When was the last time you held a pen to write more than just your Aadhaar number or sign a piece of paper? It has been a while, yes? Sit down for a conversation with Sanjana Chatlani, one of India’s foremost calligraphers, however, and you will realise that while a majority of us may have forgotten how to use a pen, the niche art form of calligraphy is alive and well. The charm of handwritten text still holds sway, so much so that Chatlani converted her side hustle of calligraphy into a venture called The Bombay Lettering Company within a year of starting it in 2018.
Chatlani’s foray into the world of lettering happened, rather unassumingly, in 2017. “I was handling branding and marketing for LVMH’s wines and spirits portfolio. One evening, an elderly man walked into the conference room, took out a pen and started writing on the cards we were sending with gifts to our clients,” she recalls. “My boss explained that in the world of luxury brands, a handwritten note denoted true class and elegance. It was the first time I was seeing a practical application of calligraphy,” she says. Intrigued, Chatlani signed up for a calligraphy course in California.
Following that trip and a few workshops, Chatlani decided to go professional. She created The Bombay Lettering Company handle on Instagram. But there were some surprises in store for her. For one, there wasn’t anyone else in the country who did it as a full-time job. No one saw it as a lucrative business prospect.
“Calligraphy is an art but I knew I didn’t want to be an independent artist. I wanted to create a company that would be a one-stop shop for handwritten calligraphy in the country. I wanted to create an entire ecosystem around the art form,” she says. In setting up her company, Chatlani discovered that she would literally be writing her own rules on how to run a calligraphy business.
“There wasn’t anybody here I could go to for advice. I had to look at what calligraphers in Europe and the US were doing. Today, we have people here looking up to our business model,” she says.
Starting with weddings and birthdays in 2018, Chatlani’s portfolio today includes a spectrum of clients ranging from friends and Instagram recommendations to luxury brands such as Louis Vuitton, Gucci, Michael Kors, Jimmy Choo and Rolex.
“I am seeing an increase in orders for handwritten letters and cards because handwritten work adds a personal touch. It conveys that thought and effort has been put into it,” says Chatlani. From wedding invitations, love letters and inspiring quotes to making text-based murals and engraving names on wine and perfume bottles, Chatlani’s oeuvre is extensive. While the work seems fun, it is also time- and labour- intensive, especially if you are talking of events that require sending out handwritten invitations in the 1000s.
The art of calligraphy is one of precision and perfection. There are innumerable styles and techniques that a professional learns. Chatlani predominantly practices copperplate calligraphy and uses the pointed pen technique. She learnt this under one of the 12 holders of the Master Penman title in the world, Barbara Calzolari. “I didn’t know the kind of passion that could exist for this work till I met her,” Chatlani says. Her other mentor is IAMPETH master penman Michael Sull, often credited as the father of American Cursive handwriting and America’s foremost living Spencerian penman. Chatlani is also training under one of India’s master calligraphers, Achyut Palav in Devanagari. “He has been doing this for 40 years and I decided to learn this because I think it would be great if I could mix English and Hindi lettering in my work,” she says.
Owing to the lack of good calligraphy supplies in the country, Chatlani also runs an online store for calligraphy tools, supplies and accessories. She also teaches calligraphy. “I have students aged 14 to 65. They all like it because ultimately, it is meditative and almost therapeutic.”
THE WEDDING WRITER
Of her entire portfolio of work, the job that—unsurprisingly—gets all the attention is her stint as the official, on-site calligrapher for the Priyanka Chopra-Nick Jonas wedding in December 2018. “The wedding planners reached out to me 10 days before the event and asked me to do the invites and place cards. They also wanted me on-site to take care of the seating chart,” she says. “I think I wrote 800 place cards in a week!” Other big fat Indian weddings that she has lent her calligraphy skills for include Deepika Padukone and Ranveer Singh’s, the Ambanis’, and the Biyanis of Future Group.