Calligraphy In PakistanIt has been compared to a chant, a rhythmic divine beauty, a melody, an aria, a toccata, an edification, an exaltation. As poetry is for the tongue, calligraphy is to the page. The authors of The Splendor of Islamic Calligraphy put it best when they said: “Calligraphy is the plainsong of the divine”.

Calligraphy is the art of the linear graphic, but it is more than that. In Islam, it glorifies the unseen face of Allah (God). Much like icons of other faiths, calligraphic scripts in Muslim cultures represent power. The first revelation of the Quran (Koran), the holy book of Muslims, regards the pen (Qalam) as a tool to acquire knowledge. It is written in the Quran that God has taught humans through the use of the pen.

Such scripts in Arabic are held in high esteem in the Muslim world as the Quran itself has been revealed in Pure Arabic. A part of the Semitic branch of the Afro-Asiatic languages, it is composed of 28 letters (mostly consonants) and is constructed on the interplay of a horizontal base line and the vertical lines of its consonants. It is read from left to right, with the addition of vowels, diacriticals, and loops which are positioned above and below the base line. These lines, angles, planes and formal shapes, though subject to geometric rules, achieve life and movement through volutes, contrasted characters, interlocking and intertwined letters and clear breaks. As the eye shifts from one plane to another, at once a sensation of movement and rhythm is created: the pictorial divide causes the page to move, with unexpected colour combinations and an effect of brilliance.

The Origin Of Calligraphy

Muslim calligraphers were doing marvels with form and content at roughly the same time as Carolinian manuscript illuminators and T’ang Dynasty ink brush artists were each in their own way evolving a sense of writing style unique to their language. The Western style went its own way by including images of humans and animals (and God depicted as a human), thereby reviving the Greek and Roman sense for imagistic art lost during the days of barbarism.

Muslims avoided such iconography, because Islam forbade the use of human imagery in any form. As a religion based on an invisible God, early Islam had to compete against pre-existing totem-based religions, which encouraged figural representation. These practices (and memories) had to be eradicated. An angular, geometric script, now designated as ‘Kufiq’ (because it was devised in the city of Kufah in what is now Iraq), became the answer. Used originally to transcribe the Quran and accepted by Arabs and non-Arabs as being inspired from ‘divine origin’, it came to be seen as the alternative to sculptural or figurative architectural decoration which had its associations with idolatry. From leading the way to mark a building as distinctly Islamic as well as pay tribute to God, it was also adapted to artistic decoration on textiles, ceramics, coins, utensils, epitaphs, and architectural monuments, all of which spread as the Muslim empire grew.

The calligraphic lines from Muslim reed pens led to a geometric stylization that has been best seen in Arabesque. This is an element of the Islamic art which consists of elaborate application of repeating geometric forms that often echo the forms of plants and animals. To Muslims, these forms – taken together – constitute an infinite pattern that extends beyond the visible material world. They in fact symbolize the infinite and non-central nature of the creation of the one God.

Islamic calligraphy also spread because of another reason: a rounded cursive script, employed by scribes for everyday documents, now designated as ‘Naskhi’, developed by a calligrapher called Ibn Muqla in the 10th century, and afterwards perfected by numerous calligraphers. Distinguished by its clarity, simplicity, and legibility, it gained favor over Kufiq for copying the Quran, and spread to all regions of the Muslim world later in the century. The ‘Naqshi’ is theCalligraphy In Pakistan proto-style from which came most of the scripts now used by calligraphers: Thuluth, Muhaqqaq, Maghribi, Riqa’i, Rayhani, and Tawqi’, to name a few. To the practiced eye they can be differentiated by how the hooked heads of verticals are made, the form of letter endings, the compactness of the letters, the degree of slant of the letters, the amount of horizontal or vertical elongation, and the degree of rounding of comers.

The Technique of Calligraphy

The proportioning of the characters plays a part in calligraphic designs in the same way as rhythm articulates music. The legibility of a text and the beauty of its line require rules of proportion. The proportions of the characters always remain in constant relationship: they all refer back to the size of the alif, the first letter of the alphabet.

An allegory explains this relationship best. Allah (swt) created the angels according to the name and number of the letters, so that they should glorify him with an infinite recitation of the Quran. Allah said to them: “Praise Me, I am Allah, and there is none other but I.” The first letter to do was alif, whereupon Allah said “You have prostrated yourself to glorify My Majesty. I appoint you to be the first letter of My Name and of the alphabet.” Thus alif is taken as the module of every calligraphic system.

The length of the alif varies according to style, eg in the Thuluth script, the alif is nine dots high with a crochet or hook of three dots at the top – the dot being the universal unit of proportion. This is a square (rhombic) impression formed by pressing the tip of the pen onto the paper. The dimensions of each side of this square dot thus depend on the way in which the pen has been cut, and on the pressure exerted by the fingers. This pressure has to be sufficiently delicate and precise to separate two sides of the nib.

Alif is also used to measure the diameter of an imaginary circle within which all Arabic letters could be written. Thus, three elements become the basis of proportion – the height of the alif, the width of the alif (dot width), and the alif as a diameter of the imaginary circle.

Calligraphy In Pakistan

Islam and, through it, calligraphy came to the sub-continent through the conquest of Sindh by Mohammad Bin Qasim in 712 AD, and reached its peak during the reign of the Mughal emperors. The Taj Mahal, an Indian icon built by Mughal king Shah Jehan, is one testament to the beauty of Islamic art. It is adorned with many passages of the Quran that relate to Paradise, thereby making the entire complex a metaphor for the heavens. In the area which now comprises Pakistan, Lahore undoubtedly has held the title of being the center of calligraphy in Pakistan.

