Cold type, digital type and Bangla font

A substantial amount of water has flowed down the Hooghly since the days when Sir William Carey and Panchanan Karmakar developed the first Bengali font. A burst of creativity at the beginning of the 19th century led to great advancements in Bangla printing. The letterpress font (in lead type) in its basic form as we have it today ingeniously solved many of the problems associated with Bangla orthography – the fact that the unit of Bangla writing is the syllable rather than the letter, for example.

The momentum was lost over the course of time, however, and Bangla in this century has failed either to develop new, usable fonts for the modern age, or make a successful transition to the virtual space of digital text. Nor has it made a big impact on the informal republic of the Internet, though Bengali cultural sites abound. (Bangla does not read well in Roman letters and for some reason South Asian scripts take ages to download.)

Not like roshogollas
Yet, judging by the rash of computer tutorial homes and training centres coming up all over the mofussil, one would think West Bengal was churning out software professionals like roshogollas. The reality, however, is less sweet. Most of these centres own substandard machines running obsolete software, the trainers themselves may not be more advanced than last semester´s ´graduates´, and all this for fees that are generally exorbitant. Even in the city of Calcutta, where one would expect competition and publicity to impose some quality control, the situation is not much better. There are other problems as well associated with the teaching of software skills in the Subcontinent. As software packages get more sophisticated and rely less on the user´s familiarity with hardware, they become more and more ´help-driven´, that is, they come with self-explanatory text included in the package, which can be accessed while running an application. While this trend is progressive in the sense that fewer instructions and procedures have to be memorised to use a package successfully, the design structure does assume a fairly sophisticated knowledge of English on the part of the user.

Programming languages are still very "logic"-based, and can be learnt with a modicum of English knowledge, but for those who wish to learn, say, desktop publishing techniques, the process of learning to use the package demands good English skills even if the ultimate purpose is to typeset text in an Indian language. There lies the difficulty. However, on the credit side, most popular packages are becoming increasingly icon-driven, so once one learns how to use a package, perhaps by a live tutorial in one´s own language, actually using it becomes fairly straightforward.

This necessarily restricts unmediated Bangla desktop publishing use to those who already know English. One notable exception, though, is the Ananda Bazar Patrika group of publications which has designed, and uses its own system for Bangla desktop publishing, right down to having its own font. Workers are taught to use the system on the job. But as the group comprises of over 12 English and Bengali titles under one roof, it is big enough to support such a project without needing an outside market to pay for its development. For most users, the options are limited to what is available in the market.

Thin stocks, fat hopes
The market, it must be admitted, is not well stocked. The most well-known Indian language text manipulation package available appears to be the GIST system, developed by the Centre for Development of Advanced Computing (C-DAC), based in Pune. This provides for word processing in a number of major Indian languages, even though the help files and literature are still in English.

C-DAC recently released a package called LEAP, developed with a group called Men at Work. Both these packages use the INSCR1PT keyboard layout, whereby one uses the caps lock key to toggle between English and Indian scripts, while the letter sounds are typed in phonetic order. The package automatically merges consonants and vowels, thus solving the ´matra´ problem. The full package includes on-line spell-check in all the languages, and the printed result looks passable if a little spindly.

In theory, there is no reason why a fully Bangla-ised version of, say, the Word 7 screen I am looking at right now should not be developed. Very little of what I see requires more than character recognition in English, although if I want, say, to know how to create a table of contents in a master document, I will have to navigate my way through a lot of complicated help cards. Again, there is nothing in these to prevent them from being translated into Bangla, but the question then arises about the profitability of such a venture.

If the largest potential market for Bangla language software is the present constituency of computer-training centres, one cannot expect a high retail price to help sales. Small businesses, whether into desktop publishing or not, might benefit tremendously from such software, but the turnover of such businesses in cash-strapped Bengal is too low for the software giants to take note.

So, is there a market waiting for a Bengali Steve Jobs to crack open? One can only wait and watch. Meanwhile, we hope that the software revolution does not pass us by while the clink of metal type continues to fill rural Bengal´s bamboo groves.

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Himal Southasian