Lettering and Brain Function

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Anshu Bahanda: Welcome to another episode of Wellness Curated. I’m your host, Anshu Bahanda, and the aim of this podcast is to give you ideas, trends and techniques that will help you lead a healthier and happier life. 

This episode is part of our series that focuses on intellect as one of the eight pillars of holistic wellness. And today we’re going to explore the link between lettering or calligraphy and intelligence. So a 2021 study of Japanese students and graduates showed that if you were to actually write on a piece of paper, actually writing as opposed to typing or digitally writing, but writing on a piece of paper, it could lead to more brain activity and it would help you remember things better. Researchers believe that the unique, complex spatial, and tactile information associated with writing by hand, may lead to improved memory. There was another older study that has shown that writing kind of encourages networks or sparks networks in the left side of the brain. So could working on one’s lettering actually improve your brain power? Helping us explore these questions, we have Sanjana Chatlani here, who’s a calligrapher. And her calligraphy has graced lots of famous people’s wedding cards, she does calligraphy on corporate gifts and corporate notes. Welcome to the show, Sanjana. 

Sanjana Chatlani: Thank you. And thank you for having me. I’m really excited and welcome to Bombay. 

AB: Thank you. 

SC: And I think the topic is really interesting and it’s something that I too would like to discuss and dive into, so I’m really looking forward to it. Thank you. 

AB: Thank you for being here. And I’m very excited, personally, because I’m fascinated with all things Japanese. And this is something which I know, Japan has had a huge influence in calligraphy, but tell me about your workshops and the work that you do. 

SC: So I have started doing calligraphy… It wasn’t something, it’s not a profession that I grew up as a kid saying I want to be a calligrapher. It just happened. I was very much in the corporate world. I was working for LVMH and their wines and spirits company called Moët Hennessy. So I was always in marketing and brand management. And it was a very funny incident, because one day in the office, I saw an elderly man sitting down with a strange looking tool writing on these, you know, Dom Perignon cards that we were sending out. And that’s when I realized that he was a calligrapher. And every luxury brand, when they do any kind of gifting, they send out a note in calligraphy. And I think that’s when the interest in me really sparked. And it was about five years ago, and I started researching a little bit about different styles of calligraphy, what’s going on in the calligraphy world. And I started taking workshops with teachers all outside of India, because there was nothing in India at that time, especially for things like Western calligraphy. And I think it was very organic. One thing sort of led to another. I began to attend classes with teachers abroad. I came back and I started an Instagram account. And I think people were very fascinated and intrigued because it was quite different, you know, in this highly digital world, and it’s so standardized…

AB: Yeah. 

SC: And then when you come in talking about personalization and doing something by hand, and adding warmth and showing effort going into something, I think people took it really well. And I started doing just small calligraphy jobs on the side, for friends and family. It [then] moved on to people I didn’t know, and then it moved on to me having to say no to people because I still had a full time job. So it was in 2018 that I decided to quit my job and go full time with The Bombay Lettering Company, which is what we are now. So now we’re a calligraphy-based design studio. I’d like to say that because the core and soul of everything we do is script and handwritten and hand-rendered. So we do a lot of work today for corporations, for brands, for events and weddings, for individuals.

AB: So tell me about your workshops also. How do you think of starting those? What do they involve?

SC: So, workshops actually, again, started with a few friends coming to me and asking me to teach them.  

AB: Right. 

SC: But after I did one class, I realized that teaching came to me very naturally. And I think as an instructor, every time you teach, you learn the concept so much better yourself. And so we started organizing workshops all over India. And there was no specific age group because I would get… Well, there were more females than male, but it was almost from [ages] 14 to 55-60. And we’d have people coming in to learn the style that I would teach. So I was teaching a style called ‘Copperplate calligraphy’, which is from England. It’s a 17th century script, and it works with a tool called a pointed pen and a flexible nib. And it’s a script that you work with pressure. So you actually dip your nib into a pot of ink and apply pressure to get thin or thick strokes. And I think the idea of dipping a nib into a pot of ink in the 21st century on its own is quite beautiful. And I was pleasantly surprised to see the kind of people who wanted to learn. Our workshops would sell out immediately. And I’d ask people, ‘Why have you joined the calligraphy class?’ And it was so interesting to get the responses. I once had a woman saying, my husband and I are in a long distance marriage, so I want to send him letters by hand to show my warmth, affection and love. And then I would have someone saying, oh, I think I want to pursue it as a career, so I want to learn. I had a child come in saying, I want to use this for all my projects in school. So different reasons…

AB: Different reasons yeah. 

