Reviving the Art of Letter Writing: Artist Sumedha Sah on the Snail Mail Project

Yamini Vijayan

As a child, as a teenager, and even until a decade ago, I wrote many letters: to my cousins in Madras through the year until I saw them every summer, pining letters to boyfriends, and as I grew older, to the friends I desperately missed. Over the last month or so, I’ve been putting off writing a letter to a friend—never quite feeling in the mood, or not having the right paper, or as an editor, just tired of words sometimes. When I finally managed to put pen to paper, it felt familiar and unfamiliar all at once, but my mind was racing, and my pen wasn’t able to keep up. I missed the delete button.

At a certain point, when I stopped worrying about the right things to say, the words finally flowed. I was surprised at what I chose to write, what I considered worth putting on paper, to someone I hadn’t been in touch with. Would they be interested in the mundane details of my life? There’s something that feels unmistakably intimate when you write a letter, especially now, in the age of email fatigue. Writing a letter can be soothing and meditative, and to receive one is to know that you mean something to someone, even if you’re strangers. And, the anticipation that it creates feels like a rare gift.

Which is why I was drawn to Sumedha Sah’s Snail Mail Project, a reminder of the pleasures of slowness. Started in 2016, the architect and illustrator began the project to revive connections, and a slowly dying art form: letter-writing. Sumedha invites people around the world to write letters to her, in return for which she makes them a related and original piece of art. As of today, she has received over 100 letters from people across the world.

At Dark ‘n’ Light, we’ve been seeking stories of revival while also asking questions about the very notion of revival. What does revival mean to different people? What do we choose to revive? Does the core of what we revive stay the same even as we reimagine it? While featuring Sumedha’s work, we decided to also participate in The Snail Mail Project. Susan Mathews, the founder of Dark ‘n’ Light, wrote to Sumedha from Lofoten Islands in Norway, while on a restorative break.

The letter from Susan Mathews, the founder of Dark ‘n’ Light, to Sumedha Sah.

About the letter, Sumedha said, “Susan’s letter smells of the Norwegian sea. It speaks about a woman’s journey into the heart of nature in order to prepare for a difficult time in her life. Her letter describes her time drenched in the unbelievable beauty of the Lofoten islands—an experience that slowly and remarkably heals her mind, body and spirit. For her, I created a three-part visual narrative of her escapades, and called it The Pilgrimage.”

We spoke to Sumedha about what the project means to her, the kinds of letters she receives, and why she thinks the exchange of handwritten letters even matters at a time when we can just send texts.

Read excerpts from our conversation:

What is it about letter-writing that you are most drawn to?

What I find endlessly charming about the act of letter-writing is the tangibility of a letter, and the fact that it has to make a journey to reach the recipient.

A letter has its own unique existence, it is a sort of inheritance. It preserves the present, simply, in a folded piece of paper slid into a stamped envelope. 

Tell us about some of the letters you have received, and how you’ve gone about creating art in return. How do you approach it?

Till now, I have received about 100 letters from all over the world from places like Japan, Singapore, New Zealand, Turkey, U.K, Scotland, Poland, Canada, Micronesia and many parts of India. Once I receive the letter, I spend time reading and re-reading it. A letter has many layers, and to understand those takes time. It usually takes me about a week to 10 days to arrive at a composition that relates to the written word.

Here are a few letters I’ve received:

 Armandeep works in the Indian postal services in Chandigarh. An enviable job, which I would very much like to have. When I think of her, I can’t help but wonder of all the letters she holds, sorts, and helps push along to their destinations. Does she ever wonder about the stories inside them? I drew a portrait of her and her beloved letters, dreaming of the stories they contain.

An ode to a Poplar tree comes all the way from the city of the Hague in the Netherlands. Milenka reminisces about the two majestic poplar trees rooted around her house, supporting an ecosystem of birds and bees. A cosmos she would wake up to everyday. A yellow dot appeared one day, and was responsible for the two brothers’ demise, and the demise of the life that they reinforced. Then one day, she heard a chatter of starlings only to look down and see resilience in the form of a sprouting leaf. It’s hard to flee the popularity of a poplar tree, she ends.

Yuka fills the envelope with flowers from her father’s garden in Japan. There are hydrangeas, carnations, wild daisies, purple larkspurs, yellow zinnias, and many more unknown to me. In her letter, she writes about the importance of taking the leap. 

She left behind a secure job in London for love, and found herself travelling half the world on a bicycle with her husband. Her stories are incredible, they speak of kindness and empathy in the strangers they meet on their journey.

Did you write and receive a lot of letters growing up?

My father and I used to write to each other regularly, and I would look forward to this exchange. In fact, last year, when I was home during the Covid-19 pandemic, I found my whole stash of letters, and it was a joy to read through them. There must have been about a hundred letters and cards from friends and family.

What kickstarted the idea of this project for you? Was it a particular letter, or memory?

I started this project in 2016 when I got married, and moved to Bombay for the first time. The project happened partly because I was looking for human connection in a strange city, and partly because I wanted to revive my love for letter writing and art.

Why do you think the exchange of handwritten letters matters at a time when we’re drowning in emails?

There’s something about slow living in this fast-paced world that is enticing. And although emails may be quick and useful in many ways today, there is no doubt about the value of a slow and personalised way of communication, and the promise of handwritten exchange even after you’re gone.

Since you receive letters from several people, some of whom are strangers, have there been any revelations about what people choose to write about?

Each letter is different—some talk about themselves, some are about books people have read or journeys they’ve recently taken, some are about love, and some are about secrets. Secrets that are rarely told to anyone.

What do you most look forward to in a letter?

I love reading about people’s personal stories. As an artist, I believe we all have a story to tell, the story of our lives as we are living it. It is the personal which attracts me the most in a letter. It makes it authentic and relatable.

Are there any other letter-writing projects that you turn to for inspiration?

I quite enjoy Letters of Note, an online museum of correspondence which celebrates letters. They also have a weekly newsletter which highlights an engrossing collection of the world’s most entertaining, inspiring and powerful letters from throughout history.

What are the challenges of working on a project like this, one that has such a strong emotional aspect as well?

It’s been six years since I started this project, and occasionally, there is a letter that is emotionally draining for me, as an artist. Not every letter is easy to respond to, and some come with deep emotional baggage. As a creator, I want to be able to acknowledge that, and not ignore it. Being able to express the sentiment of the letter-writer, and convey it in a simple visual can occasionally be challenging.

Do you see this project carrying on in the same way, or do you have any plans on making changes to it?

I like how the project is going, and I don’t think I wish to make any changes to it simply because there’s no reason to. However, in the future, I would like to see it grow into new forms, like maybe an exhibition or a book.