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The return of handwriting

With calligraphy and hand-lettering making a comeback in a big way—at celebrity weddings, corporate retreats and in your post—a community of stationery lovers is growing in the country

Handwriting didn’t go anywhere, but for more and more people, the act of writing has become so much more a digital activity
Handwriting didn’t go anywhere, but for more and more people, the act of writing has become so much more a digital activity (iStock)

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“Paying attention to the negative space is important. My teacher used to say ‘your lines will not sing unless your space does’,” says Sanjana Chatlani over a Zoom call, teaching me the basics of pointed pen calligraphy in the copperplate style. In the practice of calligraphy, “negative space” refers to the space between the letters; the emptiness enclosed by the loops and swirls of copperplate. That calligraphy is not just “pretty handwriting” is driven home to me over the course of the next hour as Chatlani takes me through the basics of pointed pen calligraphy using a special beginner’s kit she has created for The Bombay Lettering Company, a calligraphy services and products company founded by her.

The kit includes a thick set of practice sheets with guidelines and instructions, a set of brush pens (the Tombow Fudenosuke pens—one each of a hard tip and a soft tip, and dual tip pens) and a set of coloured brush pens. Over the next hour, I will learn how the nine basic strokes of pointed pen copperplate are created, how the lines have to be tilted at a precise angle of 55 degrees, how “thin up, thick down” is the standard rule of calligraphy—the writer puts very gentle pressure on the nib or pen while making an upward stroke and applies greater pressure while creating the thicker, downward stroke. “The way you are sitting and your posture can make a difference to how the letters form… even how you breathe makes a difference,” says Chatlani. “It’s best to inhale on an upstroke and exhale on a downstroke. The activity forces you to relax, to breathe and hold yourself a certain way.”

Not pretty handwriting

“People ask me, ‘Is it something you can do professionally?’” says Chatlani, who started calligraphy as a hobby in 2017—as something that gave her happiness. Her first projects were for friends, creating personalised handwritten cards and place tags for dinner parties. She started the Bombay Lettering Company in 2018 when she realised that there were enough discerning customers who didn’t mind paying a premium for something done so painstakingly. Today, Chatlani collaborates with brands, conducts calligraphy workshops and does “live calligraphy” at weddings and events, where guests are given personalised gifts and mementos (Chatlani was the wedding calligrapher at the 2018 wedding ceremony of Priyanka Chopra and Nick Jonas at Umaid Bhawan Palace in Jodhpur, Rajasthan).

Place cards hand-written by Sanjana Chatlani for Priyanka Chopra and Nick Jonas's wedding in 2018
Place cards hand-written by Sanjana Chatlani for Priyanka Chopra and Nick Jonas's wedding in 2018

It’s a skill that requires constant learning and upgrading—she has just returned from the UK, where she attended a 12-week course called “The Foundation of Western Calligraphy”, conducted by well-known calligrapher and teacher Ewan Clayton. Demand for her popular workshop is on the rise—so much so that she is in the process of creating a pre-recorded 10-hour workshop that will be sold as a package through her website and on Instagram, taking clients through copperplate calligraphy using the worksheets and other materials she has designed. It will cost 5,500 without the kit and 7,500 with it. “This way people can learn at their own pace. They can pause and rewatch the videos to refine their technique or pick up something they missed the first time. The pandemic has made online learning so much more accessible to everyone,” says Chatlani.

Sanjana Chatlani, calligrapher and founder of Bombay Lettering Company
Sanjana Chatlani, calligrapher and founder of Bombay Lettering Company (BLC)

If we talk about the return of handwriting—okay, handwriting didn’t go anywhere but for more and more people, the act of writing has become so much more a digital activity that they admit days go by before they pick up pen and paper to write something by hand—the pandemic created a necessary pause to do things slowly and by hand. That is when experts like Chatlani saw an uptick in the number of people reaching out to learn calligraphy and hand-lettering (the two are distinct—while calligraphy is an ancient art that has very precise rules and techniques to write by hand, lettering is a form of illustration, where an artist illustrates words and letters in different styles, which are often mixed together). Mindfulness practices like journaling have also led to an interest in these skills, as people who journal often use lettering techniques to express themselves and make the process more absorbing and creative.

Even before the pandemic, the demand for writing by hand was going up, especially in the personalised luxury gifting industry, says Inpreet Kaur, founder of Lettering Buff, a Nainital-based calligrapher and engraver who also started her company in 2018. “With wealth you can buy anything but how do you make it memorable? Calligraphy helps you treasure keepsakes for a lifetime,” says Kaur.

Inpreet Kaur, founder, Lettering Buff
Inpreet Kaur, founder, Lettering Buff (Inpreet Kaur)

There has been interest in calligraphy and hand-made keepsakes from an unexpected quarter as well: Both Kaur and Chatlani work with companies to conduct on-site/corporate events where the guests want to experience calligraphy being done first-hand or create personalised corporate gifts. Kaur recently did a project for Swiggy where she created personalised thank you scrolls for employees whose contribution the company wanted to recognise, with a handwritten note in gold ink on black paper tied up with a ribbon and a wax seal for that perfect finish.