SC: But essentially it’s an art form that’s so meditative, and therapeutic, and calming. Calligraphy is so technical. It’s almost kind of mathematical in ways, because you’re working with specific tools, on specific guidelines— what we call the lines that we work on, and you’re working at specific angles. 

AB: Is this English calligraphy?

SC: This is English. 

AB: As opposed to being different from Oriental calligraphy?

SC: So different languages have different scripts and different tools altogether, and the rules for all are very different. So for me, my expertise would lie in Western calligraphy— so Latin words. And I’ve dabbled a bit into Devanagari, which comes from Sanskrit. But [it is] similar in the sense that there are rules, there are angles, there are different tools that you use, and you have to adhere to that because the beauty in calligraphy is actually in the precision, in the detail, in the obsession that you have in making those strokes look perfect. 

AB: And do you think it’s helped? Has it enhanced your life in any way?

SC: 100%. I feel I’ve become another person in these five years. And initially, you don’t realize these things. They’re so small, these nuances. But a small example, I play tennis and I enjoy it a couple of days in the week. I’ll go hit. And I took a little break a couple years ago, where I was only doing calligraphy, and I got back to tennis, and I thought my game would be very bad because I was out of touch, I was out of practice. But I realized that my tennis was actually really good, because I was using the same concepts that I was learning while learning calligraphy, on the tennis court as well. 

AB: Wow. 

SC: Simple things like hand-eye coordination. I was so much more focused when I was playing. The sound of your ball hitting your racquet versus the sound of your nib on the paper with the ink flowing. The attention to detail, the focus, keeping your eye on one thing. So tennis is one example, but I think in everything like my day-to-day life— my attention to detail is more, my focus is more. My ability to grasp certain concepts is a bit more as well. And I could attribute this to calligraphy, and I really feel it’s helped me in so many ways. I also feel it’s made me a lot more calm as a person. 

AB: Because of the mindfulness that goes on. 

SC: Because the one thing that is so important that my teachers have taught me is breathing. And sometimes when you’re nervous about something, you tend to hold your breath, but with calligraphy, it’s the opposite. You want to actually focus on your breathing. 

AB: So interesting. So they actually taught you to breathe a particular way. 

SC: So my teacher, who’s one of my mentors in Italy, she’s a master penman. Her name is Barbara Calzolari. When you see her writing, you feel like she’s almost in a trance because her body is moving with the inhales and the exhales. So in Copperplate calligraphy, we take every upstroke like an inhale, and every down stroke like an exhale. And you’re following that pattern. I love saying this, but when we’re doing calligraphy, it’s almost like you’re dancing on paper, right? And it’s that meditative moment for yourself. 

AB: We just did a podcast last week on dancing. It’s so lovely what you said— dancing on paper. 

SC: It’s really like that, 100%. And we don’t realize how important it is sometimes for us to disconnect from the digital world, and just be analog and use our hands.

AB: And then how long was it before people started recognizing your talent?

SC: I think it was within my first year or a year and a half. And I think it was due to a lot of reasons. Of course, I hope people found it beautiful, but I think people were also just intrigued because the way I was finding solace in it as an art form, the viewer would find some sort of… like it was a breath of fresh air to see something done by hand. 

AB: No. Even when you describe it to me, when you talk about posture and breathing, it sounds amazing.

SC: When people ask me if I meditate, I’m like, every day. This is my meditation. 

AB: And can anyone learn it? Or do you feel like people have to be artistically inclined?

SC: So I do think you have to be a little artistically inclined, and I do think you want to have that sense of precision, attention to detail and patience. Patience is key because calligraphy is all about patience. You cannot do it quickly. Because it’s not handwriting. So there’s a difference between handwriting and calligraphy. 

AB: I see it as an art…

SC: Yes. 

AB: But you’re telling me it’s a precise art. 

