Sleight of Hand - Sanjana Chatlani

Sanjana @bombaylettering) tells me that she came across calligraphy by accident, “I was scrolling through Instagram one day and I saw the work of a calligrapher from California, it fascinated me and I started following him and other calligraphers who were involved in the school of pointed pen calligraphy.” Shortly after her interest was captivated by the beauty of calligraphy, she started practicing and posting her creations on her Instagram account. She then flew to L.A for two weeks and honed her skills in pointed pen calligraphy and then to Tuscany where she was introduced to copperplate calligraphy by the master penman Barbara Calzolari.

When she started out, Sanjana was employed as a marketing assistant for Moet-Hennessey. Around May of 2018 she was toying around with the idea of becoming a full time calligrapher after seeing the demand for it. “When I started out I had no idea of doing this full time. It was more of a passion project”. She would come home from work at seven and start practicing her calligraphy, till three in the morning. At one point she was making more money from calligraphy, than from her day job.

Her first commission was from a friend, who wanted her to calligraph a hundred Diwali cards. Initially she was bowled over by the offer and by the number of cards that she had to work on; and had even offered to work on them for free. But her friend had insisted on paying her and that paved the way for a barrage of commissions. Sanjana founded the Bombay lettering company in October of 2017 and left her job to pursue calligraphy, in July of the succeeding year. She tells me that the transition from marketing assistant to full-time calligrapher was quite organic.

Now through the Bombay lettering company she offers a variety of calligraphy related services, ranging from custom signs and monograms to letters and hand engraved glasses. Sanjana feels that calligraphy is all about giving life to communication, “I bring words to life, and I love experimenting and working on different surfaces, I don’t restrict myself to working on just paper”. Apart from regular commissions, she also works as a calligrapher for weddings, working on every aspect of writing in weddings; from Save the Dates to bridal hampers, itineraries and monograms on various nuptial paraphernalia. “The beauty of calligraphy is that you can create so many variations, and it has this personalized warmth to it, which brides are very appreciative of.”

Sanjana’s work also led her to becoming the on-site calligrapher for the Nick Jonas-Priyanka Chopra wedding. The event management company called ‘All that Jazz’ that had been hired for the wedding, sought her out on Instagram. At first she wasn’t told whose wedding she was working on, but when presented with the dates and the venue she ended up connecting the dots.“I was working nine to ten hours a day continuously, for three days. To me it was like any other wedding, the only difference being the fact that there’s more pressure, apart from that it also added to my credibility as an artist” and it also led her to be featured in People.

Sanjana also embraces the digital side of calligraphy, opting to work with fonts and digital tools when the need arises. She often tries to spice up overused fonts by combining them with calligraphy. However she says that her soul will always remain with pen and paper, and adds that they are irreplaceable and the feel they produce is incomparable with digital calligraphy. “For me it’s another vertical, it’s convenient to use while working as it saves a lot of time with its efficiency” Some clients come to her with commissions that require something more than calligraphy, in such cases she finds herself turning to her digital toolkit to get the job done.

She adds that working digitally comes handy while imprinting one’s insignia on merchandise. However she advises budding calligraphers to start practicing with pens and paper, before moving on to digital platforms. “It depends on your reasons for practicing calligraphy, if you want to take it up for fun or as a hobby, then you can start digitally.” And she adds jokingly “However don’t render something digitally and say that it was made by hand”

Sanjana also collaborates with artists from other mediums, and she had recently collaborated with an artist friend of hers who does 3d printing called MakeWhale, they combined their skills to make customized jewellery. Apart from that she has also collaborated with AA Living to combine calligraphy and embroidery to create a line of pillow covers.

“Collaborating with others makes you think and create unique things, as it makes you step out of your comfort zone” her focus is on building the community rather than taking on the competition, as she sometimes splits a large order with other calligraphers.

She also teaches calligraphy. “I never thought I’d end up teaching calligraphy”, she tells me that her first class was for a few close friends in Bombay, for which she made a small workbook. “I realized that I enjoyed teaching them, and they loved learning too” she says. Her first official workshop was an introduction to pointed pen calligraphy held in Bombay and it sold out completely in 30 minutes.

Apart from teaching, she also hosts other master penmen in India. Her first venture was with one of her teachers, Barbara Calzolari, an Italian master, whom she met in 2018 for a ten day workshop.
“We had an intense connection while learning and I kept telling her about the rising interest in India for calligraphy” Eventually she hosted her in January at Bombay for 3 workshops, for a crowd of sixty people who came from all over the country. “What I’m trying to do with the Bombay lettering company is not just be an artist myself, but to become a platform for growing calligraphy in India” She aims to make it into an academy, where talent from around the world can be shared with the people here. Following Barabara, she hosted two other Indian artists who are also her teachers namely, Chandan Mahimkar, who specializes in digital lettering and Achyut Palav, who specializes in the Devnagri script.

Talking about the name, she tells me that she wanted something that spoke out about what she did, while not sounding generic at the same time “so I chose the word lettering”; along with that she wanted something to represent where she was from, “for others it might be Mumbai, but for me it will always be Bombay” she says. Since its conception, the Bombay Lettering company takes up a lot of her time and energy, “Like raising a child” is how she describes it. “Right now it’s in the early stage, and I feel like I’m working twenty eight hours a day. Though I’m looking forward to a good work-home balance in the future” Sanjana also imports calligraphy materials from the USA, as she wanted to make quality calligraphy materials available to the public. She also has plans to launch a line of her own supplies, currently she has practice pads for sale on her website, and she also has plans to make and sell Bombay Lettering Ink by 2021.

Though some artists are naturally endowed with talent, everyone has to practice to hone their skills, and patience plays a key role here. For it is easy to get frustrated and throw in the towel, rather than persevere. Sanjana advocates patience and also to work for a while before going full time, “besides when you find something worth doing, it hardly feels like working.”

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