Hand-written notes of appreciation for corporates like Swiggy have become the norm
Hand-written notes of appreciation for corporates like Swiggy have become the norm (LB)

Business is thriving for many of these new-age calligraphers: Modern calligraphy workshops that are online-only cost upwards of 2,500 for a fixed number of hours, while in-person classes cost around that much per class. Yet there are many takers, from millennials and Gen Z-ers who love lettering and journaling to older individuals who want to take up calligraphy professionally: Chatlani and Kaur’s classes get sold out within an hour of being announced on Instagram and they have robust online stores selling writing supplies as well.

Of course, India has a well-established calligraphy tradition, which must qualify any patronising assertions about “the return of handwriting”. And yet, while traditional calligraphers who have learnt the skill from their grandfathers and fathers (it is primarily a male domain) and from traditional masters are immensely talented, their art is threatened by the very fact that the functional aspects of their work—writing letters, creating book covers—has been taken over by digital technologies. Though they continue to work in Indian scripts like Devanagari and Nastaliq, the scripts in which Hindi and Urdu are written, some of them, like Achyut Palav and Prashant Athalye, are adapting to the new requirements, teaching modern Devanagari calligraphy through workshops both online and offline. Most of them, however, are not marketing-savvy Instagrammers like the new generation of English calligraphers (mostly women) who are reaching out to a new audience through that very medium.

Interestingly, many other aspects of letter writing are also coming full circle, perhaps to remind us of a slower time (and in no small measure because of their Instagrammable aesthetic). One of the things that has made a huge comeback in recent years is the use of wax seal kits, which often come with an engraved metal or wooden stamp, wax sticks, a metal spoon to melt the wax in, a tiny chisel to scrape off excess wax, and sometimes even dried flowers or other embellishments that can be added to the wax before it hardens to create something even more unique.

A wax seal kit
A wax seal kit (LB)

Though she does not give figures, Lettering Buff does brisk sales in these wax seal kits—each costs 2,300—and watching Kaur’s Instagram videos of melted wax being poured over a tiny bunch of dried flowers and being stamping is both a relaxing and compelling activity. It’s almost as if we are tired of dashing off those typo-filled WhatsApp messages and want something more thoughtful and permanent.

For the love of stationery objects

Growing with this is the love of writing objects itself. And they don’t always have to be beautiful and artisanal: At Inky Memo, a content platform dedicated to stationery which has a YouTube channel, a blog and a newsletter founded by three stationery-loving Mumbaikars, there are deep dives into objects as humble as the Apsara Platinum Extra Dark Pencil, the Reynolds 045 red ballpoint pen and the Rorito Fasty Gel Pen. Minjal Kadakia and Samir Bharadwaj, founders of Inky Memo, are both artists and graphic designers, as is their collaborator Vishal Bharadwaj, and through a series of weekly videos, they take each of these products on a “test drive”, taking them through their paces and beyond their conventional usage.

The red Reynolds ballpoint pen, for instance, is used by all three in the video to create original artwork in their individual styles while they narrate the history of this iconic writing instrument (did you know that the 045 is so named because it was first launched in 1945?). “We feel we are in some sense the last generation of people who grew up with analogue and moved to digital, and while we love technology, we also feel this urge to document stories about the tools using which we learnt our craft,” says Samir over a call. “Take a calligraphy marker, for instance—it is almost space-age technology compared to a quill pen, using which calligraphy was first done. But for us, all the points in that evolution, on that journey, are interesting.”

“We also want to shine a light on locally manufactured brands,” says Kadakia, whose family runs an 80-year-old stationery shop in Mumbai’s Crawford Market. So, while Inky Memo reviews mass-market stationery products, it also collects stories about craftspeople making speciality ink, paper and other items of stationery. Through their blog, you can learn about Ahmedabad-based artist Trupti Karjinni, who makes pure-pigment handcrafted watercolours, cotton paper sketchbooks, fabric brush rolls and hand-carved ceramic palettes and has customers across the world; or Manya Cherabuddi, a Hyderabad-based artist, colour researcher and natural dyer who makes watercolours, oil paints and chalk paints using natural, often foraged materials, and also teaches people how to do this; or Bengaluru-based Pia Meenakshi, who creates hand-made watercolours for her brand, Pigmenta; or Kerala-based Dr Sreekumar, a medical doctor by training who creates speciality fountain pen inks.

hand-made watercolours from Pigmenta
hand-made watercolours from Pigmenta

Stationery ‘nerds’ and hoarders

When Alethea Fernandes travelled to the UK earlier this year to join a master’s programme in climate change finance, one of the suitcases she carried was full of stationery. A self-confessed “stationery nerd and massive hoarder”, Fernandes has been collecting pens, paper, art supplies, planners, markers, writing pencils and all kinds of stationery for years, and says she is “mysteriously drawn to stationery”— she has her hoard neatly categorised as the stuff she will probably never use but just loves to possess, and the objects she uses regularly and cannot do without.

