Of ‘golden pens’ and others
I have written from time to time about calligraphy, especially that in Arabic and Persian – one of the great gifts that has come to us from the Islamic world – but if I write about it again now, it is with a certain ache. For, in my mind calligraphy of this kind has always been associated with the name of a remarkable scholar whom we lost earlier this year: Ziauddin Ahmed Desai. Desai sahib, as we used to call him, was not simply an epigraphist—a post that he occupied with distinction in the Archaeological Survey of India, till he retired—but a scholar of languages, and all that one associates with them, in the true sense of the word. Everyone, nearly everyone, went back to him whenever a text in Persian or Arabic needed to be read, or understood better; and nearly everyone relied implicitly on his judgment after he had pronounced upon an inscription or shared his interpretation of it. Gentle to a fault in his personal life, he was uncompromising when it came to matters of scholarship, yielding no ground, mincing no words. There was an old-time rigour that he brought to his scholarship: remarkable discipline, and a lifetime of experience. Therefore, whether it is the extended text of the Padshahnama, the minutest ‘signatures’ or attributions to a painter on a Mughal folio, or monumental inscriptions on the early tombs of Gujarat, our understanding of them will always bear the imprint of his wonderfully clear, thoughtful mind.
Some years back, I had
occasion to suggest to the Sarabhai Foundation that the work of
deciphering, and translating, the small but select folios of Islamic
calligraphy it owned, be entrusted to Desai sahib. Like the
Foundation, he was based in Ahmedabad, having settled there after
retirement; and there was no one who knew more about these texts, or
album leaves with elegantly scripted rubai’s and qita’as,
than him. He accepted the assignment, and whenever I was in Ahmedabad,
we would speak of these calligraphies together.
Not many I know would be able to make much sense of this, unless they see clear examples of each style; but, what is much sadder, not many would even be interested, considering how few are the people, in our part of the country, who are able to read the script at all. And yet there is a whole world of beauty and elegance out there, willing to yield its treasures to anyone who reaches out towards them.
Consider, for example, the Tughra, a style most complicated and ornamental, in which letters are written one upon another: a sort of monogrammatic writing. Initially used for the seal-legends on royal orders— some of the Turkish imperial orders appear to be great works of art on this account alone— it continued to be experimented and played with as time went along. Among the most ingenious and ornamental examples of Tughra are those in which the letters of the text are so written as to outline the figure of a bird, an animal, a monument, some geometrical design, or the like.
A fine example in the Sarabhai Foundation collection, dated AH 1219/AD 1804-05 and reproduced here, takes thus the form of a bird, resembling a hen, its outline made up of the sacred Islamic formula – "Bismi’llah’r-Rahmani’r-Rahim"—with its mirror image, the ‘Muqabil’, facing it on the left. One has to look carefully, very closely, before one can decipher the letters and the words. But eventually, everything falls into place. Much effort is involved in the exercise, but at the end of it all lies the great delight which resides in recognition.
There is a bewildering range of styles that master-calligraphers kept inventing in the Islamic world. Consider, thus, Gulzar, meaning a garden, or Ta’us, meaning a peacock. In these the letters are not written in full ink but only drawn in outline and then filled with tiny decorative motifs representing, respectively, foliage or the form of a peacock. When the curves are made so as to curl up into small knots, and the strokes appear very pointed and thin in width, the style is called Zulf-i Arus, meaning a ‘Bride’s Locks’; and Larza is a style in which all the letters bear the appearance of having been written with a shaking pen.
And how do we write?