Saturday, January 20, 2001

Calligraphic texts:
A tradition that found no feet in India
By G.S. Cheema

THE very suggestion may seem provocative but the thought occurred to me while I was leafing through a catalogue of Sotheby’s on Islamic art. Why, I asked myself, had I never seen books in the Indian languages as lovely as those illustrated in the catalogue? Plenty of beautiful books—Korans as well as other secular works were produced in the Mughal court, and among them were translations of Indian classics like the Mahabharata as well, but these were invariably in Persian or Arabic. In the same period books were being produced in Devnagri and other indigenous scripts in the courts of the princes of Rajputana (though rarely as beautiful), but there are virtually no books from the period anterior to the Turkish conquest.

I can anticipate the explanation. Mahmud of Ghazni, Muhammad bin Qasim, the Huns, Yueh-Chi, Sakas, Kushanas, and other sundry invaders, are all responsible. And books are so easily destroyed. But the explanation is suspect. The history of Iran has been no less violent. After the overthrow of Achemanidae by Alexander, there was a succession of other foreign conquerors — Parthians, Arabs, Turks and Mongols. Iran had barely recovered from the last when Timurleng burst upon the scene, and the mournful cycle of rape and destruction repeated itself.


A page from the Gutenberg Bible; the first book to be printed using moveable type in Europe, 1455. It was only under the house of Safi, the first native dynasty in 800 years, that Persia received a respite. But it was shortlived and the Safavids decayed even faster than our Mughals. The period of the Afghan usurpation and Nadir Shah was one long nightmare, and it was only gradually, after a century of anarchy, that the Qajars restored tranquillity. But by the middle of the next century the unfortunate country was again prostrate, virtually partitioned between Britain and Russia.

But Iranian civilisation survived. Beautifully illustrated books, as good as those produced by the monks of the Dark Ages of Europe still exist, and regularly come up for sale in the auction houses of the world. Then there is pottery, slip-ware and lustre-ware, polychrome and monochrome, and splendid examples of metal work and enamels. So I refuse to buy the argument that Mahmud of Ghazni and his ilk are responsible for the dearth of old Indian books today.

We do have books from ancient times but they belong to the class of curiosa rather than art. I am referring now to the palm leaf manuscripts, still commonly found in eastern India. In the interior where the palmyra palm was not to be found, they used birch bark (bhoj patra) or handmade paper. But it would be straining credibility to call those loose bundles of leaves books. The sheets or pages were long and narrow and never bound, and they were stored wrapped in cloth bastas between wooden boards. These books could not be read reclining in bed. Illustrations were few, and because of the restricted space, fairly rudimentary.

There is, curiously, very little fine calligraphy in any of the Indian scripts. The Arabic script, on the other hand, has nearly a dozen well recognised styles — the Kufic,Naskh, Muhaqqaq, Nastaliq, Maghribi, Andalusian, Valencian, Bihari, and so on. In the world of Islam, a fine hand or khatt was a mark of education, and people collected samples of calligraphy which were — and still are — as highly valued as Old Master paintings in Europe. For instance, this catalogue of Sotheby’s, which I have, lists an illuminated album of Nastaliq calligraphy, by one Mir Ali of Bokhara. It consists of only six leaves, with three lines on each page. Once a part of the Imperial Mughal library, today it carries a pre-auction estimate of £ 30,000 to £ 50,000! Maybe the Perso-Arabic script lends itself more easily to calligraphic innovation, but even the dull Roman or Latin script has several calligraphic variants which were prevalent during different periods. There is nothing comparable in any of the Indian scripts.

In India the basic tradition was oral, which explains why we have so few really ancient texts of the Vedas or the great epics, in spite of their undoubted antiquity. Instead we had pundits and families of pundits who specialised in one or more of the scriptures. They had them memorised, and if one needed to refer to some other text one usually had to consult another pundit. There were hardly any books; the manuscripts were more in the nature of aides-memoire rather than definitive texts.

