Arabic Calligraphy: Art in alphabets

Artists on a mission to revive the Islamic artform

Culture

February 26, 2021

/ By / New Delhi

Arabic Calligraphy: Art in alphabets

Arabic calligraphy was included by UNESCO on its List of Intangible Cultural Heritage last year

Arabic calligraphy is an essential part of Islamic civilisation and of many aspects of Muslim cultural expression. However, over the years its popularity has faded among the masses in India and artists are on a mission to revive it.

As beautiful as pearls, his works attract the attention even of those who are not familiar with the Arabic language. According to him, aesthetics and refinement are the specialities of Islamic art.

Arabic calligraphy is ‘worship’ for Muqtar Ahmed, a Bengaluru-based calligrapher who has made a mark for himself at the international level. Hailing from a remote village in Telangana and currently, in Bengaluru, Ahmed is on a mission to revive this dying art in India.

“Writing the Quranic verses and Hadith (sayings of the Prophet Mohammad) is worship. These works are sawab-e-jaria (continuous reward),” the calligrapher, who believes that there is no script more beautiful than Arabic in the world, tells Media India Group. Ahmed believes his efforts have started yielding results as his disciples are carving a niche for themselves at the global level.

Recognising calligraphy as an art

Muqtar Ahmed working on an art piece (Photo Credit: Muqtar Ahmed)

The artistic practice of calligraphy has a profound place in Arab culture since the 10th century. To preserve its special place in the world, Arabic calligraphy was included by UNESCO on its List of Intangible Cultural Heritage last year. Arabic calligraphy is the fourth calligraphy style, after Chinese calligraphy, Mongolian calligraphy and Armenian Letter art, to be included in the list.

There are a number of styles associated with khat, as the practice is known in the Arab world. From the Kufic calligraphy that was used to copy the Holy Quran between the 8th and 10th century, to the more legible Naskh, the extravagant Thuluth and more contemporary variations of the practice have become popular now.

Ahmed was the first Indian to obtain an Ijazah (Master’s diploma) from the Istanbul-based Research Centre for Islamic History, Art and Culture (IRCICA) of the Organisation of the Islamic Cooperation (OIC), in 2013. He is grooming young talent at the Institute of Indo-Islamic Art and Culture (IIIAC) in Bengaluru. He has so far trained over 800 youngsters including students, professionals and others coming from varied backgrounds at the institute.

Ahmed, whose calligraphic works adorn mosques and even private jets abroad, is happy that the institute is getting global recognition for the high standards set by it in Arabic calligraphy. He says that the ijazah obtained by him has fetched him a lot of work in the Arab world, where Islamic art is greatly valued. He was also offered a permanent position as a teacher there, but he stayed back to revive the art in India, where it had once enjoyed royal patronage.

Endangered in the digital age

Rendered jobless after an Urdu daily that Ahmed used to work for, replaced calligraphy with computers in the early 1990s, he started writing wedding cards to make a living. “It was not my goal. I wanted to go deep into the art,” recalls the artist who improved his art under renowned international calligraphers Mamoun Luthfi Sakkal and Mohammed Zakariya of the US and refined it further under the guidance of Turkey’s Hassan Chalabi and Dawood Biktash.

He further emphasises that the digitalisation of almost all art forms, including that of various kinds of calligraphy, has threatened the livelihood of artists like him and also harmed the artform itself.

An artwork created by Lamees Aboobacker

Lamees Aboobacker, 24, one of Ahmed’s student agrees with him and say that as a child born in the 1990s, she had rarely seen how much effort it took to create each piece of calligraphy that decorated the walls of her home.

Both Ahmed and Aboobacker say that the digital age has posed a threat like never before to Arabic calligraphy, especially because it takes a very long time to finish. Usually, a décor piece or a hand-made board takes about a week of intricate work. But with all the fronts available digitally today, it is a matter of seconds for anyone to print out a beautiful piece. They also say that only big hotels, homes of rich people and those with an inclination towards art understand the value of a work done by hand. Mostly, people prefer a quick hack over efforts, time-consumption and the cost they have to bear.

Making of a masterpiece

“While doing Arabic calligraphy, I follow the traditional style,” Aboobacker says. Explaining the fonts she works with, she says, “Thuluth and Kufic are the two fonts that I normally use, which are mostly preferred by my customers. Fonts like Muhaqaq, Naskh and Thuluth are interlinked and follow curved and oblique lines. However, Kufic is more of block lettering,” says the artist.

Ahmed, who uses special, hand-made pens for his writings, says he achieved precision with perseverance. “Even a small piece of calligraphy takes several hours. You have to write a letter hundreds of times to achieve accuracy,” he adds.

“What I love about Arabic calligraphy is how hard it is to get it accurate. In English, we have 26 letters and there is only one way to write them. But in the Arabic language, one letter has 12 formations which make it challenging. You need passion to go forward,” she says. To write a small piece of calligraphy, she takes several hours. With background colours, it might take even a day to complete.

According to Ahmed, this art in India has been in continuous decline after the end of the Mughal rule. He plans to open another branch of his institute in Lucknow and says that with more youngsters evincing interest in Arabic calligraphy, the art has a bright future in the country. “With the number of students who want to learn Arabic calligraphy increasing, both of us hope that our work and dedication towards the artform will revive it in India and bring back the glory associated with it,” he adds.

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