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A calligrapher’s Nobel dreams

Annika Rucker is the woman who makes the monograms on each year’s Nobel citations. Shalini Singh reports.

delhi Updated: Oct 31, 2010 01:04 IST
Shalini Singh

Novelist VS Naipaul got an insect-shaped one, playwright Derek Walcot got his in the form of a lotus, while writer Toni Morrison received a large hips-shaped one… We’re referring to individual monograms that these Nobel laureates received in their prized diplomas, which were all carefully crafted by Annika Rucker, 68, the official calligrapher for the Nobel Prize since 1988.

Rucker was in the capital this week for the India-Sweden Nobel Memorial Week and shared her journey of being a master calligraphist ever since she started out as a young artist with her graphic designer father in Sweden. Rucker has single-handedly written and monogrammed 174 Nobel diplomas in 22 years including the ones for Amartya Sen, VS Naipaul and Venkatraman Ramakrishnan.

At first, Rucker comes across as highly-strung and wired — the reason, you figure, is her all-consuming job. There are no second takes in crafting these diplomas. Every year, like the rest of the world, Rucker hears the Nobel winners’ announcement over radio/TV and immediately sets to work in her picturesque Vienna house designed by her architect sister. She researches the category of the prize, the winner’s background and his/her subject and puts her quill to paper, much like a musician putting notes to his music.

She plays with colours and shapes and forms of the letters. In this digital age, Rucker says she has never used a computer, and rues that calligraphy/handwriting is a dying art in the world today.

"I feel like a professional pianist whose soul and hands must work together," she smiles, as she readies to go back for preparing this year’s nine citations, which will be given out in Stockholm in December.

The Nobel citation is a work of art itself, which contains a commissioned painting by a prominent Swedish artist, details about the recipient and his prize as well as the specially crafted monogram.

Rucker designs the monogram on paper which she then ships to the bookbinder by regular post who makes an alloy mould. It is then embossed on parchment made of young goat’s skin. Her tools include goose feathers for regular letters and swan feathers for the broader ones.

"I want to experiment with the Indian bamboo someday," she says. Morrison’s citation, which includes a map of America, is one of her favourites.

"What struck me about Morrison was her large size, which I incorporated into her monogram," says this calligrapher who gets "sleepless nights, palpitations and cold sweats" till her work for the year is over.

"When I’m working, I don’t invite friends over, I don’t even embrace/hug people for the fear of catching a cold since I can’t afford to fall sick…".

Rucker doesn’t have a family of her own, which she says affords her to put all her time and energy into her art. "The diplomas are like my children — they are in every part of the world and that makes me proud," she says. When not working, Rucker paints roses (her favourite flower), goes on treks and listens to classical music.

A Nobel citation for her work someday? "I’m like the shoe-maker. Everyone only admires the shoe, no one asks about him," she smiles.