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Posted at: Apr 10, 2016, 12:58 AM; last updated: Apr 10, 2016, 12:58 AM (IST)ART & SOUL

A bridge across scripts

It is a treat to see how devanagari and nastaliq complement each other in Dr. Syed Mohammed Anwer’s album

BN Goswamy

I bring to you in offering something worthy of the glorious rulers of the past like Asaf and Jam/ something as precious as rubies and emeralds and pearls. It is this fragment of a poem, this qita’, penned in a beautiful hand./ For do they not say that beautiful handwriting is more precious than all the precious stones of the world?/ That great calligraphy is like a houseful of gems?  — Muhammad Riza al-Din, calligrapher, 1828

I am aware that I keep writing something or the other about calligraphy, especially calligraphy in the Islamic world which I find irresistible. But this piece is occasioned by something quite different. A few weeks ago, a former colleague of mine from the University rang me up to say that he had received an album of calligraphy from a Pakistani friend or colleague which it might interest me to see. It certainly did. It was the work of Dr. Syed Mohammed Anwer who, by profession, is a lawyer, practising law at the Supreme Court of Pakistan in Islamabad, but has wide interests, ranging from human rights and women’s emancipation to socio-linguistics and painting; and, of course, calligraphy. His album, interestingly, bears a Sanskrit title: Samrup Rachana, with the sub-title reading: ‘Calligraphic Expression of Apni Boli (Hindi-Urdu)’, and is dedicated by Dr. Anwer to his eminently Muslim mother, “who taught me Hindi”. Needless to say, I was intrigued and, with the album in my hand, began eagerly to dip into it.

In the introduction to his album, Dr. Anwer — writing with distinct passion — speaks of the great deal that is common between Hindi and Urdu as languages, something he designates as ‘apni boli’, and yet how the fact that they are ordinarily written in different scripts divides them. Insistently, he keeps asking the question in this section of his album: “Does language have a religion?” True, he says, the devanagari script “keeps us connected with the rich culture of Hinduism, its deep philosophical and humanist treasure of words”, while “the nastaliq script (this I need to add, is more a style or genre of the Persian script than a script in itself) expands its horizon, its power to adopt and to acquire words from the entire Persian and Arab world….” But the fact that in both scripts the language we write — and speak — is essentially the same, should be seen as a “symbol of strength, unity and diversity of the common lingual and cultural heritage of our samaaj.”

The spirit in which this is written needs to be admired, for here commonalties are being emphasized, bridges are sought to be built. However, one reminds oneself that while there is certainly much that is common between Hindi and Urdu as languages, there are points — not simply different scripts —  where they begin to shade off into different directions. All the same one needs to move on to the calligraphic section of the album in which, as the Foreword claims, “Language is invoked as the magic dust of the conjuring artist”. Here, using the two scripts and making them stay very close to each other, Dr. Anwer writes in a calligraphic manner several words — mostly nouns — which form and work in unison to invoke the shape of the object for which a word stands. Thus, the word  ‘ghuncha’, meaning a half-open flower or a bud, is so written, fusing devanagari and nastaliq, as to turn into the shape of that half-blossom. For ‘dewali’, the same word written in the two different scripts, with nastaliq closely hugging the word in devanagari, soars upwards to suggest the shape of a lamp. There is naturally “artistic allowance” in all this. The picture, in the words of the introduction, “incomplete in one script tugs the cords of the sister script”. Some sixty words are taken and thus rendered, each in bold calligraphic lines, each against a differently coloured background. Each image is introduced with elaborate notes on description, style, medium and size. Example: the image accompanying the letter ‘zay’, from which the word ‘zewar’, meaning ornament, is formed is thus introduced. “Zay is the fifteenth letter in nastaliq script of Apni Boli. It is mostly used in Arabic and Persian words. In devanagari script of Apni Boli this sound did not exist originally so a letter was coined by linguists to represent the sound ‘za’ in Devanagari script by putting a dot underneath the letter ‘ja’ which converts ‘ja’ into ‘za’ sound. This  ‘za’ sound in devanagari script is used to represent all the rest of the similar (za) sounds that exist in Arabic and Persian alphabets like ‘zaad’, ‘zuaad’ and ‘zoay’.” So on it goes with each image.

To be candid, not every image works but, at the same time, one never loses interest. In folio after folio, something different emerges. However, there is some excess in the claim that “this has never been done by anyone in the history of calligraphic art before”, and some statements in the Foreword need to be handled with care. For instance, the formulation that “this is humanitarian art with its best foot put forward, except that it is bare foot… pattering, clambering and seeking towards that fierce joy that the want of a shoe in icy winter or blistering summer cannot dull.”

Seeing Dr. Anwer’s album one is reminded of things like Concrete Poetry, a concrete poem being “a poem whose meaning is conveyed through its graphic shape or pattern on the printed page”. A note to this definition adds, however, that “while many readers now associate the term ‘concrete poetry’ with poems whose outlines depict a recognizable shape, the ideas behind concrete poetry are much broader. In essence, works of concrete poetry are as much pieces of visual art made with words as they are poems.” One thinks here also of what are called ‘shape poems’, which, as the definition has it, “is a type of poetry that describes an object and is shaped the same as the object the poem is describing”. In a long poem of many lines on raindrops may, thus, be so composed visually — with the length of the lines artfully varying — as to take the form of a raindrop. 

There is so much out there, including Anwer’s work that is of interest. To each his own, as they say.

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