At a time when the very art of writing is threatened by the ticking and clicking of digital media, artists are making a point of returning to the warmth of the human hand and the art of painting letters in a stylized form with a pen or brush. The experiments are numerous, and photographers and painters combine it with other forms for increased expression and harmony. The art, which is said to have originated during the Han Dynasty (206 BCE-22O CE), spread across the Indian subcontinent, Japan and Europe. Ancient scriptures were written in calligraphy and the tradition spread all over the world and evolved into different styles.
India has a long tradition of calligraphy, and it continued throughout the 20th century with children painting the alphabet on the takhti (wooden board) with a sharpened reed pen and the practice continued for a long time in village schools. It is this joy of painting and drawing words that adds grace to contemporary Indian art. Contemporary artist Sidharth from Punjab, who moved to Delhi, says: “In our village school in Bassian, it was a daily task to cover our wooden plates with ‘gachni mitti‘ (clay) and get it ready for school. Calligraphy was part of our education. It entered my paintings unconsciously, and I didn’t let go”. He goes on to say that Pandit Achru, who taught him this art, would say that words should flow like music: “I now include not only Gurmukhi, but imaginary symbols and scripts to create my own calligraphic code.”
Words and visuals
An interesting experimental book titled “Zindagi de Rang” (Hues of Life) has been published by photographer Sandeep Singh and calligrapher Hardeep Singh from Amritsar. The glossy book with words and visuals serves as an extension of the old tradition. Included in this eye-catching art book are 34 photographs of Sandeep overlaid with calligraphic quotes mainly from the Gurbani, writings of Sufi poets and a few others. The heartwarming introduction is by Sidharth, of course.
As one turns the pages, one pauses to gaze with appreciation at the beautiful images that are accompanied by gems of poetry. Sandeep’s click of raindrops on lush green foliage is celebrated with a line from a verse written by the Sufi poet, Bulleh Shah, aesthetically calligraphic: Sawan maah suhavna i dharti boond payi (The rains bless the earth with drops). As we move from one beautiful sheet to another, we stop at the eye-catching display of Lahore’s weekend book bazaar and accompany it with a famous phrase from the African-American activist civil rights activist Ela Baker: “Give life and people will find the way” calligraphy in Punjabi. It is indeed a valuable book of inspiration, to which one can refer again and again. In thanks for this joint venture, master calligrapher Anis Siddiqui says, “Beautiful calligraphy is one of the most distinctive features of Indian epics. Gurmukhi script embellished with calligraphy is a thing of beauty. This book revives the art of calligraphy and is indeed the pride of a connoisseur.
Give peace a chance
One of the most inspiring cross-border art events took place at Delhi’s new Red House Gallery in Okhla, Delhi, started by young Arjun Shivaji Jain, a physicist with art in his heart. The opening exhibition at the red-brick gallery excavated from his father’s warehouse opened to huge applause in August with the outstanding works of calligraphy from across the Pakistani border. Their creator is the legal luminary, Syed Muhammad Anwer, who delves deep into the art. His masterstroke is to create a rare fusion of Devnagri and Nastaliq Scripts (Arabic) where strokes of Hindi and Urdu work together to create the same word with such apparent ease. Interestingly, her mother told her that at her school in Faridabad, Urdu and Hindi were taught in the same class and she learned it by simply seeing her classmates write the language.
Born into a family that had migrated at the time of partition from Faridabad to Rawalpindi, Syed received the right lessons early in life when his mother taught him the Hindi language along with Urdu lessons. Language, she told him, has no religious bias, it’s a way to relate one to the other. Syed has already released a book’Samrup Rachna: Apni Boli (Hindi-Urdu)’, of this unique interaction of languages and it was the first time that his works were exhibited in a gallery in India. It’s no wonder his show is called “Give Peace a Chance” not just across borders but inside two with differences merging in unison as shown in his art of calligraphy. Well, if words can fuse with each other like this, then why can’t human hearts.
While the artist was not present, his works spoke the language of unity and were held informally by clips in small brick alcoves in an exhibition that was taking place for art rather than commerce . It was an inspiring introduction by veteran writer and art critic Prayag Shukla, who likened calligraphy to a symphony of music expanding in a simple and soothing way while illuminating the soul. The power of this spontaneity is such that the words cease to be mere words but emissaries of something more.