Debotri Chatterjee: Calligraphy

For my CIP, I chose to take private lessons in shodo (brush-style calligraphy). The first time I went over to sensei’s house, I expected to simply talk about future lessons and figure out timings for class, etc. To my surprise, I soon found myself staring down at a piece of washi, brush in hand, with both my host mother and sensei looking on expectantly. I wasn’t completely a stranger to the brush, but I’d never done any sort of calligraphy before in my life. Realizing this, sensei showed me how to make a few basic strokes, and then I was on my own again.

This set the tone for all future classes. I’d come in with some kanji I wanted to practice, or sensei would let me pick a phrase from a massive book of kanji and then I’d try to get my writing as close as possible to sensei’s sample. Shodo is a pretty solitary activity – there isn’t much hand-holding or even teaching, really; all your teacher can do is suggest improvements for next time, and then it’s up to you. Which means that in a typical shodo class, there aren’t too many opportunities for conversation.

However, my shodo sensei wasn’t running a formal class; she teaches shodo because she likes it, and likes teaching people. Because of the informal tone of the class, I didn’t get to practice using keigo at all, but I like to think that I had several very interesting conversations with people from very different walks of life – from elementary school kids, to housewives, to even Buddhist monks! Despite being the new ‘gaijin’ in class, it didn’t take me very long to feel very at home among everyone. One thing I noticed in particular was how quickly everyone dropped their formalities around me and began talking to me in casual speech, as they would to a friend.

What did I learn about the Japanese language/culture through my CIP? There are countless things I could talk about, but one aspect I found particularly interesting is the interplay between the usage of different levels of formality in speech. Using different levels comes easily to me, because my native languages (Bengali and Hindi) have a similar speech pattern (with informal, formal and honorific levels). It was interesting to me how similar the usage of these different levels is, comparing Japanese to say, Bengali. For example, in both languages, I’ve noticed that little children can get away with using informal speech, no matter who they’re talking to, but as they get older, it’s no longer acceptable to, say, approach a stranger and begin talking to them at an informal level. Another thing I found particularly interesting is that sometimes, a means of expressing displeasure/disappointment/anger in these languages is to suddenly switch to a more formal way of speaking. My CIP was one of the things this semester that showed me how to use the knowledge I have about other languages, and channel that into learning yet another, just by virtue of understanding the basis behind the language.

Aside from becoming somewhat decent with my brush, I’ve also learnt so much just by being able to interact with people I normally wouldn’t have the chance to meet. My sensei was one of the nicest and most encouraging people I’ve met in Kyoto, and I appreciate how at home she made me feel. Shodo class was one of the highlights of my week through the semester, and I’m so glad I chose to pursue it.

7 thoughts on “Debotri Chatterjee: Calligraphy

  1. I love calligraphy so much! Isn’t it beautiful? But it can be intimidating to put the brush down on that empty white sheet the first time, when you don’t have any experience. I’ve noticed that art teachers in Japan are very fond of the learning by doing method.

    Do you have any recommendations for someone who might be interested in studying shodou next semester?

    • Thanks Nicolle! Shodo is gorgeous, yeah, when done right. I saw a lot of examples of pretty terrible calligraphy in my class and to be honest, some of them were mine!

      For someone interested in shodo, I think the most important thing is to think about is that fact that you’re getting into a fairly solitary activity. Moreover, you’re probably going to be thrown into the deep end straight away, so don’t be intimidated by that – just expect to get a lot better by the end of the semester! Also, I would suggest actually asking your sensei outright for things you want to do (for example, I asked her if I could make my own hanko and we ended up doing that one class period) because I get the impression that they’re not exactly sure what to do with you when you’re here for such a short period of time.

    • (Sorry if this is the second time this shows up. I posted a reply but it never showed up so…)
      Thanks Nicolle! Yes, calligraphy is gorgeous – if done right. To be honest, I have to say that some of my earlier efforts really were not but thankfully I got better!
      As for recommendations for someone interested in pursuing shodo – I guess the most important thing would be to make sure that you come out and ask your sensei directly about things you’d like to do (for example, I wanted to make my own hanko and we ended up doing that one class period). I got the impression that she wasn’t sure about what to have me do, just because of how short my stay is.

  2. It sounds like you had a great experience with your CIP, even if it was a little intimidating at first! It’s good that you were able to gain so much knowledge not only about shodo, but about Japanese culture as well from your project.

    To be honest, I don’t have a real eye for Japanese calligraphy, and I was wondering if you came into the class with any sort of previous knowledge regarding the subject. If not, how did you decide upon the sort of style you wanted to pursue? How do you gain a feel for what style of character is appealing?

    • Thanks Lindsey! I actually came in with absolutely zero calligraphy experience, though I’d gone to art school as a kid so I wasn’t completely inexperienced with a brush. Honestly, the only thing I can say is that you gain a feel for it the more you do it. In general, I’d say confident strokes done in one brushstroke are very pleasing to the eye, as well as just balancing out the character as well as making sure all the characters occupy roughly the same space on the paper.

  3. Thank you for the insight into the similarities between Japanese, Hindi, and Bengali! That’s so interesting to me. Also, that’s nice how the class exposed you to all sorts of people. Did you ever get the chance to have a conversation with the Buddhist monks?
    The atmosphere of your class sounds fascinating, especially the informal nature of it. Glad you had a good time.

    • Thanks Dera! I had such a great time in shodo class, yeah. And yes, I did actually end up talking to one of the monks! Though the conversation was mostly him asking me things, I also got to know a bit about how he got into this in the first place, as well as how he came to be in Kyoto (he’s here for a couple of years researching something). It was really interesting!