New Delhi Money is the medium for commerce, we all know, but can it be a means of communication? At a unique exhibition at the Alliance Francaise in Delhi, featuring 25-odd French banknotes, blown up to large poster size, Rukmini Dahanukar, an independent researcher and founder-partner of brand design consultancy Nirmiti, shows us the symbolism, propaganda, art, design and romance in currency notes.

The art and symbolism in banknotes
Video Credit: Chitra Narayanan

For several years now, Dahanukar says she has been spending money “to buy money that I cannot use” in order to study the art and design of banknotes. She has a collection of over 3,500 banknotes from the 180 nations that issue their own currency and even from nations that have disappeared. 

Rukmini Dahanukar, an independent researcher and founder partner of brand design consultancy Nirmiti

Rukmini Dahanukar, an independent researcher and founder partner of brand design consultancy Nirmiti

Money Talks, her proprietary research and passion project on banknotes, which began 18 years ago as a thesis when she was doing her Master’s in Communications at the California State University, Fullerton, has grown and taken shape in exhibitions, talks and will soon be a coffee table book. “I want a person who uses banknotes every day to begin looking at the design, symbolism and messaging inherent in them,” she says.

So why an exhibition on only French banknotes? Because, says Dahanukar, French banknotes have art, romanticism and flair. “They carry a certain style of design. There is a consistency across time, and across geography – in all the Francs whether in France or its overseas territories.” Incidentally, the exhibition has a note from Pondicherry from French India days. 

The starting point

Also, the French banknotes were the starting point of her research. When she was looking for a subject for her thesis, the euro had just come into circulation (in January 2002) and the French were feeling a loss of national identity at the franc slipping out of their wallets. That’s when Dahanukar began studying the franc in depth and got hooked.

The ongoing exhibition ‘Beyond Face Value: French Banknote Designs from around the world’ – is split into four parts. The first section highlights the quintessentially French elements of the note. There is a lot of detailing of the human form, inspiration from fashion, art, culture, and design. The next three sections focus on Marianne – the symbol of France, the motto – Liberty, Equality and Fraternity, and the Republic.

The evolution and depiction of Marianne – as a peasant woman, as a warrior, as a queenly figure, as a motherly figure and so on – shows the contexts of the time. 

Ask Dahukar, how the Indian banknotes compare in design and, she says, there are several unique features in our rupee notes to be proud of. First is the language panel on the reverse side, with the denomination written in 15 languages, showcasing the diversity of the country. India is also among a unique few that use subliminal messaging in the note, she says, pointing to the little Swachh Bharat message that is neatly tucked inside Gandhiji’s glasses at the bottom of the reverse side. It’s also among a select list of countries that use UNESCO heritage sites in its bank notes, a subtle promotion.  

Polymer substrate note

Australia, says Dahanukarv, is the first nation to have launched the polymer substrate note, which has totally changed the design of the banknote. It has seen through windows, the holographic foils sit better, and counterfeiting is more difficult, she observes.

The multifaceted Dahanukar, who runs marathons, and is a certified deep-sea diver, says she focussed only on banknotes and not coins because a thing that struck her was how the template since the issue of the first banknote by Sweden in 1661 has been the same across countries, over time. “In 360 years, the notes have not changed much,” she says. 

What if digital currency will make the banknote obsolete? That’s when Dahanukar’s work will probably assume even more importance.