For the last couple months I’ve been taking a calligraphy class. It’s a slightly surreal experience – a classroom in a local community centre that twice a month fills with mostly older ladies, delighted by the relationship between pen, paper and text. They sit over large pieces of paper, carefully inking out letter upon letter, breaking concentration only for the time honoured traditional tea break. They are a mixed bunch of personalities, but mostly white, middle class – the kind of ladies that used to run girl guides and the local church summer camp.
Most people I tell about my class either don’t know what calligraphy is, or are politely bewildered by my interest in it. It’s true that it’s a seemingly random pursuit – something that in our days of texting and ebooks, seems to have very little purpose or relevance.
But I think that is one of the reasons I like it so much. It is slow, it is painstaking. To go to so much trouble to write something beautifully, demands that it be worthy of reading. This is one of the reasons the art of calligraphy in the Western world flourished in the hands of monks. With plenty of time to spend, a predisposition for quiet, solitary activities and the weighty words of scripture as creative stimulus, they developed the simple act of writing out books by hand into a refined art. In time, whole monasteries would be working to fulfil commissions for copies of the Bible or other sacred texts, which the commissioner may wait years to receive.
It feels timeless – pen, ink, paper, mostly unchanged for millennia. It is meditative, demanding focus and patience. When I practice it, I become more and more aware of how the principles of beauty are the same in every art form, just expressed in different mediums. Learning the form of a letter, understanding the balance required to give a feeling of elegance and proper weight, feels to me the same as learning dance steps, committing them to muscle memory, practicing the arc of a leg or the slide of a foot again and again until effortless grace is achieved. The same goes for the placement of a hand on an instrument, the bending of a musical note, the trill and the glide and the all important pause. Or in cooking, the harmony of colour, flavour, texture, and technique to create the most pleasing result.
The very first project I’m working on, a very humble attempt, is a simple verse from the famous prayers of Queen Kunti. Here my teacher, Sue Llewelyn Elvidge, is teaching me how to layout a design.
Whilst I’ve always had an ardent love for paper and pens, my inspiration to learn what I can of calligraphy was fuelled by my time spent with a person that to me, embodied and exemplified artistry in loving service of God – Yamuna Devi. She was best known in life for her cooking, winning coveted awards, opening a school and presenting Indian vegetarian cooking to the western world in an unparalleled way. But it was only one aspect of her artistic expression. As a child, she excelled at ballet, she studied pottery and calligraphy with great masters in her twenties and was a gifted singer and graphic artist. In each discipline she aimed for excellence, not for her own fulfillment, but because she performed every activity as a heartfelt offering to her Lords, Sri Radha and Sri Krishna.
The last time I visited her before she passed away, I got a chance to see a hand calligraphed book she made, documenting her studies in the temples of Vrindavan in the early 1970s. At that time she was the first and only foreign woman to live there, with great difficulty. The book details her observations in temples that had been practicing the same rituals and methods of worship for centuries – all meticulously recorded and illustrated in black and white. It is a treasure.