According to Mrs Wahida Mansoor, a professor at the Indus Valley School of Art & Architecture, “Relative to western cultures, the east has always been about Naturalism, shunning the synthetic for what is sustainable and in harmony with nature. This art is a testament to that fact. All materials from the reed pen to the dyes used are environment-friendly. There is also an air of divinity in this art, eg with its power to preserve knowledge and extend thought over time and space, ink is compared to the water of life that gives immortality, while human beings are likened to so many pens in Allah’s hand.”

Black has traditionally been the basic ink, however the range of colors used by calligraphers are extremely rich and varied. The colors which include gold, silver, blue, green, orange, violet, yellow, etc, have always been prepared from vegetable and mineral resources. Most inks are based on soot or lamp black mixed with water and gum Arabic. However other ingredients used are tea, haldi, henna, pomegranate, beetroot, and even coffee. The final stage of the preparation involves straining the ink through silk. Also, the ink might be perfumed if desired.

This art is unique in a lot of other manners as well, right down to the margins. According to Mr Rashid Arshed, Head of Fine Arts Department at Indus Valley, “Unlike other arts, the margin is used differently in Calligraphy. It may include alongside the actual text a parallel text; or marginal motifs maybe transplanted into the text; or the reader’s attention maybe diverted by making the margin easy to read and the text very difficult. Or the margin may rob the text of its central position by framing it with script on all sides.”

In Pakistani calligraphy, the names of Allah or Muhammad (PBUH), the Kalima, “La Ilah Ha Illalah, Muhammadar Rasullulah” (I Swear That There Is No God But Allah And Mohammad Is His Messenger), and “Bis Millah Ar-Rahman Ar Raheem” (I Start With The Name Of Allah, The Beneficial & The Merciful) recur like a leitmotif. They are drawn in green, blue, or red ink, or in any other chromatic scale likely to seize the attention, as if the calligrapher is trying to induce a mystical trance. Contrasting touches, the colors of diacritical signs and vowels, words or phrases given special emphasis by the calligrapher, all evoke the divine presence.

Usman Ghouri, an upcoming calligrapher, puts it succinctly: “When I calligraphy, I actually feel closer to Allah.”

The Man Who Would Be Picasso

In Pakistani culture, the ability to write, and to write well in a clear hand, are signs of good breeding and of a well-rounded education; thus, the young nation has produced many outstanding calligraphers including Sadequain. Dubbed the ‘Picasso of Pakistan’, Sadequain’s art was unique in that it showed non-conformity and protest intertwined with a sense of impending martyrdom. The poet-artist was an outsider, a rebel holding onto the values of love and the quest for freedom. He drew inspiration from the poetical and literary tradition of the ghazal (a long poem, usually sung), where the protagonist frequently espouses martyrdom as an inevitable destiny.

Sadequain used the Kufiq script to depict a canvas architecture and Nastaliq to create its pictures. This form of pictorial and architectural writing was of his own invention. The basic characteristic of Sadequain’s calligraphy was the sheer size and scale. The colors he used were bright and in high contrast, as cactus and human figures were both transformed into calligraphy. These images were often abstract but frequently organic – spears, battle standards, the dissected skeletal man, the cacti and alif.

The alif was central to Sadequain’s work. To him it was the sign of the Absolute and the manifestation of the human ego. The heroic man among the vertical tropes of power was best symbolized in one of his paintings by the cactus breaking out of the Earth’s crust to emerge into the light, like a man rising above his circumstances. The principal source of light, energy, and power in Sadequain’s art was the line, the moral and aesthetic agent of his art. The line also divided hell and heaven, a thin line, as Sadequain subscribed to the Sufi vision that each was a state of mind and being.

Sadequain’s calligraphy included decorative designs in the margins and motifs which make the texts encased within the margins more attractive to the eye. The particular strain of motifs deployed by Sadequain were drawn from the Tughra, a form of pictorial writing, which was invented to represent the names of Mumluk and Turkish Sultans in the form of heraldic signatures.

It is a pity that the Western infatuation for Zen minimalism in Japan, the paint-brushy quality of Chinese pen-and-ink work, and the wild colors of India, have veered so many eyes from an art form that combines all three. Which also shows just how ignorant is the belief that Muslim culture is rigid, monolithic, and anachronistic.

The Pen

Calligraphy In PakistanThe standard pen is cut from a dry reed. Its length is approximately 10cm, width 1cm, and the upper edges are rounded. The shaft is curved and blunted at the edge so as not to hurt or rub the fingers. Its lower, functional end requires most care and attention from the calligrapher, who usually cuts it to a tapering shape ending in a point.

The pen is divided into two lips – left and right – by a groove 2 to 4cm in length. This groove’s function is to hold the ink. The calligrapher can vary the width of the line according to the pressure exerted on the left or right lip, or on both at the same time. He could modulate his line simply by the weight with which he presses down on one or other of the two sides.

Each calligrapher cuts his pen in accordance with his own usage and that of his native land, and also in accordance with the kind of text he is transcribing. In this sense, styles of script are definable by the pen and the width of the nib. It is therefore essential for the calligrapher to cut the point with precision and in accordance with the rules of the selected system of script. The evenness and elegance of the script also depends on the way the pen is angled to the surface of the paper, thus the calligrapher uses a number of pens.

The traditional way to hold the pen is with middle finger, forefinger, and thumb well spaced out along the shaft. Only the lightest possible pressure is applied.



2 thoughts on “Beauty In The Lines: Pakistani Calligraphy

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