Ink and wonder

Sunil Manghani and his young daughter find quietude as apprentice calligraphers practising the Japanese art of shodo, the way of writing

April 15, 2010

I may not be a medical doctor, but there are occasions when I feel I've sent my students away with a prescription. On a sheet of paper I will have scrawled a book title, an author's name or even just a shelf mark, but the information is like a short-course remedy helping them on their way. However, the analogy with a prescription is complete only because those marks are as indecipherable as the proverbial doctor's handwriting.

I have taken to reading aloud to my students the comments I have made on their essays for fear they will not be able to read my writing (indeed, I find myself faltering as I scan the lines). I wince at my cover sheets on assignments as I sort out a sample for the external examiner, and my "spider sense" starts tingling the moment I go near a whiteboard. Yet there has long been something special for me about the accoutrements of writing.

At school I was a year ahead of my class in mastering joined-up handwriting and I was the first to graduate from pencil to pen. My mother passed down to me her first fountain pen. It was a simple silver-barrelled Parker. The shaft was oddly shaped - the result of my mother's heavy use as she frantically completed a degree as a mature student, with two young sons in tow. I couldn't get enough of writing in ink. So much so that I developed a callus on my forefinger, shaped to match the pen. And I carried a bottle of ink with me wherever I went, since my pen, unlike those of my classmates, did not use cartridges. Instead it had an ink reservoir with a patented capillary filling system.

So what happened, you may well ask. Somewhere along the way I lost the habit of good handwriting. The market was flooded with cheap writing instruments and the impatience of my adolescent mind served to thoroughly undermine any elegance I may have once had. And if that weren't enough, along came word processors and email.

Against the odds, then, it has been a great pleasure to find a little reprieve from the computer keyboard and all things new media. Every other week, my daughter and I ascend the narrow steps to the modest studio of a Japanese artist. The studio, situated on top of a garage at the artist's home, is equipped especially for teaching calligraphy and ceramics. And there we sit, our aprons on, ready to be instructed in the art of shodo, the "way of writing" with a brush.

Two places are set, each with fude (bamboo-handled brushes), suzuri (an inkstone in which the ink collects), sumi (a stick of black ink which is rubbed in a little water on the inkstone to produce a black liquid), hanshi (calligraphy paper, of a very fine, tissue-like quality), shitajiki (an underlay made from dark felt) and an all-important bunchin (paperweight). Each session lasts an hour and a half, during which I sit in quiet concentration (along with my daughter who is only five), loading ink upon a soft brush, attempting to paint the most rudimentary Chinese and Japanese characters.

In our first class we painted only three simple, horizontal lines, as used in Chinese characters to denote the numbers one to three. We sat for the entire duration of the class trying out the same lines again and again. Sheets of fine, thin paper amassed around us, laid out to dry on old newspaper; each with the same horizontal lines, yet each markedly different. It is amazing, when attempting to fashion the same form over and over again, how much variation you begin to see. You feel, quite palpably, the way in which the mind and body, while intertwined, operate almost independently. In our second class we moved on to three vertical lines, evenly spaced, but different in length. Again the same careful attempts were made and again the room filled with our experiments. In this way we have gradually progressed to more complex characters.

Shodo is not simply the art of calligraphy; it is redolent of a whole Zen-inspired philosophy associated with martial arts and other Japanese art traditions such as Noh theatre, the tea ceremony, rock gardens and ceramics. William Reed, in his book Shodo: The Art of Coordinating Mind, Body and Brush (1989), argues that the brush integrates the mind and body. "It not only renews the self within," he writes, "but offers a visible trace of this renewal, in the form of balanced characters and well-executed strokes." He calls it "a powerful tool in an age of alienation".

Reed remarks how it "usually takes a crisis, within or without, to bring latent talent to the surface. In Japanese, a crisis (kiki) is known as a dangerous opportunity." If we understand alienation as a "state of disintegration" that can be confronted through the combined and disciplined forces of our mental and physical faculties, then we can consider how calligraphy ("sometimes referred to as the last martial art") can help focus on the positives of any given crisis. It brings to the self coordination, order and calm.

It was both a (personal) crisis and a serendipitous opportunity (in meeting our instructor) that led me and my daughter to take up the "way of writing". Setting aside the potential benefits of the Zen claims made for shodo, it has been a great joy simply to find time with my daughter for something as peaceful, creative and fun as ink painting.

There are doubtless reasons why I have been drawn to Japanese calligraphy in particular. My love of writing and writing tools is one, of course, but also I've long had an affection for Roland Barthes' little-known book about his travels in Japan, Empire of Signs (originally published in 1970), and I have enjoyed numerous visits to the country myself. I once watched, quite spellbound, a demonstration of calligraphy. I was mesmerised by how black the black ink is - how a sense of "other" dimension seems to ebb and flow as it slides about the inkstone and in that moment it is taken up by the paper. There is something so simple about Japanese calligraphy, yet it is so rich in style and expressiveness.

In a museum in Tokyo, I was fortunate enough to be shown the well-known Zen-inspired artwork Circle, Triangle and Square by Sengai Gibon. This ink painting seems merely to depict a square (or rather a rectangle), a triangle and a circle in a single row, each shape overlapping slightly with the one next to it. Yet if you look closer it is apparent that the ink tones, rather than a single consistency of black or grey, fluctuate between the shapes, a difficult technical achievement in the medium. Furthermore, each shape has been drawn with a single gesture of the brush. There is a controlled freedom.

