Department of Cultural Affairs, Government of Kerala

Conceptualization of Malayalam Script

The original Malayalam script had undergone many changes to transform itself into the script that we use today. These changes came about through the conceptualization of new scripts by many people across the years. The people who visualized the new scripts were those entrusted with the job of making moulds for printing. The end result of the changes was that the square Malayalam script became a round one.

Malayalam script was printed for the first time in the book Hortus Malabaricus. Though it is a Latin book, the names of many area-specific plants are listed in it in local languages including Malayalam. Hand-made copper blocks were used for printing Malayalam in this book. Later, for printing the first Malayalam book Sampkshepa Vedartham in Rome in 1772, printing moulds were made under the guidance of the priest Clement Peanices. The script he chose was the Grantha script that was then in use for writing Sanskrit, Tamil, and Malayalam. In Malayalam it was used from the time of Thunchathu Ezhuthachan. For the book Alphabetum grandonico-malabaricum that was printed in Rome, 1128 Malayalam moulds were made. K. M. Gopi, in his book Aadi-mudranam Bharathathilum Malayalathilum (Early Printing in India and in Malayalam) published in 1998, says that the priest Clement Peanices deserves to be honoured as the father of Malayalam typography. Another book, Centum Adagia Malabarica, which is a translation of Malayalam proverbs into Latin, was printed in Rome in 1791. The book contains both the Malayalam proverb and its translation side by side.

When the Bombay Courier Press printed a Malayalam translation of the New Testament in 1811, the types were cast by a Parsi typographer named Behramjee Jejeebhoy. He called it ‘Malabar types’ and printed a broadsheet named ‘A Specimen of Malabar Types’ to explain and advertise the type casting. These types were the same as the Malayalam types cast for printing in Rome. Both the 'New Testament' and Robert Drummond’s ‘Grammar of the Malabar Language’ were printed using these types.

Benjamin Bailey, who introduced printing into Kerala, was the person who gave shape to the type of Malayalam script that is used today in printing.  He rejected the square-style that was used by the Bombay Courier Press, and introduced the round script. This move into the rounded script was a momentous change in the history of the Malayalam script. Though Bailey did not know the technology of typecasting, he managed to make the moulds with the help of a carpenter and two metal-smiths. His efforts paved the way for a complete makeover in the Malayalam script. The earlier square-style types that were used for Malayalam printing in Mumbai and Rome soon gave way to this round style called vatta-vadivu. Thus by 1824, Bailey gave a new set of types for Malayalam. After reviewing and analyzing and testing, he gave final shape to them by 1829. These were later used without much change till the 1960s.

The round script was used for long till a change was made in 1967 according to the recommendations of a committee headed by Sooranad Kunjan Pillai. The suggestions for this were given by Sri. N. V. Krishna Warrier in the 1960s through the Mathrubhumi weekly. In fact Kandathil Varghese Mappillai had even before that put forward similar suggestions through his newspaper Malayala Manorama. He had recommended writing joint-consonants separately by using the crescent shaped punctuation mark (chandrakala) to separate them.

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