Saturday Features

Celebrating type

  • Ratan Karna claims that he didn’t choose calligraphy—calligraphy chose him
- Abha Dhital

Nov 3, 2018-

In December 2017, Ratan Karna was descending Muldhai Hill—an off-the-beaten-path destination that’s a day’s trek from Ghandruk—when he stopped at a small village for tea. As he sipped away, he noticed a distinct flat rock right outside the hotel and decided to paint a mantra on it. He took his paint and paintbrush out and wrote “Sarve Bhavantu Sukhinah, Sarve Santu Nir-Aamayaah”—may all be happy, may all be free from diseases—in calligraphy.

Pleasantly surprised at how the stone came to life with just these few letters, the owner of the street-side eatery asked if Karna could also paint a couple more things around the premises in exchange for free food. In this small village, calligraphy was an art that was less seen, if at all. Karna, of course, agreed, and before he realised it, villagers were swarming around him to watch him breathe art into the walls and boards they passed every day. Next thing he knew, they were all promising him exceptional hospitality for a whole month should he stay back to make art on various public and private spots across the village. Unfortunately, he had prior commitments and couldn’t stay too long.

They say the arts is probably the least rewarding line of profession, but that doesn’t seem to hold true for Karna, a 31-year-old calligrapher, graphic designer, and visual artist who has been creating art for as long as he can remember. While Ratan did wish he had more time on his hands to make art for and with the villagers, that day he came home with a full heart. How satisfying it must have been to realise that his work was acknowledged and appreciated.

“I make sure my art accompanies me wherever I go,” says Ratan, who is currently in Nepalgunj, his home town. There, he is using his skills to create brand identity for Kalpabriksha—a green café that promotes healthy and sustainable food solutions—through murals, calligraphic artwork, print and digital marketing tools, among others. He is also teaching communication design skills to interns and volunteers involved in the initiative.

Ratan doesn’t like to be defined by one profession or a title. He says he is a little bit of everything, and perhaps anything, that echoes art. “I know a little graphic design and calligraphy, some sketch and painting, and basic photography,” he shares. “I like teaching too. Sometimes, I am even involved in acting and drama. Crafting jewelry is something I want to try.” While it’s ‘earth art’ that he has found himself inclined towards of late, his calligraphic works speak volumes about his affinity with the art form.

“I did not choose calligraphy, calligraphy chose me,” says Ratan. “I feel like the letters I draw are alive and are talking to me in a special language. It’s like with every stroke, they reveal their secrets to me and demand that I dive deeper and deeper.” The artist, who has also recently launched his own font, Khari, says that at times he feels like calligraphy took him into its warm embrace to ‘let him be part of its timeless existence’. “It has taught me many things, but patience most of all,” he says.

Ratan goes back in time to share how he first fell in love with the art of lettering. “A childhood friend once asked me to accompany him to the paint shop where he worked part time. There, he assisted painters and every now and then, painted vehicle number plates.” At the paint shop, Ratan found himself completely fascinated by the skill that went into painting these plates. “Of course, at the time, I didn’t know it was calligraphy,” he says.

In the days that followed, when he showed interest in the art form, Ratan’s father became the first person to give him proper lettering lessons, with beginner’s tools such as a bamboo stick. He confesses how the years that followed were peppered with instances where he used calligraphy for school projects, but never really pursued the art. It was only once he started working as a graphic designer that he learnt what calligraphy is and what it can do.


“A friend once asked me to design posters and a title for a Tibetan language film. The project induced the urge to explore different scripts and the history of written letters,” shares Ratan. Having explored Latin to Devanagari and Ranjana calligraphy, Ratan tried his hand at every beautiful script he came across. Arabic and Chinese calligraphy continues to amaze him. “As amazing as calligraphy is, it’s equally tough too,” he says. “Calligraphy will always be related to spoken language in a certain way and hence, demands some knowledge of the language when drawing on paper.”

For Ratan, regardless of what he is doing, the teaching-learning process plays an important role. Hence, Ratan plans to start a studio where interested people can learn and practice calligraphy in an advanced manner. “I also plan to conduct calligraphic research, practice all 14 scripts that are used in Nepal, and perhaps create more fonts.”

Looking back, Ratan realises he has come a long way. Had you asked the young man, who had just finished his SLC and dared to open up one of the first cyber-cafes in Nepalgunj, if he saw himself living off his art in future, he wouldn’t have dared answer in the affirmative. And yet, here we are.

Born in Tualihawa and raised in Nepalgunj, Ratan came to Kathmandu in 2007 to pursue media studies. In a decade’s time, he has been able to make a name for himself among design and art lovers in the Capital. He attributes most of it to his family: “While nobody really exploited their artistic calibre as a profession, art has always run in the family. My elder brother is a brilliant artist who can instantly paint anything. I remember him earning extra pocket money by painting portraits. He inspired me. Then there’s my mother who specialised in Mithila art. My father used to create upcycled handicrafts. He was also a fine musician who played more than 17 musical instruments.”

Ratan could have ended up a chartered accountant had he complied with his father’s aspirations for him, but the heart wants what it wants. “I didn’t want to calculate and play with numbers all my life,” he says “I wanted to be surrounded by art.”  

Published: 03-11-2018 08:56

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