It started as an obsession with crayons when she was in kindergarten, says Fernandes—her father, who used to travel abroad on work, would get high-quality crayons, erasers and coloured pencils from Dubai. By the time she was in college, Fernandes was spending most of her pocket money on stationery, haunting stores like Veerat Paper Bazar in Mumbai—a tiny store in Bandra that’s a well-kept secret among stationery lovers—which stocks all kinds of paper and stationery from across the world.

Actually, stationery nerds in India don’t have it particularly easy when it comes to getting their hands on objects they covet and come across on Instagram accounts, stationery newsletters from outside India, and the occasional stationery subscription box. While the variety of stationery you get in the country—both the imported kind and the niche artisanal brands—has grown vastly in the past couple of decades, and especially so in the paper products category, there is still a big gap between India and more mature markets such as the US and European countries, says Fernandes. “It is difficult to build a collection in India. Supply is still erratic and import duties are pretty high, so everything costs a lot more,” she says.  Surprisingly for a category that sees a large number of self-avowed hoarders and products that are bought, used and replaced regularly, there are no reliable stationery subscriptions in India encouraging discovery and shining a light on less well-known brands.

Fernandes has in desperation even subscribed to stationery boxes—artists and graphic designers are sometimes commissioned to create aesthetic products such as card paper, pens, washi tape, labels, scissors, staplers, memo pads for these—from websites like Cloth & Paper, Paper Kite and Spotlight Stationery. These, however, are not only quite expensive ( 3,000 and more per box) due to currency conversions, but there are long delays and the process of retrieving them from the post office after paying customs is painful.

Fernandes, who has experience of waiting for boxes that never arrive, shares a few tips on how to ensure you can get the best products from across the world: Instead of depending on the post, ask the brands you are buying from to ship it to you through courier services life FedEx and DHL, buy from an Indian stationery website like Chapter & Ink, or order from the Amazon US or UK stores and get them to ship to your address in India (while you would pay extra for duties, the process is more dependable).

“While India has a rich history of writing and art, the availability of supplies has always been quite limited. Great art, which will survive generations, needs great supplies—supplies that are archival in nature, which will ensure that colours and surfaces won’t fade or warp for nearly 100 years. That is just one of the categories that was missing, which made us get into the business,” says Kshitij Shah, founder of the Mumbai-based online and offline art store Art Lounge, which sells art products as well as stationery brands that are highly prized among collectors in India—from Winsor & Newton artist grade paints to Koh-I-Noor hardtmuth colour pencils, Mijello Mission Gold watercolours and printmaking supplies like jacquard fabric colours or speciality inks like Dr. Ph. Martin’s Bombay India Ink.

“India has a growing appetite for quality art and writing supplies. However, Indian customers have always been more focused on getting the maximum bang for their buck and even premium customers continue to look for the highest value, so even premium supplies have to be priced extremely competitively,” says Shah cautiously. This is a challenge for companies like Art Lounge that import a number of premium international brands—often, the products find no takers in India (even people who profess interest on social media often back out or ask for huge discounts) and have to be sold at big losses during sales. This is a deterrent for many stationery stores in India that have the connections and the know-how to import quality stationery but are not sure there is a big enough market, despite all the stationery love on Instagram.

“We found that people didn’t really like surprises. They wanted to know exactly what they would be getting in their subscription box,” says Pushkar Thakur, founder of the Delhi-based stationery brand Origin One, which started its journey with stationery subscription boxes in 2014 but has since discontinued the programme.

Pushkar Thakur, founder, Origin One 
Pushkar Thakur, founder, Origin One  (Origin One)

Along with a certain lack of enthusiasm for the unexpected joys a subscription box can deliver, payment regulations in India that don’t allow automated monthly payments are also a deterrent, says Thakur. However, Origin One’s business is thriving; the brand, with its distinctive minimalist design aesthetic—a departure from the quirky, botanical and “pretty” design language that dominates the indie, paper-based products market in India—has expanded into themed gift boxes, postcards and greeting cards, and home products like table linen, kitchenware and rugs. “It is a case of form dictating functionality. Our products, by design, are made for the ink-pen user, and the look and feel of craft paper—what it looks like, naturally—has always influenced our design language, which is global, neutral, contemporary,” says Thakur.

He says he is often asked if stationery is even relevant today when there is an app for every task that was once performed only on paper. “As humans, we have a special relationship with paper. Technology only addresses efficiency, and is jittery—it is fast and of the moment, it does not allow you to take a step back, take an overview of things,” says Thakur. “Don’t get me wrong, I am a software engineer by education and I love technology, but the very act of putting ink on paper is a deliberate act. The way ink interacts with paper is different each time—sometimes you have a smudge, or what you write on the margins becomes more important than your actual notes—and technology can only simulate this, not replicate it.”

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