The Universal Thirst Gazette
tamil ilai

The poetry of Ilai

by Emma Tucker

Artist Sagarika Sundaram and aspiring poet Chitra Vasudevan tapped into the tradition of ancient Tamil poetry using UT’s psychedelic Ilai typeface.

Artist Sagarika Sundaram and aspiring poet Chitra Vasudevan tapped into the tradition of ancient Tamil poetry using UT’s psychedelic Ilai typeface.

“It lives on, it embeds in everything you do in some way or another - the language you’ve grown with, or are passionate about,” says Chitra Vasudevan – aspiring poet and chairperson of the Youth of Kodaganallur Endeavour (YOKE) Society, a civil society organisation in India’s state of Tamil Nadu.

To mark the release of Universal Thirst’s psychedelic variable Tamil typeface, Ilai, artist Sagarika Sundaram collaborated with Chitra, her cousin, on a piece of poetry following in the tradition of South India’s ancient Sangam literature - which dates back thousands of years.

“You see the world outside, and the way it is, and we see how our language has this rich tradition - which can also be juxtaposed in the modern world,” says Chitra, describing Tamil, one of the oldest languages in use today.

Collaborating as writer and editor, Chitra and Sagarika used the flowing forms of Ilai as the starting point for their inspiration, also drawing on the historic conventions of Tamil poetry. Sangam literature uses five different kinds of landscapes as a literary framework: hills, forests, plains, the seashore, and the desert. These have been followed for thousands of years, and continue through to poetry being written today.

“These poems are very erotic, and have lots of descriptions of love personified through nature,” says Sagarika, who’s located in New York, where she works as an artist making textile-based works. “They’re the most romantic and poetic language, and are thousands of years old but feel so modern to me.”

“Sagarika gave me starting words - without boundaries, fantasy, imagination - and I thought it fit pretty well because the font itself has some kind of unreal feeling,” says Chitra. “When we write Tamil, it’s generally a very fixed thing, and the fonts that we often see and use don’t express the fluidity of the language. Ilai gives a wild kind of feeling of imagination, which is why I made lines that bring in the feeling of something which may not happen, but we wish could happen.”

As the last part of the collaboration, Sagarika asked her mother, Vasanti Sundaram, an actor, to bring the poems to life by reading them - combining the distinctive sound of Tamil together with the fluid shapes of Ilai.

“I feel like the poems capture the psychedelic motivation that Anagha [designer], and Gunnar and Kalapi [Universal Thirst founders] had,” says Sagarika. “It makes me think of being on magic mushrooms - which maybe some of these poets were on while composing words with vivid imagery.

“It’s interesting, the modernity of Ilai. Tamil is very modern - it’s such a language of protest and politics, because it’s been part of such a history of revolution. Protesting was and still is quite poetic, with texts and speeches written in rhythmic, expansive language. Tamil is such a rich language, and Ilai is a modern take on something that extends far back, and I think that’s beautiful.”