Knowledge was power, and hence jealously guarded. Most of the kings were illiterate too; hence there was no question of the ruler commissioning great works like the famous illustrated books produced by the artists and calligraphists working in the scriptoriums of the Mughal emperors. So even the Hindi manuscripts of the sixteen and seventeenth centuries are drab and unexciting as compared to Persian and Arabic texts produced about the same time. They are relatively plain and utilitarian, meant to be used by owner-scholars, rather than hoarded by collectors.

This is so even in the case of the Guru Granth Sahib, the sacred scripture of the Sikhs. This is surprising, because the Sikhs accord a very high status to their holy book.

Of course the same old excuses will be trotted out — the subaltern character of the Gurus’ followers, their relative illiteracy, and the struggles which the young faith had to wage against the hostile Mughals and Afghans. Add to this the peculiar method which the Sikhs adopted for disposing of aged copies of their sacred texts — they were either ceremonially cremated on a funeral pyre or cast into the waters of a river. But these again cannot be the real reason. Surely during the time of Maharaja Ranjit Singh some beautifully illustrated texts must have been prepared, and some at least would have survived?

A manuscript of the Koran from Iran, dated 1054.If so I have yet to see them — at least there are none comparable to the great manuscripts of Islam or Western Christendom. Nor do you find comparable books elsewhere in India. The custom of dumping old manuscripts into streams and rivers is nearly universal in this country. I came across an observation in a professional journal devoted to conservation, that there was a superstition that old manuscripts in a house could prove harmful to the family. They were supposed to attract malevolent spirits! When I narrated this to another collector, he confirmed that this was indeed the case, and that several otherwise intelligent people had suggested that the reason why he had not been blessed with a son was probably because of the old manuscripts he was so fond of collecting. So much for our famous civilisation!

Thus many an old manuscript has been discovered — not in an old library, as one would normally expect — but in river sands! Such was the case with Buranji, an early history of Assam, which was found on the banks of the Brahmaputra. The manuscript has since been published and is now known after its finder as the history of Sukumar Mahanta.

The great Celtic texts like The Book of Kells were produced by Irish monks living in spartan monasteries in the seventh and eighth centuries at a time when Ireland was being revaged by Viking raiders. These were the Dark Ages in Europe, when even the castles of princes were cold and dreary places, bereft of carpets or tapestries. The monks were not commissioned to produce those lovely manuscripts, they produced them for art’s sake, and maybe as a personal act of devotion. They counted on the books being treasured and preserved long after they had died. Their labours were for posterity.

In India this was rarely a consideration. It would seem that after the decay of the Mughal house, there was no market left for beautiful books. The first printed books were plain to the point of being ugly. Instead of using moveable type, Munshi Nawal Kishore, one of the early pioneers of printing in India, opted for the litho-press. The paper was nearly as bad as newsprint and the only consideration which apparently weighed with the publishers was cost. It would seem that no Indian was prepared to spend an extra anna on something so useless as books.

These early books published by Munshi Nawal Kishore are an embarrassment when compared to the Gutenberg Bible, the Mainz Psalter or other early products of the printing press in Europe. Of course there were other printing presses set up by Europeans in India such as the Baptist Press at Serampore, but their products were essentially for the Anglo-Indian reader. Maybe the impoverishment of the Muslim gentry that followed the suppression of the Mutiny was partly responsible, but that cannot be entirely correct, since the Mutiny had little effect in the Deccan.

At the cost of making a sweeping statement, I feel that most Indians have little interest in books. The Muslim gentry in the South were too few in numbers, and the others were indifferent. Our caste system had allocated learning to the Brahmins who were least interested in loosening their monopoly and broadening the base of the educated. It may seem ironical, but notwithstanding our claims to a superior civilisation, we owe the popularisation of the book — that invaluable vehicle of culture and learning — to the Mughals and Europeans.