Shipra Rohatgi and Sanjana Chatlani on the business of calligraphy
Shipra Rohatgi and Sanjana Chatlani are calligraphers who are exploring the possibilities of the art as entrepreneurs. They were in Thiruvananthapuram for the National Calligraphy Festival.
Carrying forward a legacy
Shipra Rohatgi is a fourth-generation calligrapher. Her great-grandfather, Rij Pal, worked in the court of the last Mughal emperor, Bahadur Shah. “He was the accountant, not because he was great at mathematics but because his handwriting was good!” says Shipra. Her grandfather, Radhey Mohan, worked for the East India Company, and her father, Rameshwar Dayal, a bank employee and a prolific calligrapher has a client list with names such as Habib Rahman, Sonia Gandhi and Amitabh Bachchan.
Her first major assignment was making wedding invitations for Priyanka Gandhi’s wedding. “When Sonia Gandhi wanted my father to make invitations for Priyanka’s wedding, he sent me saying I can do it better than him.”
Shipra’s calligraphy style is marked by flourishing — the art of embellishing letters with swooshes and swirls. Shipra’s Studio, started by her father, was rechristened Likhawat Designs in 2000. “My aim is to make calligraphy a part of our daily life. It is a very small art form in our country and I want it to be seen everywhere. So, other than paper, I do it on stone, metal, canvas, walls, fabric (saris, stoles, scarves, jackets…), ceramic, wood, cars and shoes…”
She has been associated with top fashion and luxury brands. “Among them are Mont Blanc and Chanel. I have also done introductory invitations for Ferragamo, Dior and Tod’s when they came to India. For Tod’s, I made 1,000 handwritten invites, which took me 40 days.”
The artist stresses that she has built her clientele over the last three decades mainly through word-of-mouth publicity and this include names such as Sharmila Tagore, the Bachchans and Deepika Padukone.
In addition to Hindi and English, Shipra writes in Persian, Urdu, Marathi, Bengali, Gurumukhi, Sanskrit and French. Shipra takes online classes in calligraphy and also teaches in schools.
She also takes sessions at Sree Aurobindo Society, especially for senior citizens. “It is for meditation. They practise strokes with a calligraphy tool. A gong is struck and till the sound lasts, they keep moving the tool in a wave. Calligraphy calls for focus and concentration. Calligraphy soothes me. It gives me that ‘aha’ moment and connects me to God.”
Meanwhile, Shipra is happy that the fifth generation — her daughter Leela and son Schwaaz, also have tried their hand at calligraphy. “I wish to take calligraphy to different institutions across India and abroad. Also I want to enjoy life even as I continue to do calligraphy.”
At 24, Sanjana Chatlani quit her high-paying job with a French company to follow her passion — calligraphy. Six years later, she runs The Bombay Lettering Company, ‘a boutique calligraphy, lettering and design studio’ in Mumbai, which has an impressive client list.
Although she was artistically-inclined from childhood, Sanjana says that she did not think of making a career out of it. In the beginning she made products for family and friends. Once she found it “therapeutic and meditative”, she went deep into it. She explains: “As you work with the tool, your breathing also gets into a pattern — for every upward stroke you inhale, and for a downward stroke, exhale. It always transports me into another world where I don’t have to think about anything except my pen, ink, nib, pen, paper, strokes… I used to be on my phone all the time till I took up calligraphy.”
She was a part-time calligrapher until there came a month when she earned more from her art than her corporate job. That was the moment she decided to quit her job.
Sanjana has been doing copperplate calligraphy, a type of pointed pen calligraphy developed in the UK during the 18th century. “Once you master the rules of a particular style, you can break it by adding your personality to it. Adding subtle nuances can make a style unique.”
A fan of Spencerian style (pointed pen calligraphy that originated in the US) and modern calligraphy, which is “more playful, bouncy and younger”, she is also learning Devanagari from veteran calligrapher Achyut Palav and was in the UK for three months to learn different styles from renowned British calligrapher Ewan Clayton.
Besides ink on paper, she does lettering on wood, acrylic, mirror, engraving on glass etc. Customers push my boundaries as an artist, she says.
Among her high-profile clients is actor Deepika Padukone. “She reached out to me on my Instagram page. She wanted to make customised stationery. We did calligraphy designs for her skincare brand launched recently.”
At Priyanka Chopra-Nick Jonas wedding in Jodhpur, she made the place cards for a sit-down dinner. Sanjana observes that wedding-related calligraphy is a big market, as calligraphy can be incorporated in invites, signages, gift tags, thank you notes, stationery etc.
She adds that it helps when a client knows what he or she wants. “A company was hosting its international team in India and wanted invitations in Devanagari script for an Indian touch. On the other hand, there are brands that stick to a particular style. Louis Vitton, for example, has their standard black ink copperplate calligraphy, which is followed across the world.”
She has worked with Jimmy Choo, Michael Kors, The Ritz Carlton, Rolex, Moet Hennessy, Longchamp Paris, Vogue, Cartier, Google, Gucci, and the Ambanis, among others.
Her Copperplate Collective, launched during the pandemic-induced lockdown, has pre-recorded online calligraphy classes. “I have students aged 17 to 55 and 80% of it are women. One of the best months for me profit-wise was the peak month of COVID-19. I was busy teaching and holding workshops for children, adults, corporates etc.”