In August 2015, Sanjana Chatlani had just started her career as a marketing assistant for Moet Hennessy with vigour and enthusiasm of a fresher. Having just completed undergraduate studies in media and communication from Mumbai University, she was sure to put in the hard work and climb the corporate ladder.
Sanjana did not have the faintest idea that exactly three and a half years later, she would quit the same job, discover a passion for calligraphy and hand lettering, and set off on a meticulously planned entrepreneurial adventure.
“I have always been creatively inclined but never thought I could pursue it professionally or make money or business out of it,” she tells HerStory.
Now running The Bombay Hand Lettering Company, she is one of the best-known calligraphers and hand lettering artists in India, having worked with clients like Jimmy Choo, Michael Kors, Rolex, The Wedding Filmer, The Ritz Carlton, LVMH, Future Group, Tata Zoya, Gucci, Louis Vuitton, Tiffany and Co, and Google India, among others. She was also the calligrapher for the wedding of Priyanka Chopra and Nick Jonas in India.
Nurturing passion into business
While working for a luxury company as a marketing professional, the personalisation of every gift and product was unmissable. That is when she also noticed a professional calligrapher who came to the office frequently just to write on all the cards and gift tags.
“There, I saw the application of calligraphy in a more commercial sense,” Sanjana says, adding that it rekindled her passion for arts after being in the corporate life and working for 12 hours a day at times.
In 2017, when her family went for a trip to California, Sanjana signed up for a few calligraphy classes in Los Angeles and San Francisco. “I discovered different styles and fell in love. It was calming and meditative with so much attention to detail, and something I had not done in a long time because I was always on the go at work. After returning, I didn’t know what but I wanted to do something with it.”
Calligraphy became a daily part of her life as she practised for three hours every day after work, started an Instagram page for fun, and began working on Diwali and wedding cards for friends and family.
After turning to many online resources, a ten-day retreat to Italy where she learnt different kinds of scripts, and a year of juggling small projects alongside her full-time job, Sanjana decided to quit her job in mid-2018.
“Even then when it was just me, I called it The Bombay Lettering Company because the vision was to build something big,” she says.
Heeding to the market needs
Sanjana Chatlani, Founder, The Bombay Lettering Company
The boutique studio’s primary business was carrying out commission work for corporate clients, events, weddings, and other occasions.
After discussing client requirements, it takes care of everything — from ideation to execution of lettering, illustrating, printing, and packaging, “all hand-scripted and illustrated,” Sanjana emphasises.
Starting with zero investment but with commission earned from projects, Sanjana says word-of-mouth through friends, family, and former colleagues played a huge role. Being an early-mover also helped her understand the needs of a niche calligraphy space in the country.
Sanjana initially had a hard time getting the right tools for calligraphy in India and had to source from friends and family members abroad. In early 2018, she decided to bridge the gap by attaining an import licence and reached out to major brands abroad whose products were not available in India and set up an ecommerce wing as well.
Now, the startup is also focusing on educating people in calligraphy by offering workshops to different groups of people, including autistic children. With the pandemic giving an unprecedented rise to online learning, her workshops did “phenomenally well in the past year and a half”. Sanjana hopes to build the online learning space further.
Having gradually expanded into ecommerce and education vertical, the artist says she has become her own competitor of sorts. Although facing little market competition at the moment, she welcomes more players in the field as “the more of us means the bigger market and more demand for this art form.”
An initial challenge was also educating the people. “People did not understand and would ask how one can do anything with calligraphy. It is very visual, you have to show people what you could do. I realised that apart from being an artist and also trying to become an entrepreneur, so much of corporate work came in handy,” she adds.
Living the dream
From being a one-woman army, which was difficult for Sanjana who is a people’s person, to hustling from home, she moved to a studio space only when she had steady projects and was sure she could afford rent every month. Now working with a team of two full-time and two part-time workers, Sanjana is able to delegate the administration-related work and find time to focus on the artwork.
Come January 2022 and Sanjana will set off to the UK to study calligraphy further with a senior calligrapher for three months. Her belief is that a lifetime will not be enough to learn all there is to the art and different kinds of scripts.
Continuing to enhance one’s skills is something any aspiring calligrapher must not compromise on.
She further advises, “You can be a great artist, but if you are not able to market yourself or explain what you are doing, it won’t take you where you would like to be.”
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