The recently concluded Islamic calligraphy exhibition held in New Delhi’s Iran Culture House was not the first of its kind – such exhibitions are held periodically. It’s another matter that calligraphers routinely outnumber audience. Nevertheless, the perseverance of the Culture House and the steadfastness of the calligraphers themselves are probably why the art itself has not perished.
Since the Quran contains an injunction against the depiction of living things (figurative art), Islamic art has tended to centre around geometric and floral designs as well as calligraphy. For that reason, applied art, as in carpets, tile-work and bas-relief in religious monuments, have been taken to new heights compared to western art. The art of calligraphy is almost as old as Islam itself, with several styles of calligraphy in existence, each being roughly analogous to a font in English lettering. Just as an art director chooses his font with care – it conveys as much as the words themselves – so does a calligrapher match the text to the style.
Countries like Iran, where Islam is the religion of the overwhelming majority, have strong contemporary traditions of calligraphy. In India, on the other hand, calligraphy would have passed into oblivion with the advent of the computer had it not been for the efforts of the handful of local calligraphers. During Mughal times, calligraphers were in great demand not only for religious texts like the Quran, but also for court declarations, royal diaries and letters. After the Mughal period, calligraphers have become progressively more and more redundant, being required only by the Urdu press for headlines. The computer, with Urdu, Arabic and Persian software, sounded the death-knell for calligraphers whose forefathers had been attached to the Mughal court.
Today, Delhi based Anis Siddiqui runs from pillar to post trying to promote calligraphy as an art form. “For if it does survive, it is as an art form,” is his impassioned assertion. In Tonk, Khursheed Alam is luckier. He teaches calligraphy in a madrassa, making it a living force for him and his students. Lucknow and Hyderabad are the other two centres where calligraphy exists, if only marginally.
Majid Ahmady of the Iran Culture House, is amazed at the parallels between Iranian and Indian art and culture. Some Persian miniatures are virtually indistinguishable from their Indian counterparts because artists were imported into India at the start of the Mughal era. Similarly, Sufiana music found its way from Kashmir to Iran, carpets with Persian designs are still woven in Kashmir and Persian is still taught in pockets of India.
“At the risk of sounding fanciful, it’s almost as if the two countries were cousins, but didn’t know it because there’s no light. That’s where the Culture House comes in: every Persian language refresher course we hold, every calligraphy exhibition we host, another candle gets lit, so that the two cousins can view each other.”
There’s a vague feeling among the public at large that Islamic calligraphy can only be based on religious texts. That’s not true at all. Poetry, ghazals, shairis – everything can be penned as calligraphy and illustrated accordingly. And calligraphy is the basis for a number of disciplines including language, fine art, geometry but most of all, patience.
Those who want to learn can contact Anis Siddiqui for a three month course, tailored to individual requirements. Mobile: 9810076064; Contact Siddiqui for calligraphic works of art as well, of either religious or secular themes. Also Khursheed Alam, reputed to be the best calligrapher in the country. Phone:01432-44164, near Masjid Saray, Mohallah Choori Gran, Tonk, Rajasthan.