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Islamic calligraphy - A progenitor of modern Islamic art

By Akeel Rashid

Calligraphy, in general, is defined as the art of producing decorative handwriting or lettering. It has its roots in the Greek Kallos meaning beautiful and Graphein, meaning write. However, in Islam, it has some different connotations. The religion of Islam forbids the depiction of living beings and this reservation led most of the artists across the Islamic world to beautify edifices, books, coinages, etc. with different styles of calligraphy. The professional artists and amateurs who practice Islamic calligraphy perceive it as a meditative, mystical exercise, an excellent mood enhancer and stress buster; as they go about inscribing from the Holy Quran with a pure heart and a clear conscience.

Calligraphy has influenced the Islamic world so much that the history of the medieval period in Arabia, Iran, Central Asia and the Indian sub-continent would not be complete without it. Ibu Muqlah Sheerazi, one of the greatest Islamic calligraphers ever, created six classic styles or genres of Persian calligraphy namely Tahqiq, Raiyaan, Toqi, Riqah, Sols, and Naksh.

The Islamic or Arabic calligraphy, believed to have its roots in 10th-century Persian culture, is among many of the values brought to Kashmir by the foreign Islamic scholars and saints that hold great religious significance for the people here. The arrival of Sayid Ali Hamdani (RA) and his followers (Persian calligraphers) into Kashmir to preach the message of Islam proved a pivotal event vis-a-vis Islamic calligraphy, as soon after their interactions with the locals the art began to flourish and thus became a prominent form of artistic expression in Kashmir.

With the spread of Islam across the valley, the calligraphers enjoyed a high degree of royal patronage, especially during the rule of Sultan Zain ul Abidin (Budshah). When Mughals established Islamic rule in Kashmir, the fame of Kashmiri master calligraphists reached the corridors of imperial durbar, so much so that a number of Kashmiri calligraphists were a permanent addition to the coterie of royal artisans patronized by successive Mughal emperors.

According to the Archeological Survey of India, Islamic calligraphy was introduced to Kashmir by the renowned scholar saint Sharaf-ud-Din Bulbul in the fourteenth century A.D. It is also believed that during the reign of Sultan Husain Shah, Mir Ali, a master calligrapher from Iran who excelled in all the seven styles of calligraphy and was bestowed with the title of Haft Qalam (Haft: seven, Qalam: pen) travelled to Kashmir to teach the natives the art of calligraphy. Mulla Bakir Kashmiri, who was a famous court calligrapher of emperor Shah Jahan, along with other Kashmiri calligraphers carried forward and built on this wonderful legacy of calligraphy and passed it on to future generations. Epigraphs and Kashmiri woodworks inscribed with the verses from Quran and Arabic poetry are a traditional source of sublime and imperishable masterpieces of Islamic calligraphy.

The period after the departure of Mughals from Kashmir saw the decline of calligraphy art. Currently, the aesthetic calligraphy art is being carried forward by commercial calligraphers and painters, but it is facing a lot of tough competition from computer-generated graphics. Unfortunately, the last few master calligraphers of Kashmir are not being consulted to save a part of our beautiful and aesthetically profound heritage from losing. The government of Jammu and Kashmir had taken several steps over the years to revive the art of calligraphy in the former state. For instance, the J&K Academy of Art, Culture and Languages started a three-year calligraphy diploma course but it did not make any difference as the academy could not admit an adequate number of candidates for sustaining the course. There is an urgent need to develop effective interventions to protect and preserve the heritage of calligraphy and ensure that the cultural and literary history etched in the art is preserved for generations to come.

Despite all the challenges, there is still some hope that the art will continue to flourish in Kashmir. As there are many calligraphers ensuring the vitality of contemporary Islamic calligraphy in Kashmir, many of who have converted their passion into a profession using social media as a vital tool to promote and sell their artworks.

A number of Kashmiri calligraphists, mostly women, mentioned below are leading to the revival of calligraphy art at a time when technology is pushing the art into oblivion. Jammu Kashmir Arts Foundation appreciates their devotion to the culture, tradition and way of life unique to the Muslims.

Munaza from Srinagar

The 23-year-old girl from Srinagar old city is a self-taught Arabic, Persian and modern English calligrapher. She demonstrates calligraphy on diverse frames including T-shirts, mugs, walnut wooden plates and canvases.

Shafiya from Baramulla

A calligrapher and a painter, Shafiya is contributing to the emerging genre of Islamic Modern calligraphy inspired by the Holy Quran and Hadith.

Nadiya Mushtaq Mir from Budgam

One cannot afford to be average when it comes to Islamic calligraphy, it has to be flawless, says Nadiya Mushtaq, a self-taught Islamic calligrapher. “Calligraphy is my way of respecting and paying tribute to the art of some of the greatest artists of Islamic civilization,” she adds.

Irtiqa Bazaz

She was 10 when she started learning the art of calligraphy on her own. Years later, the 21-year-old has chosen the art form as a profession. She is pursuing a degree in applied arts from a local university in the Kashmir region and wants to master calligraphy and paintings.

Azha Qureshi

A civil engineering student started calligraphy as her hobby. Months later, she made it her profession and believes that it helped her to become more spiritual and reduced her stress. “My journey in this field has just started and I want it to be never-ending,” she says.

Zuhaib Wahid

A young calligrapher from Kashmir finds peace when he strokes his pen and brush on canvases of paper, writing Quranic verses in calligraphy. The business administration postgraduate and self-taught artist got attracted to calligraphy during the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Jalal-ud-din Sheikh

The 67-year-old artist who lives in Usmania Colony Hawal in Srinagar claims to be the first Kashmiri to introduce Islamic calligraphy to the spectacular Kashmiri woodworks. “I have been involved in woodwork for the past 45 years and have been writing Quranic verses by carving them on wood with all the passion and determination,” he says.


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