a bit about who you are and what you do?

I’d like to call myself a multidisciplinary designer instead of just a lettering artist or a calligrapher because I am also an illustrator, storyboard artist, and UI/UX Designer. Currently, I’m working as an Art Director.


The fluidity in your work really stands out. Where do you draw inspiration from? What are you trying to do differently?

I’m inspired by people like ElSeed, Zepha, Gemma O Brien, Snooze one and Paul Antonio. My approach is quite simple, yet it’s a fusion between traditional and modern art. What I am trying to do differently now is that I am turning my lettering into AR (Augmented Reality) which is a very unique medium that not many people are using.


Tell us a bit about what got you into Augmented Reality? And what’s ahead for this medium?

I’ve decided to convert my Urdu 2D lettering into AR because it gives a full experience and resonates with Urdu’s personality. That’s what I think. It functions like a pop-up book. Now anyone can do AR prototyping with the following software; some are free or you can buy them at the price of a burger. Adobe AR and Slide AR: these are two softwares I use for my AR lettering.

It appears to me that we never get to see variety in Urdu Typography in the mainstream. Why do you think that is the case?

If we go back 200 years when Urdu arrived in the sub-continent, there was no standard formatting (rasm-e-khat). The Nastaleeq style was given to us as a gift from Iran but it was standardized to an extent that our generation began to think there are no other ways to write Urdu in. And this is one of the reasons why I think Urdu didn’t progress much. It’s a common notion that when Urdu is in Nastaliq it is Urdu, but outside of it – say calligraphy – it is Arabic. That is not necessarily true and it’s a stereotype that I try to break through my art. 

Like all art, there is a distinction of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ design in Urdu as well. Our eyes have not been trained enough to see Urdu in various other styles. And so, whenever we see Urdu in a different design we appreciate it immediately. I believe we shouldn’t praise everything for the sake of it being different. In that regard, we are a bit visually illiterate but we’re slowly training ourselves through Urdu design.


Do you think we can progress with Urdu Typography as much as English Typography?

If you compare Urdu to English, then yes English is definitely progressive to some extent. When I learned English typography and calligraphy, I wondered how I could utilize those very insights when it came to Urdu. Because if you have something already: why reinvent the wheel? I was inspired by many English lettering artists and then I broke down how they experimented with their letters. Slowly, I have tried to translate those ideas into my own Urdu Lettering.

You recently did the Don’t Rush Challenge with a few other illustrators. What are your thoughts on the art community of Pakistan and what role do you think typography can play in the promotion of art in general?

Yes, I did participate in the Don’t Rush Challenge. You may have seen that I included some lettering and other gibberish in my own illustrations. So, whenever I find the opportunity I try to contribute my lettering capability in different art forms. I’m a part of many artist communities: illustrators, UI/UX designers, YAR Collective etc. Right now, lettering sometimes takes a backseat as opposed to illustrations, for one, but I am collaborating with other artists on projects that I hope will come to fruition soon. 


Syed Jeem (@syedjeem)

Disclaimer: This interview was conducted entirely on voice notes and in Urdu language. The following responses are transcribed and later translated with the permission of the artist. Some details may have been lost in translation to keep the structure of the article.

Tell us a bit about yourself and the name Syed Jeem, where it comes from?

Translation: My name is Syed Jahangir Zaidi, a visual artist and art director specializing in visual communication design. Professionally I’m known as Syed Jeem. There’s an interesting story behind that name. In my childhood I had heard that Leonardo Da Vinci used to write backward and that inspired me so much that I thought why not try it? Da Vinci used to do it in English, I thought I’d start doing it in Urdu. I started doing random headlines from newspapers and mirroring that in my diary. I used to enjoy doing it, and today I can still write like that. Aside from that, I started painting digitally some 7-8 years ago and when it comes to a signature I found my name to be quite lengthy: J-A-H-A-N-G-I-R. It easily becomes like 12-14 letters if I add Syed and Zaidi in it. I wanted something short and sweet. Long story short, it became Syed Jeem where the Jeem is horizontally flipped. People saw it and liked it, and today it has become my identity in professional life. 


What are your thoughts on Urdu as a language?

Urdu, in my view, is a very innocent language. Innocent in a sense that it has been a victim of non-ownership. Countries like Russia, Japan, Iran, Saudi Arabia have made an effort to own their mother tongues with pride, even though the languages have been slightly modified over time, yet there is still ownership. They don’t give any foreign language a priority over their own.

Urdu is such a beautiful language, a mixture of different and rich languages like Arabic, Persian and Turkish which originated in Hindustan. After the partition, it was left with us, while Indians merged their half-baked (Bachi kuchi) Hindi with our Urdu to form what they call Hindustani language. In Pakistan today, I think that Urdu has become so obscure in our daily conversations that we don’t retain the proper pronunciation of words, let alone a proper way of speaking. And whatever is happening with the Urdu language in India, that’s another story. This saddens me.

Why Urdu? What draws you toward the language as a medium of expression?

I think the reason there’s so much Urdu in my work is because from childhood, I was brought up in a house where Urdu was used dominantly. To this day, whenever my Mom is scolding me she often happens to use Persian or Hindi or Urdu proverbs. Somehow, somewhere there’s a deep love for Urdu language in my heart and that comes out through my work. I have always tried to bring that ownership in Urdu through my art and my paintings. An example would be how I can’t say “Thank You” to people when expressing gratitude as it feels like something very emotionless and slapdash to me. The word “Shukriya” however, captures the beauty of gratitude. Similarly, even when I am talking to people in English, sometimes involuntarily, a word or two of Urdu just comes out of my mouth.