SC: Because the objective of handwriting is when you’re putting down your thoughts on paper or somewhere, and you’re not focusing on beautifying it, you’re focusing on getting the message down. But with calligraphy, it’s an art form where we’re really drawing shapes, and those shapes connect to form letters. So your whole and sole objective is to make those look beautiful. Which is why a lot of calligraphers make the silliest spelling mistakes, because we’re not concentrating on the spelling. We’re looking at… the letter A, for example, in say Copperplate calligraphy, it’s an oval, and another shape called an underturn. So I’m not thinking of an A, but I’m thinking of combining an oval and an underturn. 

AB: Okay. 

SC: So you’re thinking in shapes, and that’s what kind of makes it quite different from handwriting as well.

AB: So you’ve said to me that practice makes a big difference to calligraphy. As your calligraphy developed, did you find, like you gave me the tennis example, but did you find, say, taking tennis— that kept getting better, so your mental activity got better and therefore the output got better?

SC: I’m able to grasp concepts and things quicker. I’m more alert. And I do feel so much of it is because of all the disciplines I’ve gotten from calligraphy. 

AB: So now when you write normally, has that changed or is that the same?

SC: Not so much. 

AB: So that’s the same, that hasn’t changed. 

SC: It’s not like that. It’s a little bit of a myth, when people think that you need good handwriting to do calligraphy. Not so much, because I do think they’re quite different. So in the office, at my studio, we use all our glass doors to write, and I write with the whiteboard markers, and people can’t understand it, and they’re like, ‘Sanjana, this is a disgrace, you’re a calligrapher!’ And I was like, It doesn’t matter. 

AB: They are two different things. 

SC: Yeah. 

AB: And you were talking about your workshops and you said people of all age groups were joining in. So were they doing it as a hobby or was there an end goal?

SC: It was a mix of both. So I had a lot of people coming in saying it was just for fun for themselves. Someone lost her husband and she said, ‘I need something to just get into and find peace with, and I love art, so I thought, why not calligraphy?’ Someone wanted to just do something on the side for fun. Someone enjoyed writing letters. Someone enjoyed poetry so much that she wanted to learn to be able to write poems in calligraphy.

AB: Wow. 

SC: So it’s so nice to see different people’s objectives and what they want out of it. And then there were a lot of people who did say that, I enjoy it, I like the look of it. I think I want to pursue it professionally. The only thing I would tell people was that, please don’t decide that you want to make this a career path until you’ve spent a couple of years with it to see if you enjoy it or not.  

AB: Okay. 

SC: Because a lot of people come in to learn calligraphy and think it’s very easy. Especially because of Instagram today, people speed up the videos and add all these effects, and it looks so easy. And also, the better you get at it, you do it more effortlessly, which makes it look easier. 

AB: Absolutely. 

SC: And then people think, oh, that’s easy, I can do that too. 

AB: So the calligraphy that I’ve seen was with bamboo on rice paper. But tell me about your Copperplate calligraphy. What equipment do you need for it?

SC: So, for Copperplate calligraphy, we use paper. So you want to use nice calligraphy-friendly paper. 

AB: Like normal paper?

SC: We call it calligraphy-friendly paper, so it doesn’t blot, because we apply a lot of pressure. So even the ink and the paper need to be calligraphy-friendly. The paper should be non-coated paper, so it should be just natural paper. We use archival paper, watercolor paper. I do use handmade paper also, but even then, you don’t want it to be handmade paper that has too many fibers because your nib can get caught in it. We use a nib, which is also a flexible nib— a metal or steel nib, and a holder, which is usually wooden, and ink. So my favorite ink is Japanese, actually. It’s called Sumi-e ink. And Sumi-e ink is a famous Japanese ink that actually has a beautiful story. It’s made from the soot that comes out from the chimneys of the temples. 

AB: Oh wow. 

SC: Well, originally. 

AB: Oh, originally. 

SC: Now sadly, it’s made in lots of different ways, but originally that’s how it was made. And then it was like a year long process to actually make these ink sticks, is what they would call it. So even for calligraphy, it’s a great ink to use. So I was in the UK earlier last year for four months, learning with an amazing calligrapher in Brighton.  

AB: Okay. 

SC: And he had spent a lot of time in Japan— my teacher, Ewan Clayton. So he would tell us a lot about just the Japanese and calligraphy and how it’s a calligrapher’s paradise. 

