Rajiv Surendra’s laptop is an 18th-century rosewood writing desk — the kind of portable writing desk gentlemen of Lincoln’s era, or even the more recent occupants of Downton Abbey, would take with them when they travelled to keep up with their correspondence.
Within the desk are straight pens with hard metal nibs; glass wells of ink; creamy cards and envelopes from Lalo of Paris; and inspirational ephemera such as the tiny print of an old engraving of a Munich square and a handwritten letter from the Duchess of Devonshire in response to a missive Surendra sent inquiring about her chickens.
Courtly of manner and dandily attired in the same obscure gansey-knit sweaters collected by Lincoln actor Daniel Day-Lewis, Surendra still gets recognized on the street for a role he played in Mean Girls with a young Lindsay Lohan.
When Surendra was 12, he was given a pile of old handwritten letters. So compelling did he find the flourishes of the antique handwriting that he spent hours copying each letter into his school notebooks with his HB pencils.
Today he is a much-in-demand calligrapher, whose uniquely atmospheric old-world style graces the menu boards and shop windows of many of the city’s chicest stores and restaurants. The self-taught artist has learned first-hand the power of the beautifully penned word in this digital age.
“I can’t tell you how many CEOs and high-level people I have approached by sending them a handwritten letter rather than an email, and the letter goes right to their desk,” says Surendra. “So many people I have written to told me that they have framed the letter, it was so beautiful. When I was 14 years old, I sent a letter to Martha Stewart and she got right back to me to tell me that it was one of the most beautiful things she had ever received.”
Indeed, the famously picky style diva was not exaggerating. Surendra’s remarkable penmanship is a thing of pure beauty: His self-taught style, which has a charming looseness and embrace of imperfection about it, looks less like the prissy, proper calligraphy that often graces wedding invitations and more like something straight out of the Declaration of Independence or a refined 18th-century engraving.
“I have stayed true to imperfections,” says Surendra, who says that most of the calligraphy we see today is done with the use of a guide beneath the paper to keep the letters uniform and perfectly aligned.
“The ink blobs, the moments the pen catches, all the hard work in writing has to show,” says Surendra. “With all the beautiful fonts people have access to now on their computers, there is no need for perfect, boring calligraphy.”
This past summer, Surendra, a member of the venerable (and adorably named) Association of Master Penmen and Grocers, attended the annual convention for the first time. On the board of the association is the official calligrapher of the White House; during the yearly get-together they run intensive calligraphy workshops. His roommate was a heavily tattooed guy with dreadlocks from Oregon, but most of the attendees were little-old ladies and retirees.
At the workshop, he discovered that he had instinctively learned calligraphy the correct way. “They tell you not to even pick up a pen until you have mastered the fluidity and control with an HB pencil,” Surendra says.
Little old lady practitioners aside, it is clear that ye olde-worlde handwritten script of the kind that Surendra has mastered is having its moment. Since appearing at the Wedding Show in January, where his small, humble wooden laptop demonstration was the runaway hit of the show, Surendra’s work has been busting out across the city.
His elegant chalk menu boards now grace hip and happening restaurants such as King Street’s Weslodge, The Harbord Room, Bellwoods Brewery and the new Rock Lobster on Ossington, as well as stores and cafés such as Pamenar and Sanagan’s meats in Kensington Market.
Surendra has been approached by the likes of Nabob and Kraft Foods to design and execute handworked signs and billboards, and is in discussion with Tiffany and Louis Vuitton to take over the reins as their official calligrapher.
This weekend, he is in New York to attend a 40th birthday party for a hedge-fund manager who is hosting several hundred well-heeled guests at his Fifth Avenue apartment, the former home of Fred Astaire. The invitations, which Surendra designed, and had letter pressed in a faded purple ink, look like royal proclamations one might find under glass in a small, private museum. So precious are they that I fear we might soon lose this rare jewel of refinement to the deep pockets of the Big Apple.
Karen von Hahn is a Toronto-based writer, trend observer and style commentator. Contact her at email@example.com.