’Art & Soul
Vanishing strokes
Calligraphy, or the fine art of writing, may not have many takers today but the form continues to survive in some pockets of the country

I shall first say something about the art of writing…. The letter, a magical power, is spiritual geometry emanating from the pen of invention; a heavenly writ from the hand of fate; it contains the secret word, and is the tongue of the hand…. Superficial observers see in the letter a sooty figure; but the deep-sighted a lamp of wisdom. The written letter looks black, notwithstanding the thousand rays within; or, it is a light with a mole on it that wards off the evil eye. A letter is the portrait painter of wisdom; a rough sketch from the realm of ideas; a dark night ushering in day; a black cloud pregnant with knowledge; the wand for the treasures of insight; speaking, though dumb; stationary, and yet travelling; stretched on the sheet, and yet soaring upwards.

Abu'l Fazl in the Ain-i Akbari, ca. 1590

Shamsa or rosette: opening page of an Imperial manuscript. The calligraphed text in the roundel gives the name of the emperor Shah Jahan and his titles. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
Shamsa or rosette: opening page of an Imperial manuscript. The calligraphed text in the roundel gives the name of the emperor Shah Jahan and his titles. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

I do not exactly remember when but I am sure I have written in this very column on the art of calligraphy, especially Islamic calligraphy, before. And I might even have cited the words —words that I find irresistible — of Abu’l Fazl, that great chronicler at the court of Akbar. Why then, it could be asked, am I returning to the theme? It is for two reasons: one arising from my visits to Delhi and, two, because I read recently about some fine calligraphers, who continue to practice this art at Hyderabad.

But, Delhi first. That city, as every visitor can see, is full of elegantly designed road-signs: large angular boards in green with white lettering on them that tell you the name of the street on which you are, or the direction in which to go if you are looking for one. The words inscribed are in three different scripts — English, Devanagari and Urdu — the last pasted at the very bottom. The first time I saw them, I was quite impressed. The overall appearance was one of grace; even the Urdu looked fine being in the two scripts that are most commonly in use: nastaliq and naskh. Evidently someone had worked on the whole thing with care.

An old calligrapher at work.
An old calligrapher at work. Mughal, ca. 1650. The Knellington Collection; Harvard University Museum

With time, however, some of the pasted typographed lettering started hanging loose and fell off, leaving bizarre, sometimes even comical, gaps in the words so that it was not always easy to make sense of them. The damage was controlled to an extent as far as English and Devanagari words were concerned but Urdu suffered. Apparently, the contract with the typographer must have run out, or something like this, and at places, the words were now painted in hand. The trouble, however, with this is that the signboard painters engaged for the job seem to have had no knowledge either of the language or the script and scrawled words on the board in the most lurid, the most atrocious of hands. They seem to have been copying the words from somewhere and did it in disgraceful fashion: the words barely making sense, gross twists and turns of the brush doing violence alike to the language and the script.

I wonder what the family of the person whose name a street carries — "K.K.Birla Lane", for instance, or "Rao Tula Ram Marg" — would make of this. But, perhaps, no one notices: certainly the powers that be in the Municipal Corporation or the Delhi sarkar do not. The result? These eyesores keep staring at you, stark and insolent.

Here, one is not even speaking of calligraphy — the word as we know comes from Greek kallos, meaning beautiful — which translates thus into ‘beautiful writing’ but of simple scribal work, and even that we seem not to be able to manage. However, the word ‘calligraphy’ itself raises visions of aesthetics and of elegance, and inevitably, the mind travels towards great names of the past: men like Muhammad Hussain al-Kashmiri, who worked for the Mughal court and was honoured with the title, "Zarrin Qalam", meaning "Of the Golden Pen", or Abdul Rahim "Ambarin Qalam", "Of the Amber Pen". Those days, sadly, are long gone.

‘Bismillah al -Rahman al-Rahim’. Opening words of the Holy Koran. Calligraphy in the khat-i maakus (mirror script)
‘Bismillah al -Rahman al-Rahim’. Opening words of the Holy Koran. Calligraphy in the khat-i maakus (mirror script)

But I was encouraged to read, recently — my second reason for writing this piece — of the art of calligraphy being alive and well in some corners of the country. At Hyderabad, for instance, where not only do fine calligraphers continue to be at work but where the memory of great calligraphers of the past, those who used to work for the Qutb Shahi rulers or the Asaf Jahi Nizams, wafts in the air.

Muhammad Abdul Khaleel Abid, or Muhammad Nayeem Saberi still ply their qalams and speak nostalgically of the old days when as many as 15 to 20 men used to sit in one place and write. The Qutb Shahi rulers were great patrons of the art and there were gifted men like Qudratullah Hussaini and Imamuddin Aqiq, who kept working for them: designing inscriptions on great monuments, monograms, currency notes, stamp papers, and royal decrees.

All this, of course, from scripting the holy Koran for distinguished patrons in different scripts, ranging from the Kufic and Thulth and Maghribi to Muhaqqaq and Tughra and Naskh. It was a different age imbued with a different spirit. Everything has changed, however. "Jab se computeraan aaye", Muhammad Nayeem says in typical Deccani Urdu, "tab se haath gaye".The calligrapher, Mohd. Nayeem Saberi at work. Hyderabad

All hands have lost to computers, in other words. But then, he picks up his qalam, dips it in the inkwell by his side, and begins to write. "I am 85 years old", he says. "You know, my hair is gone, my knees are not as strong and my eyesight is decidedly weaker; but my hand never shakes when I write."

Which reminded me of a great painting of the Mughal times in which an old calligrapher sits alone in his beautifully appointed chamber, legs crossed, reed-pen in hand, head bent over a page, writing. So close is his face to the sheet that one can hardly see it, but the entire bearing — hunched shoulders, firm wrists, complete concentration around wrinkled eyes — tell one that he is lost in a world of his own. What flows from his pen is all that matters.
The calligrapher, Mohd. Nayeem Saberi at work. Hyderabad