10 June 2016 -

The swadesi typewriter: mediating modernity, identity, and technology in post-independence India
Dr Rajendra Prasad, the first President of the Republic of India, being shown an early model of the Godrej typewriter at the Indian Industries Fair, 1955. The top right corner also shows a photograph of Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru examining the typewriter. Image reproduced by permission of the Godrej Archives.

My research aims to investigate the role played by typewriters for Indian languages in absorbing and shaping the aspirations of the independent nation-state of India following British colonial rule. In particular, my research intends to analyse the ramifications of the ‘swadesi’ doctrine within the context of modernisation, technological innovation, and the quest for self-sufficiency in the decades following Indian independence. The questions this research addresses revolve closely around post-colonial dilemmas of technological modernity, as exemplified in the design and manufacture of a small-scale machine like the typewriter and its subsequent use by multilingual communities, against the backdrop of broader anxieties of national identity and self-determination. 

The complex process of negotiation between polarising rhetorics and ideological positions across India’s formative period as a nation raises a particularly interesting set of questions: beginning with the ambivalent response to the place of technology in independent India, turning into confrontations between the conventional and the novel, the ‘foreign’ and the ‘swadesi’, to the determination of authority and control; from questions of culturally appropriate formulation of design and production, to projects of politics and modernity at large. The development of Indian-language typewriters in this context is particularly significant as a site spanning a range of post-colonial contestations: of national and regional identities; of language diversity and linguistic hegemonies; of mechanical representation of local writing systems and the inadequacies of available technology; the exercise of individual creative freedom and the processes of standardisation and control embodied in mass production.  

Historical enquiry in design and technology often chooses to focus on large-scale projects and top-down views of progress, where innovations are represented as independent developments transforming and reinventing cultural practices. The history of the design and production of small-scale machines like the typewriter can contest this view by pragmatically situating both processes and products of design within the realm of cultural adaptation and actual use – acknowledging the agency of commissioners, makers, as well as users in determining relevance and future directions. 

Typewriters for the mechanical representation of the diverse writing systems of India also occupy an interesting place in the post-independence history of the nation given their role in channelling ideas of modernity – at a national and regional level but also at the level of private institutions and individual citizens – and at the same time in formulating new positions of significance for indigenous languages. My research aims to analyse the processes that determined the adaptation of Indian scripts on the typewriter at the country’s first and longest-enduring manufacturer of the machine: Godrej & Boyce. It also aims to uncover the uses that these machines were put to – an area that remains largely unacknowledged in design history and technological discourses. Existing historical literature on the subject has tended to address the typewriter and its adaptation in different geographies broadly and generically, ignoring the nuances of the struggles inherent in dealing with a machine that has decisions related to language and script at its core. Though elsewhere marketed as ‘personal’ machines, typewriters also present an interesting variation – and often a radical divergence – from their expected use in the techno-cultural imagination of post-independence India: this is attested by the wide variety of roles the typewriter has played, in both the private and the public sphere over half a century of its existence.

The Design History Society’s Strategic Research Grant enabled me to make a research trip to India facilitating first-hand examination of company records and original documents related to typewriters at the Godrej Archives in Mumbai. Besides enabling access to primary archival resources for my research, the visit enabled me to establish contact with the company’s current staff and former employees who played important roles in the design, manufacture, and proliferation of typewriters in India. Personal interviews and ongoing communication with some of the individuals directly involved in Godrej’s typewriter development have also helped introduce new perspectives to my research questions and have indicated new directions of inquiry. I am grateful to the Design History Society for their support in making this research possible.

Vaibhav Singh
Department of Typography & Graphic Communication
University of Reading 


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