The plain geometric, overlapping forms suggest interconnection, but with no clear meaning. Zen masters would often paint just a circle, and from their writings it is known that the meaning of this singular form may relate to all manner of things, including the Universe, the void, the Moon and even a rice cake. Sengai paints a triangle and a square too, prompting many interpretations, including, for example, the depiction of three forms of Buddhism, three schools of Zen and so forth. Yet, such explanations seem of little benefit. As Stephen Addiss remarks in his book How to Look at Japanese Art (1996), "the actual experience of Sengai's art is what counts, and commentaries are useful only when they take us toward the painting, not away into abstract concepts".

In Barthes' Empire of Signs there is a wonderful photograph: tightly cropped, it shows a beautiful hand holding a bamboo brush in mid-flow. You can sense the artist is kneeling on the paper being worked on and the brush, bristling with ink, is curving in the way it does when a closing flourish is applied (as I have come to learn). On the facing page is a single quote from the avant-garde novelist Philippe Sollers: "Writing, then, rises from the plane of inscription because it results from a recoil and a non-regardable discrepancy ... which divides the support into corridors as though to recall the plural void." I admit I have always taken the two pages to be a satisfying illustration of post-structuralist theory. Yet I realise now, like so much else in the book, all is set in play. Sollers' remarks supplement and yet are undone by the astonishing simplicity of the preceding photograph.

Instead of the grandeur of theory, Barthes, in his later writings, sought a certain "lightness" of ideas. A recurring interest was the Japanese haiku form, wherein, he suggests, we witness everything, yet nothing - only "pure and sole designation. It's that, it's thus, says the haiku, it's so. Or better still: so!" Shodo, I have come to discover, provides many moments of such realisation (although the word itself is too loaded). The "time out" that calligraphy provides is important, but equally one must be in possession of a rare, untrammelled kind of wisdom. It seems that children are far better at this than adults.

It is the custom that the calligraphy teacher uses a bright orange ink to demonstrate what marks are to be made and in what order. Given the vibrancy of the colour and the fact that the teacher makes everything look so easy, these demonstration pieces can be quite arresting. Initially you are asked to work over the top of the teacher's examples, and the orange ink is also used to make corrections over the top of what you have attempted in black. In this way there are a number of interesting results from the two inks mixing; a collision that brings to mind a particularly touching "haiku moment".

"Penguins! Penguins!" my daughter joyfully announced. "Penguins in the sunset!" The teacher and I laughed gently. It was a rather lovely suggestion, but where it came from we didn't really know. And initially at least we did not pay too much attention. But when she cried out with the same wonder again and again, we began to peer at the paper more intently. "Where? Where are these penguins?" I asked. I thought perhaps the bold brush strokes formed a penguin shape, perhaps with the teacher's orange corrections offering up a defining detail, such as a beak or plumage. But that wasn't it. As the deep, dark black ink begins to dry, yet is quickly overlaid with the bright strokes of the teacher's, there is an instance of bubbling. Here were the penguins, plural!

"Here they are," my daughter announced, jabbing her finger excitedly towards the paper, while our teacher, leaning over her shoulder, tried earnestly to continue to elucidate the "way" of writing with her professional strokes and assured tones. In a moment we had to cede to this new wisdom. For sure enough the picture plane (with its bubbling ink) revealed a line of penguins upon a rock, with a low-sunken sunset behind. The teacher rather touchingly remarked how, while she sees the surface of the painting, my daughter appears to enter into its flat dimension as if somehow it were the opening to an entire world - or might that be "corridors as though to recall the plural void"?

I had a conversation with my mother about how things have been going for my daughter at school. I expressed some concern about her reading and handwriting. As any wise grandparent would, my mother sought to quell these fears, replying, "but she's very good with numbers". To which I rejoined, "not necessarily, but she's very good with scissors". I didn't quite intend this as a joke, but we both laughed affectionately, knowing exactly what my daughter is like.

When walking into anyone's house, or even a workplace, my daughter magically seems to locate - in an instant - scissors, sticking tape, glue and a ream of paper. It strikes me that my daughter, along with being "good with scissors", is rather good with brush and ink too. I'm sure that come parents' evening I'll quietly be told a little more effort with forming her letters and reading her schoolbooks would be advisable. And I have no intention of ignoring such advice. But I'd quite like to take along a sample of the sheets of fine paper that I have piling up at home with her wondrous calligraphy. There is great joy, freedom and poise there; mark-making that betrays something far greater than our codified living.

At the close of Michel Foucault's 1970 work The Order of Things, he offers us the remarkable metaphor of (the construct of) man, "erased, like a face drawn in sand at the edge of the sea". It is the end point in an account of how history reveals specific underlying conditions of truth that constitute what is acceptable. What has always been exciting about Foucault's work is the possibility such conditions of discourse change over time, often in sudden shifts (from "dangerous opportunities", perhaps).

Like a film running backwards, my daughter will soon learn the ways of living we've so "expertly" built up around us. Soon, she too will be the model of an ordinary citizen (or thereabouts). The face in the sand will miraculously wash back into view - although thankfully at a pace more akin to time-lapse photography. For now, at least, she teaches me the "way of writing" in a way that I can only ever dream of. And then I pinch myself and find I'm actually wide awake. Of course, staying awake (at which children are expert) is the true art of Zen.

Oh, and just maybe I'll get back to writing a little more legibly.

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