From mugs inscribed with Tamil calligraphy to playing cards featuring Chola royalty — a new online studio creates a contemporary design space that draws from ancient Tamil texts
At first glance, they are difficult to decipher. On a closer, second look, the dots, curves and the ‘akku’ unique to the Tamil script — albeit stylised — reveal themselves. In straight, thick lines, they are inscribed in a calligraphic style which is satisfyingly contemporary. And, interestingly, what lends content to this style is ancient Tamil literature: Avvaiyar’s 12th Century text, Aathichoodi, a collection of 109 single-line quotations arranged in alphabetical order that preaches everything from good habits to the importance of discipline.
An avid reader of Tamil literature, Chennai-based artist Arvind Sundar draws a lot from ancient texts in his calligraphic practice. His lockdown interest has now evolved itself into an online design studio, Urue (which means, ‘to create’), which he runs along with photographer Mahesh Thiru. Urue strives to create a contemporary design space exclusively for Tamil literature.
The studio’s upcoming project is a pack of playing cards demarcated by the four dynasties that ruled Tamil Nadu — namely, the Chola, Chera, Pandya and Pallava dynasties. The King, Queen and Jack cards of each suit will be illustrated as belonging to these dynasties.
“The kings are portrayed in their war attire with the royal insignia, while the queens take up different roles pertaining to medicine, literature and battle. There will be two female Jacks and two male Jacks in each set,” says Arvind who is an assistant professor at Chennai’s Loyola College. The queens will also be wearing the royal flowers of the respective dynasties. The Joker card will be a modern interpretation sporting a 23-aam Pulikesi moustache — in the 2006 historical-comedy Imsai Arasan, 23-aam Pulikesi, actor Vadivelu plays the titular role of a comical king. The project is done in collaboration with designer Meena Priya from Shrishti College of Design. Arvind hopes to get the decks in production by mid-October.
“At the beginning of lockdown, I attended an online course (with a coupon provided by Loyola College) on Islamic culture which had a chapter on the Quran. The chapter talked about how the Quran was written in a calligraphic style,” he says. This rekindled his interest in the ancient writing technique. In the days that followed, he would vehemently copy whole pages of the 12th and /13th Century versions of the Quran. “Then, I thought if I can copy an ancient text from Persia, why can’t I do it for our own language?” says the artist.
This led to his exclusive work with Aathichoodi in Tamil calligraphy: but it does not involve just copying the verse. Design elements pertinent to the moral of each verse characterise the calligraphy. For example, in ‘Nandru Karudhu’ (which translates to ‘think/analyse well’), a verse from Puthiya Aathichoodi written by Subramania Bharati, the design finds itself enclosed in a more contemporary thought bubble.
While reading about Aathichoodi and Avvaiyar, Arvind realised the graphical quality of ancient Tamil literature: “If you take Avvaiyar, she speaks about ‘nga pol valai’. She says that bend like the letter ‘nga’ in front of elders. She is giving us a very symbolic expression of the letter itself,” says Arvind.
This particular verse inspired him to look at such symbolic qualities in the Tamil script, that led to his series on the Sangam Age. He writes ‘cholar’ by incorporating a tiger (emblem on the flag of Chola dynasty) motif, while ‘cherar’ is beautifully inscribed with the symbol of a bow that replaces ‘che’. The artist has also done an animal series in calligraphy featuring animals whose names are derived from Tamil literature.
Check urue_designstudio on Instagram and Facebook for more details.