The Tribune - Spectrum


Sunday, November 17, 2002
'Art and Soul

Of ‘golden pens’ and others
B. N. Goswamy

The Islamic Sacred Formula in the form of facing birds: Specimen of the Tughra style of calligraphy, early 19th century, from collection of the Sarabhai Foundation, Ahmedabad
The Islamic Sacred Formula in the form of facing birds: Specimen of the Tughra style of calligraphy, early 19th century, from collection of the Sarabhai Foundation, Ahmedabad

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.

Portraying the Parsis’ past
November 3, 2002
Of girdles, sashes & patkas
October 20, 2002
Celebrating with the Lion Dance
October 6, 2002

An elegy to a bygone era
August 25, 2002
Those seductive jades
August 11, 2002
Gifts from an ambassador
July 28, 2002
Enigma of the Iron Pillar
July 14, 2002
Having a keen eye
June 30, 2002
Zen and the art of archery
June 16, 2002
Art from the south seas
June 2, 2002
To collect and then to donate
May 19, 2002
An estate of the mind
May 5, 2002
Rama’s journey in San Diego
April 21, 2002
An intrepid photographer
April 7, 2002
Shringara: Passion and adornment
March 24, 2002
The peaceful liberators, again
March 10, 2002

But even after all that, I was not prepared for what I saw on my most recent trip to that city. Desai sahib had not only completed the assignment, transliteration, translation, annotation and all of every single folio referred to him–this was just a few months before he passed away – but also written an introductory text to the collection which is a delight to read: terse and precise and filled with information as it is. It deals not only with the work of the great calligraphers of the past–men who bore titles, or sobriquets, like zarrin-qalam, "of the golden pen", anbarin-qalam, "with a pen fragrant like ambergris", mushkin-qalam, "musk-penned", and so on – but also goes, briefly, into the history of Arabic calligraphy, and into the evolution of the different styles of writing: Kufic, Naskh, Thulth, Riqa’, Muhaqqaq, Raihani, Tauqi’, Nastaliq, and the like. Not that this information would not be available anywhere else, but here it is in his short text, stated with great precision, describing, in the briefest of terms, the characteristics of each of the great styles. Thus, in his words, the main features of the Kufic script "are its vertical and oblique straight lines making up its angularity and stiffness", while "Naskh (invented by Ibn Muqla) is comparatively cursive, retaining angular character to a lesser extent; in other words, it represents the stiff angular Kufi, softened to somewhat broader curves and a little freer sweep, making it, so to speak, a cursive variety of Kufi in a more refined and natural form". Again: "Thulth, like Naskh, has 1/3 curves and 2/3 straight lines: the former is written with a thick pen, and the latter, with thin." Then, again, Nastaliq, the "youngest of the calligraphic styles": "It is rounder in composition than Naskh and perfectly so in the curves of its letters which are round and supple. Its strokes are long with sharp or blunt points and they flow horizontally with easy grace and sweep with a gradually increasing slight thickness and bend in the middle; they never descend so slantingly as in some other styles like Riqa …."

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.

Other delights

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?