Your work seems to revolve a lot around Islamic historical figures. Could you give us some insight on why that is such a major influence on your work?

I think that somehow, I have always felt connected to these personalities. From the time when I didn’t even have the right vocabulary for words, I have been reading a lot about Ahl-e-Bait, their triumphs and losses, their joys and sorrows. Later on, I found there to be a monumental body of work done in Islamic calligraphy and architecture which is attributed to Ahl-e-Bait and found in places like Arabia, Turkey, Iraq, Iran and Palestine. In Indo-Pak, however, you don’t see as much work done with the Urdu language. Or rather, there aren’t any distinct styles that you could call exclusive to Indo-Pak like those we attribute to the distinct Iranian or Iraqi calligraphy styles.

My work in hand-lettering, calligraphy, and lettering revolves around these personalities because I feel like we have come to divide them amongst ourselves turning them into an “ours and yours” dichotomy. I feel like there should be a middle ground where these personalities could be portrayed in a spotlight where there’s no division or polarization, so we may also do away with confusions. For example most people don’t know Hazrat Hussain R.A’s life outside of the Karbala incident; same is the case with Hazrat Ali and Hazrat Imam Hassan R.A. So I try to deliver these concepts purely through the skill Allah has provided me without any confusion, without difficulty. And when I use that same skill to mention my favorite personalities from Islamic history, the very act of making art becomes worship and in turn, a means for my contentment.

I’ve been following your work for a while, and I have noticed that you haven’t just stuck to one format but rather experimented with all kinds of Urdu Typography styles. I love how your approach is so dynamic. That being said, what is the ‘one’ thing you see consistent throughout your work? What is the core of this inspiration?

The one thing that I believe is consistent is the ‘muhabbat with urdu.’ My words may be very bookish, but I want to emphasize that you have to do justice to that muhabbat. In traditional poetry when you love something or someone, you start to imagine ways it could be more beautiful and you present a gift to them that not only refines that muhabbat but gives contentment to your heart as well. For me, art is my mehboob. I decorate it, I refine it. There has never been an intention from my side to please people. What I do care about is doing justice to my love for Urdu. I make whatever comes to my mind, and I think of ways to make it more beautiful while enjoying the process itself. I do think that my work primarily revolves around Urdu and Urdu type because I don’t put anyone else’s needs in that process. Urdu is my muse and it is my responsibility to beautify it. It is a matter between the muse and I. When the muse is done justice, I become satisfied and when people notice my work, they become satisfied.


It appears to me that Urdu is somewhat diminishing in its role because of the standardization of English in both professional and artist circles. Do you think that is the case? Can we restore its lost glory?

I would like to very respectfully disagree with this thought. I used to think the same thing but in recent years especially, I have seen that artists – young and old alike – have started using Urdu in their work to a great extent. Pakistani art is becoming very Urdu centric. Inspired by modern art, visual designers have started working on Urdu to a great deal. If I compare artists from 2020 to artists in 2015, I feel like there has been a surge in work in Urdu. If youngsters at this age are utilizing the medium this well, imagine how much progressive work they will have done far off in the future! So, I am very optimistic about the prospect of Urdu language’s evolution in this regard. There’s a quote by Hazrat Ali that resonates with me about evolution:

Apni aulaad kou un ke zamanay ke lehaaz se tarbiyat dou ke wou tumhare zamanay ke liye nahi apne zamanay ke liye paida kiye gaye hain.

If you go back 100 years, kids used to write on chalks on a blackboard. In today’s age, you can’t do things the same way. Kids have to be taught to use technology to learn. This is the reality and those who refuse to accept it will eventually have to realize its importance.

Just like how I expressed the love of ahl-e-bait into my style of Urdu typography, if other artists could translate their passions through art and design, then I think Urdu language may have a very bright future ahead.

You recently did the Don’t Rush Challenge with other illustrators. What are your thoughts about the rising art community in Pakistan?

In my view, the art community in Pakistan is very supportive of each other. Sometimes even dangerously supportive. I first saw this from afar, then closely, and now I’m right in the middle of the movement and it keeps on growing rapidly. I have been participating in many activities with other artists, just like the one you mentioned: The Don’t Rush Challenge. And there are many more collaborations to come in the upcoming days. The artist community is so tightly knit and supportive of each other regardless of whether one is a junior or a senior artist. Seniors share their insights freely without any prejudice or contempt, while juniors share their insights with their juniors. A platform like Instagram makes it a lot easier: through stories, posts, live drawing sessions. You see artists connecting, bonding, and sharing tips and tricks with each other. It’s a very beautiful thing. If you contrast this by going 10 years back, we had only a handful of artists like Babrus Khan, Shahan Zaidi, and Saad Irfan. These people inspired us, and our work inspired other juniors and now the quantity of artists in Pakistan is ever increasing. I hope it will only grow from here.


Saad Hasnain is a digital media and design intern for ProperGaanda and a work-in-progress typographer and animator. He is passionate about all things art and design! He can be found at @saadhsnain on Instagram.[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row]

Saad Hasnain
Saad Hasnain