Writing finesse decorates artefacts

Artistic heritage

As one pens down notes about this exhibition, the aesthetic curves and slants of each alphabet in the Persian and Arabic languages stand as a stark contrast to the scribbling in English and Hindi. Certainly the art of fancy lettering of a script has faded from our culture over centuries, but its stronghold on our history makes calligraphy a living art.

“Calligraphy is present in every culture but people have lost interest in writing beautifully,” says Dr Anamika Pathak, a faint smile on her face. Amidst the olive green walls of the gallery at National Museum, comes alive the exhibition curated by Dr Pathak - ‘Art of Calligraphy and Beyond: Arabic-Persian Inscriptions on Decorative arts objects’.

In contemporary times, in the name of ‘calligraphy’ it is usually the paintings which find prominence. To prove that there has been calligraphy in every artefact of use,
Dr Pathak conceptualised this exhibition.

“The challenge was to narrow down the subject since there was a lot to display. We thus chose Arabic-Persian language and displayed 56 objects. It is difficult to choose which ones are more important than the rest because each piece has its own beauty,” she shares like a mother refusing to pick her favourite child. Her confusion is, however, understandable considering the detailing in each artefact. She admits that since the languages where unknown to her, the help of Zahid Ali Ansari and Dr Naseem Akhtar was crucial to read all inscriptions.

Divided into five sections – Writing Implements, Religion, Faith, Tradition and Trade – the exhibition has various objects that compel a viewer to look beyond the obvious. The engraving of an entire landscape on a Qalamdan (pen case) from 1844 AD and a metal Stamp with ivory handle from 1888 CE emphasise the significance and aesthetic tastes of writing tools for calligraphers. Dr Pathak says, “Some of them are signed and dated which helps us know about calligraphers in those times.”

What startled the curator was the use of different mediums to express their love for the art. She says, “In Shia flags used for procession, the inscription is done through embroidery done with glass beads.”

Similarly, in Jaa-Namaaz (prayer carpet), which was made for export, the block print stands out as a fabulous example of handwork.
“Calligraphy was embedded in the society and not just in any one religion,” says Dr Pathak as the Kalamkari work – a predominant profession of Hindu workers comes to the fore through intricately woven Thalposh (coverlet), Dastar (turban) and Chaddar (head cover).   

In order to do justice to presentation, the curator has even described various techniques used by the artists and artisans to embellish these decorative pieces with calligraphy. “The koftgari or damascening technique was initially used for arms and armoury. It later travelled to India during Mughal rule and found place on writing equipments of calligraphers,” informs Dr Pathak as a viewer tries to learn different names of techniques – bidri, chasing, niello, badla, kallabattun and zardozi, to name a few.

Proving the fact that calligraphy in India was not just confined to paper is a Talismani Tunic and a Kashkul (medicant’s bowl), placed centrally in the gallery. While the former has the whole Quran, hand written on it, the latter is made of Coco-de-mer (sea coconut) shell with calligraphy creating a link between healing powers and Almighty’s blessings. “The Shallo Bowl placed here is dated 1495 CE and is thus the oldest that the museum has. Just the central square of this bowl has 99 names of Allah engraved on it,” Dr Pathak points out.

It would seem like a daunting task to further explore the art of calligraphy in astronomical terms. As youngsters we all must have struggled to make globes in school, a look at the Celestial Sphere from 1629 CE and Astrolabe from late 18th century, one realises how old is the knowledge of astronomy in India.    
The exhibition is open for public viewing till July 12.

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