February 14, 2012 11:33 am

Art of calligraphy still inks unique place in increasingly tech-driven world

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TORONTO – When Rajiv Surendra meets new people in his travels who want to stay in touch, he has a key stipulation when it comes to exchanging messages: put them in the post.

“They’ll write to me and they’ll say: `This is the first letter I’ve ever written – but it’s fun,'” Surendra said with a laugh.

“I have a pile of letters at the end of the year, and sometimes, I flip through and open (them) up again. And it feels like that person is right there with me because their hand is on the paper and you can see it in their writing,” he added.

“To me, it’s not about beautiful writing – it’s just about the writing. Their script is part of them.”

Surendra’s affinity for the art of handwriting was cultivated during childhood when he discovered letters from the mid-1800s and was struck by the beauty of the penmanship.

“I just loved the way the letters looked,” he recalled fondly in an interview at Hart House at the University of Toronto, where he majored in art history and classics.

Surendra started to replicate the elaborate script with pencil and pen before discovering the historical tools that helped further propel his delicate penstrokes and fanciful flourishes into an art form.

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“When I started writing with a dip pen – a metal nib into the pen holder – and actual ink, then it really took off – then it started to look like really old world calligraphy,” said Surendra. “The thick and the thin lines that make my writing what it is now only really came into play when I started using the tools that they used back then.”

The self-taught calligrapher and antique buff is also fond of collecting old artifacts, including a writing table from Waterloo, Ont., from the 1800s. He further infuses his work with an old-world flair by using a writing slope.

Surendra said the wooden case that opens up to feature a slanted writing surface was popular in the 1800s. Within his personal writing slope are compartments to store his pen, nib, ink, seals, sealing wax and paper, allowing him to take his portable desk on the road.

Surendra now has his own business, Letters In Ink, with the bulk of his work dedicated to addressing envelopes for wedding invitations. He also designs monograms for use in everything from embossing stationary to embroidering on pillowcases. But not all of his work is permanently preserved, such as writing chalkboard menus in restaurants.

With few opportunities for people to put pen to paper beyond signing cheques and receipts, Surendra believes the increasing rarity of handwriting in a digital world is a prime reason why there’s still a place for calligraphy.

“It just so happens that we are in a time right now that billions of messages are sent by machines every day, so when you do get something in the mail … that has been beautifully written out by hand, it says something that the words on the page don’t say,” he said.

“It says that I’ve taken the time and the effort to stop what I’ve been doing, to sit down to tell you something on paper. And that’s why it’s so special.”

Surendra has had some unexpected reactions among those who marvel at his skills. While showcasing his talents at an event at The Paper Place, a Toronto paper and crafting supply store, and at the recent Wedding Co. Show in the city, Surendra saw women shed tears as they looked at his work.

“I choose not to think about where my work is going to be in 10 years or how this fits into society now or 10 years ago. I just do it and I don’t think about it,” Surendra said. “And I think that that’s part of the reason why it’s received so much recognition from people is because it is this strange thing that you don’t really see very often, and it’s so true to what it is. It’s not trying to be anything that it’s not.”

Surendra recently joined the International Association of Master Penmen, Engrossers and Teachers of Handwriting, or IAMPETH. At least a dozen Canadians are among more than 700 active members, and Surendra plans to head to the group’s convention in Wisconsin this August.

The international not-profit association has Canadian origins. A group of master penmen met at Lake Nipissing, Ont., in 1950 forming the International Association of Master Penmen and Teachers of Handwriting, and the second annual meeting was held in Ottawa the following year. The “E” was added in 1973 to recognize the contribution of engrossers, who do the lettering on formal documents such as deeds, diplomas and degrees.

IAMPETH president Debi Zeinert, a calligrapher for 35 years, said the group mostly comprises hobbyists, with members spanning a wide age range from young people up.

The convention will include instruction from master penman and calligraphers, and is open to all group members – even those who haven’t picked up a pen, she said.

“We’re trying to preserve it,” said Zeinert. “That’s the whole premise behind our group is that we love what we do.”

“We are artists. It’s not handwriting. Calligraphy is drawing – drawing with a pen – and we work really hard to keep it alive.”

Online:

Letters In Ink: http://www.lettersinink.com

IAMPETH : http://www.iampeth.com

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