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Notes from the mint

Gargi Gupta & Manojit Saha  |  New Delhi/ Mumbai 

Ever wondered how the Indian rupee has come to look the way it does? You may not realise as you casually hand over a Rs 10 note to pay for that loaf of bread or pocket that wad of Rs 1,000 notes from the ATM, but every element of the currency note — right from the fonts and graphics to the print, paper and positioning of the language panel —has been the subject of much deliberation. It’s been “designed”, almost as much as the new for the Indian rupee, announced with much fanfare some months ago.

Unlike other “designer” stuff like, say, clothes or home products, where aesthetics and ease of use are the main concerns, the of currency notes also involves the inclusion of that cannot be easily replicated by forgers, and motifs of national importance such as the and As Itu Chaudhuri, well known graphic designer and founder of consultancy firm Design, says, “All banknotes are an exercise in national image building.”

5 things of note
  • The first paper currency issued in India was the Rs 1 note
  • As of June 30, 2008, the value of notes in circulation is Rs 612,340 crore and the number of notes, an estimated 4,587.1 crore pieces
  • The longest used graphic on the Indian rupee is a pair of sailboats, introduced first in a Rs 10 banknote of the King George VI series in October 1944. It continued to be printed in notes until 1992
  • All notes of denominations higher than Rs 10 have a special intaglio feature to aid the visually impaired. It is enclosed in different shapes in notes of different denominations — square for Rs 50, triangle for Rs 100, circle for Rs 500
  • The issued notes for circulation in Pakistan for about a year after independence. These notes in denominations of Rs 2, 5, 10 and 100 had the words, “Government of Pakistan” and “Hukumat-e-Pakistan”, inscribed on them. The arrangement ceased on June 30, 1948

The of the rupee banknote wasn’t made in a day — it’s a work in progress. The Reserve Bank of India (RBI), which issues currency notes on behalf of the government of India, makes regular changes to the way notes look, so that what you see now is the result of small incremental changes made over the years. These changes could be for various reasons — to upgrade so as to prevent forgery, to use the latest developments in printing technology, or for exigencies in the economy such as war or inflation.

Small change
Most of the rupee notes you see today belong to the “series VII” introduced in 2005 — series I referring to the first currency notes to be issued by the republic of India in 1950. Series VII notes are very similar to those of the previous series introduced in 1996. Now that was an important design change, since it was the first time that the portrait of appeared on the note and also on the watermark window (the round, or oblong unprinted area found on the left of the banknote). The prominence given to Gandhi now, feels Chaudhuri, is because he is an “uncontroversial” figure — “equidistant from (and irrelevant to?) all the competing ways to look at our state,nationhood or economy”.

To be strictly accurate of course, it wasn’t his first appearance on the currency note — a seated Gandhi with the as the backdrop had been on the back of notes of a commemorative series issued in 1969, the year of his birth centenary.

Whose portrait?
Interestingly, there was a debate soon after independence on whether to have Gandhi’s portrait. In fact, designs were prepared with his portrait on the notes. In the end, however, it was decided to have the — the national emblem. And that’s what the design remained for the next 47 years. Contrast this with the US where portraits of several presidents — famous ones such as George Washington, Abraham Lincoln and Benjamin Franklin as well as little-remembered names like James Madison and Salmon P Chase — figure on dollar bills. Will the consider introducing the portrait of Jawaharlal Nehru, the nation’s first prime minister, on the new series of notes it will introduce in 2012?

To get back to the series VII currency notes, the only way these differed from the series VI notes was that that they had more sophisticated And, very important, a special Braille feature in intaglio (a printing technique that results in a raised lettering which can be felt by touch) on the left of the watermark window to help the visually impaired identify the notes.

Similarly with the other series too, there weren’t any major design changes, but rather a gradual evolution. For instance, series V (1980) saw the introduction of the legend, Satyameva Jayate, under the Lion Capital; series IV included pictorial graphics for the first time; series III (1969) was the Gandhi birth centenary issue; and series II (in 1967) involved a reduction in the size of the note.

One interesting change, dating to the 1960s, is the introduction of different colours for different denominations — pink for Rs 2, shades of orange for Rs 20, green for Rs 5. “This is especially important for a country like ours, with a large population of illiterates who can only recognise currency notes by their colour,” says Sujata Keshavan, graphic designer and co-founder of brand design firm Ray+Keshavan. “The American model of greenbacks for all denominations would not be appropriate for India.”

