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The lost art of Bangla typography

Many of the details of the Bangla typesetting adhered to in the old letter-press technology have gone missing by the time digital typesetting crept in, some two decades ago.

People began thinking that keying in Bangla text in the omnipresent Microsoft Word, or in the desktop publishing software such as Pagemaker or Quark Xpress, is the highest achievement, as the people behind the efforts that led to the digital typesetting in Bangla conveniently forgot the nuances of such jobs.

There was a time when apprentices at the printers’ needed to learn the trade with an old master of typography, commonly referred to as compositor. There was no manual as such and all such things needed to be learnt hands-on. Digital Bangla typesetting came into being, in the cloak of a professional look, after the mid-1980s when a newspaper was published on computer systems.

There was an inherent problem in the thoughts of the developers of software that can write Bangla. The computer keyboard provided only a fraction of keys required to handle so many Bangla characters, in isolated and conjoined forms. The computer system of the days also provided much fewer spaces in the fontfile than what was required. The developers then tried to do away with a number of variants of characters or finer aspects of the Bangla typesetting.

Although Bangla printing rules are a derivative of the printing in English, initially in the hand of the English people of the East India Company time, typesetting in Bangla deviated a lot from the English typesetting rules. Still there are many aspects which found their way directly from English to Bangla typesetting.

There was only a single punctuation mark in the old Bangla literature. Vidyasagar started using the punctuation marks, modelled on the English system, from the tenth edition of his Betal Panchabingshati. Two added symbols, one of which is rare in English — colon-dash — and ‘danri’ or ‘danda’, also came to be used. Colon-dash (:–) is rarely seen in old English books, and danda is the end-sentence symbol in Bangla for the English full stop.

In the old typesetting days of Bangla, only a few faces were cast, size-wise and the old nomenclature of type size was used. The type sizes normally in use were brevier, corresponding to an 8pt, bourgeois, 9pt, small pica, 11pt, pica, 12pt, great, 14pt, etc. In most cases, books were printed using pica or small pica; reference books such as dictionaries were printed in bourgeois or brevier to maximise the use of page space.

Good printers never mixed too many sizes or faces in a book layout, as they were neither available nor the looked decent in print. With digital typography creeping in, faces of different types and sizes, even to the minutest measures, such as one-seventy-second of an inch or even smaller, became available, compounding the layout of books. As most desktop people do not have the background of an old-style typographer, people began to think mixing too many faces make the publication heavier.

In its more than two hundred years’ history of printing with moveable types, Bangla types had never an italic version of the upright form. Around 1820, William H Pears, of the Baptist Mission Press in India, devised some faces with straight headstrokes, or matra, and sloped or wavy headstrokes to served the purpose of Roman capital, Italic or lowercase version. Pears also employed his design in an article called Eshiyar Bhugol (geography of Asia) in the book Bhugol Brittanta (geography). But the effort failed to take hold. An italic version of the Bangla faces was introduced towards the end of the type-casting era and as a means in digital typography.

Then again, as in Roman types, where the italic version of the upright form has entirely a new look, in Bangla faces, just slanting has only been accomplished, which often does not look beautiful in print.

In the old days, professional typesetters never underlined words, even in the case of English or other languages that use Roman alphabet. In rare instances, texts were seen with underbar, rules going along between the lines, to put stress on something. Underlining is a carried-over sentiment from the typewriter days when such writing machines had no other devices to signal boldfaced or italicised texts. With digital typography, underlining has become a phenomenon, which looks odd in print of Bangla text.

Typography also ensures the number and form of conjoined characters. The number and shapes were almost uniform in old days. In the digital age, the developers have their own set of characters and shapes. The disintegration began with the implementation of linotype in 1935. The designers had to compromise on such characters to make the machines functional, which opened the floodgates to more such efforts till date. Now learners and not-much-educated people now get confused as to what to write and what not in this regard.

The most distinguished feature of the Bangla typography, space table, which dictates spacing between characters and punctuations, became worthless in the digital means. The punctuation marks that range from the top of the character to the base of it, such as danda, question mark, exclamation mark, colon and semi-colon had a thick space, which is one third of an em-space, before and an em-space after. This is much like the French typographic rule. An em-space generally is the points of the body type: for a 10-point face, the em-space is 10 points; a thick space is one-third of that and a thin space is a one-fifth.

Name Space fore Sign Space aft
comma no space , normal space
semi-colon non-breakable thick space ; normal space
colon non-breakable thick space : normal space
danda non-breakable thick space em-space
two dandas non-breakable thick space em-space
question mark non-breakable thick space ? em-space
exclamation mark non-breakable thick space ! em-space
dash non-breakable thin space non-breakable thin space
hyphen/td> no space - no space
colon-dash non-breakable thick space :– normal space
opening quotes normal space ‍‌‍‘ no space or thin space
closing quotes no space or thin space normal space
ellipsis normal or thin space normal or thin space
slash thick space / thick space
abbreiviation dot no space/td> . non-breakable normal space
opening brackets normal space ({[ non-breakable thick space
closing brackets non-breakable thick space )}] normal space
Non-breakable spaces do not get broken across the lines at the edge of the right margin.

Danda, question mark and exclamation mark had a thick space before and an em-space after. Opening brackets had a thick space after and the closing ones had a thick space before, although the rule was regularly violated in dictionaries, mostly to maximise spaces and to justify lines. Quotation marks were mostly single and quotes within quotes were double, and the inner component of a double quote used to be shorter than the other.

In most books now typeset with digital means, colons do not have any space before or after, as they did in old times. In most cases, the colon-like visarga, which is a Bangla character, is used to serve both the purposes.

The opening line of a paragraph was usually indented by two or three em-spaces; in digital era, inter-paragraph spaces are used to signal the beginning of new paragraphs in many cases.

In the letter-press types, certain characters had two forms, to be used either initially or finally and medially. The vowel mark ‘e’ and ‘ai’ had two forms, one in the initial position and the other in the middle. The vowel mark ‘a’ had two forms too, the one without the headstroke being used finally. The second ‘n’ in the alphabet had two forms, the one with the headstroke being used in the middle of words.

Bangla typesetting had always been loose and such spaces between the punctuation marks and the characters helped to achieve the aesthetics of text in a great measure.

Typographic rules vary from language to language and from user to user. Bangla has its own set of rules now which should not be broken in the English fashion. Developers of software to write or typeset Bangla text might have a second thought in their future efforts.


Revised: 5 April 2011