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A timeless tradition kept alive

Vasudha Venugopal

Calligraphers master Khattati, the Islamic art of fancy handwriting

Photo: R. Ravindran

Dowlat Jahaan, an Arabic calligrapher, looks on as students practise the art form, in Chennai on Wednesday. —

CHENNAI: It is half-past 1 p.m., and activity in many shops in Triplicane is sagging on account of load-shedding. In the crowded office of Musalman, a handwritten Urdu newspaper, amid silent machines, Shabana Begum works relentlessly with two modest tools — a reed pen and ink — on a sheet of paper that has scrapes of coloured bits, indicating the placement of ads.

The stark bent of letters and their curves seem perfect, as she dips the nib of her pen in a pot of coal-stained ink regularly, moving her fingers gracefully. “The nibs used for writing Urdu have a sharp left cut, while the ones for English have a right one,” she says.

A few streets away at the Murthuzaviya Foundation, Dowlat Jahaan, another calligrapher, has been imparting the skill for almost 20 years now. “It requires a lot of patience and concentration. You practise the same letter for 10 days till your eyes start distinguishing between the elegant and the slightly clumsy,” she says.

Love for Urdu is the foremost criteria to pursue this art, say these masters of calligraphy or Khattati, the Islamic art of fancy handwriting, who cite a deep interest in the skill that has its roots in Islamic history as a major reason for taking it up.

“I learnt the art at a time when even richer families would educate their daughters only till they knew to read letters. But when my husband died a few years after I got married, this interest evolved into a source of income,” says Ms. Jahaan.

Historians say there are more than 180 styles in calligraphy. “There are about seven versions here, with Urdu being written in Nasta'liq, and Arabic in Nasq. A lot also depends on how long, short, or thick the first letter of the Arabic alphabet, ‘Alif,' is written,” she adds.

“Text is very important to us. Calligraphy helps to merge letters and their sounds, using minimal space,” says Qatib Abdullah Baqavi, a veteran calligraphy artist, as he also explains the concept of ‘Muktasar' inherent to Urdu alphabet. Arabic calligraphy has had royal practitioners, including the Mughal king Aurangzeb and the Rajput princess Jodhabai, he adds. The profession may be synonymous with timeless tradition but Arabic language scripting and designing offered by computers now have forced the artists to innovate too. “We have to catch up,” says Mr.Baqavi, gesturing at his keyboard as he creates a decorative piece with jewel-like Arabic letters, forming a verse from the Quran.

Wedding card makers are among the major customers of their work. “Many people want Quranic verses or text from the Bible written on their cards. Computerised versions of these texts are often unavailable and existing templates do not have punctuation marks. So, often, calligraphers are roped in,” says Mohammed Iqbal, of Olympic Cards.

While the art still has many admirers, the number of buyers has plummeted. Patrons of Urdu are concerned by this and the declining number of people who remain to uphold this tradition. “This reminds me of a time 20 years ago when we had to go to Hyderabad to get all our cards and textbooks written and printed,” says G.S.M.P. Khadri, Secretary, Murthuzaviya Foundation.

And not everyone gets to pursue an art as a profession, says Ms. Jahaan. “Calligraphy is not just a sequence of strokes, but the rhythm of letters. After all, the way you write says a lot about you,” she adds.

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