AB: Yes, I believe so. And in terms of what you’ve told me… so if I was to come to you, right, as someone who’s never done calligraphy, you would say to me, it will take a year and a half to two years. Is that what you said? Before it looks like calligraphy. Is that right? 

SC: Not really. So I think, again, this is quite subjective and based on each person’s ability to grasp concepts or how much time you practice for, and how much time you want to dedicate to learning this script. I’ve had students whose work looks stunning in the first few weeks, and I’ve had people who’ve taken a couple of months but consistent practice to get there. So it is a bit subjective. Of course, your work is not going to look amazing on day one, and that’s natural. And you’ll notice it keeps getting better and better with time. And I think that’s what’s really beautiful about it, because you can track your progress and your strokes become more precise, your angles, and it’s all about building muscle memory. That’s what it is. Because we work on guidelines and what the name suggests— they’re lines that guide us. 

AB: Right. 

SC: And you want to keep repeating what you’re doing to build that memory in your hand muscles, to create the ovals in a certain way or to follow a particular angle.

AB: So that it becomes natural. 

SC: Exactly. Today, I can pick up a pen without my guidelines, and I will write it exactly at 55 degrees because that’s the angle Copperplate is written at. Or whether I’m doing another style called Spencerian, which is American cursive, which is a much younger script because it came from the US in the 19th century. And that angle is 52 degrees. So I’m writing at 52 degrees. 

AB: Oh, my God. That kind of precision? 

SC: And then if you go into, like, Gothic or Blackletter or Broad Edge— again, European, it’s upright. So you’re writing at 90 degrees, but your nib’s at another angle of 30 degrees. You’re focusing on two angles. So it really is like you’re jumping. When you’re moving between scripts, you’re moving between different rules. And just like art, where today you can identify an M.F. Hussain, you can identify a Raza, you know these pieces; even with calligraphers today I can see pieces of work and I know that it’s done by a certain master pen. 

AB: Oh my God. Amazing. 

SC: Yeah. Because over time you develop your own style and you add your own flavor and you add your own touch. So when I’m talking to my students as well, of course, in the beginning your objective is to just copy the exemplar and make it look identical. So you want to understand the fundamentals and get that right. But over time, you now have the liberty to play with the rules, bend the rules, add your flavor, add your style, add a little bit of you into the work to make it unique. 

AB: And at what age would you recommend people to start?

SC: So I do teach kids and it’s actually amazing to see the way kids have taken to it. And I’ve taught eight to twelve year olds, but I teach them something called brush calligraphy, which uses brush-like markers, so it’s easier. And I’ve had parents tell me I’ve never seen my child glued to the screen for 3 hours when I would do online classes. 

AB: Right. 

SC: But for a pointed pen and working with the nib and ink and all of that, I like to say 14 and up because that’s when, I also feel there’s a little bit of maturity, which is required for an art like calligraphy. And I feel like from what I’ve seen with my students, 14 has been a good age. 

AB: Okay, wonderful. And one last question. Sanjana, what about where have you seen calligraphy help your clients, your students the most, in terms of development of the brain? What areas have you seen that’s helped them?

SC: So I definitely feel people find it therapeutic, of course. So I think it’s calming more than anything else. I think I’ve had people who’ve had anxiety come to me and say that calligraphy has actually calmed my anxiety. I’ve had a client whose hands used to shake a lot and she just had like, really bad jitters, and she would tell me that once I focused on my breathing, adjusted my strokes and my hand and all of that, I’ve actually realized that the shakiness has gone. So different places, I guess, but a lot of people have said, it’s calming and it’s meditative. I feel it’s definitely helped me with attention to detail, more focus, more precision, and I see that with a lot of my students as well. 

AB: Wonderful. What a lovely chat. Thank you for your time.  Sanjana. To recap very quickly, what are the benefits of calligraphy for the mind, you just told me. 

SC: It’s calming, it’s super therapeutic, you will be more focused, and I think your attention to detail will really increase. 

AB: How long does it take to become a master calligrapher?

SC: Years and years and years. Take it slow. Don’t rush it. 

AB: Thank you for taking the time to be here, Sanjana. And thank you to the listeners for listening in. I hope you learned something today. I hope you learned something new, and I hope we’ve got you a little closer to leading a happier, healthier life. If you enjoyed our show, please take a minute to like it, share it with your friends, and press the subscribe button. Thank you.