In the beginning

Compared to these measured changes in rupee design post-independence, the pre-independence era, especially the early years of the 20th century, saw far more radical, and frequent changes.

Paper currency has been in circulation in India from the late 18th century when early banks — the Bank of Hindostan, General Bank in Bengal and Bihar, Bengal Bank and others — issued promissory notes that could be converted into coins, gold or silver, on demand. The British government took over the task of issuing notes in 1861 and the first uniface notes issued had the portrait of Queen Victoria. These were simple in design, which made them vulnerable to forgery.

In 1923 came the King George V series which were far more complex in design with the king’s profile portrait ringed with intricate designs, a clear watermark window and multi-coloured printing. In fact, it was a Rs 1,000 note in this series issued in 1931 that used a pictorical graphic for the first time — a farmer tilling the land with two bullocks. Post independence, pictorial motifs have been used extensively, changed every few years to reflect landmarks of national progress such as the Green Revolution or the launch of the Aryabhatta, or scenes symbolic of India — the Himalayas, a tiger, the Gateway of India, Parliament House, and so on.

“The India of the banknotes is Nehruvian, of paddies, five year plans, and dams, the ‘temples of modern India’,” says Chaudhuri. The most modern graphic on banknotes is a rather dated-looking desktop computer on the Rs 1,000 note issued in 2000, an inadequate recognition of the major strides the country has made in information technology.

But then such conservatism informs designs of most currencies, even the Euro which, according to Chaudhuri, is “the last major de noveau currency which could have broken free of history’s engraved lines, but doesn’t”. But the Euro does score in some respects, he accepts. “Note the use of contemporary typography, and the bold white space. And a little wit: see how the word Euro forms a mirror image that turns about to be in another script.” With a dozen scripts on our banknotes, perhaps here’s a design route that we could think of, Chaudhuri suggests.

Institutions & the nation
The setting up of the in 1935 was a major milestone in rupee design. The first notes it issued in 1938 bore the image of King George VI. Greater security features were introduced in 1944 with fears of the Japanese (these were the final years of World War II) flooding the markets with forged notes. These included replacing the profile portrait of the king with a frontal one, a change in watermark and a security thread — the first time this was introduced in India.

Currency notes were being designed and printed in India since 1928, when a currency press was started in Nasik, although the watermark paper continued to be brought in from abroad — which had its own dangers. One ship, SS Breda, carrying a consignment of watermarked paper, was bombed by German aircraft and sank in December 1940. It was recovered in 1992, the paper still usable!

Today, currency notes are printed at four presses — in Nasik, Devas (set up in 1973), and the recent ones at Salboni (in June 1996) and Mysore (December 1996). The paper, a special variety with cotton rag substrate “with a distinct feel and a crackling sound”, continued to be imported until 1967, when a security paper mill was set up in Hosangabad (with the help of Portals, which also made notes for the Bank of England). Unlike Australia, Canada and other countries which have moved on to plastic or polymer currency notes, the RBI continues to stick to paper.

Despite all the changes enumerated above, however, the basic template of the as it is today has remained more or less the same since May 1923, when the King George V series was introduced. In fact, it’s quite remarkably how the design of the King George VI notes was integrated into the post-independence rupee, says Rezwan Razack, a Bangalore-based collector of old Indian banknotes. The only difference is the Ashok Pillar which replaces the image of the king in the Raj-era notes. But then ensuring continuity was one of the key concerns of the RBI in the first years after independence.


Uniface notes with a portrait of Queen Victoria were the first to be issued by the government of India Notes with red underprint replaced the Queen Victoria series and were In use from 1867 to the 1920s An early note from the King George V series. The watermark window has the image of a star

A later issue in the King George V series. Note the use of colours — the blue fading into pink A change of colour. Note the graphic with a banana tree in the foreground A note from the King George VI series. This series remained in circulation until 1950

Much has changed over the years.The wet offset lithographic printing process used in the early years, gave way in the 1970s to the simultan dry offset process and later, the intaglio. In the present series VII (introduced in 2005), the portrait of Mahatma Gandhi, the RBI seal, the guarantee and promise clause, governor’s signature and identification mark for visually impaired are all printed in intaglio (of 130 micron depth). Among other security features in this series is the use of optically variable ink to print numerals in the Rs 500 and Rs 1,000 notes. The colour shifts from blue to green when viewed from different angles. Notes in these denominations also have a security thread that changes colour, along with dual-coloured optical fibers, with the number panel printed in fluorescent ink.

First Published: Sat, August 28 2010. 00:21 IST