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Transformation of Tamil letterforms from palm leaf manuscripts to early letterpress printing

Supervisor: Prof. G. V. Sreekumar
, Co Supervisor: Prof. U. A. Athavankar

Tamil language belongs to the Dravidian scripts of Southern India. It is one of the classical languages of the world with a literary history of more than two millenniums spanning from the Caňkam age (300 BC – 200 AD). Traditionally, Tamil was written on palm leaves – one of the oldest medium of writing in ancient India. The precise origin and history of palm leaves writing are unknown but the practice is believed to have existed since the Caňkam period. The use of palm leaf medium continued for several centuries until late twentieth century. A medium with such historicity has a negligible literature on its writing system, medium and the influence on script evolution. The existing literature on evolution of script only focuses on stone and metal inscriptions. Other traditional mediums such as palm leaf manuscripts have not been explored and researched.

In the late sixteenth century the traditional writing system gradually got displaced by the introduction of printing technology. In 1556, a printing press sent to Abyssinia for missionary works landed in India by an accident. Soon the Christian evangelists adapted the press for the conversion of natives. Initiatives of the missionaries led to the spread and establishment of printing. Progressively, the press became one of the major medium of communication and began to dominate the hand written manuscripts in the later centuries. The script on the other transformed itself with respect to the medium. The shift from handwritten palm leaves to printing led to the transformation of letterforms. And also there has been an influence of the letterpress medium and western typography on the native script which needs to be researched. This early transformation is critical for typographers and type designers to understand the script and its evolution from hand written letterforms to standardized letters seen today. This understanding will bridge the knowledge gap between the evolutional findings of archeologist, epigraphists, historians and the influence of other medium.

Aim of the research was to determine the influence of palm leaf medium and its writing system on evolution of script. Concurrently, it aims to understand the transformation of Tamil letterforms from handwritten palm leaf manuscript to early letterpress typefaces. The research also seeks to determine the impact of letterpress medium and western typography on Tamil script. At present, there are very few resources and research material available on typography in vernacular languages especially in Tamil. The body of research would aim at creating a primary resource and knowledge base for the history of Tamil typography.

palm leaf

palm leaf

Close-up images of Tamil palm leaf manuscripts
Image courtesy: Government Oriental Manuscript Library, Madras University, Chennai