A show at David Hall showcases artist Bhattathiri’s genius in calligraphy

In the mid-eighties when M.T. Vasudevan Nair’s Randamoozham created ripples in the world of fiction, artist Bhattathiri received a letter from a reader congratulating him on the beautiful lettering of the heading on the cover. “That was the first time,” says Sundar Ramanathaiyer, curator of the show, ‘Kachatathapa’ on at David Hall in Fort Kochi, “that the artist felt he got recognition for his unique work. Till then it was either overlooked or taken for granted.”

At 53, Bhattathiri, after having worked for more than 30 years in this field and having created a large body of work—more than 30,000 artistic variations in Malayalam fonts—is finding appreciation and takers for calligraphy in Malayalam letters.

This is the first time he is exhibiting in the city.

Surprisingly the ABC of Bhattathiri’s art is not the alphabet. But the word. “The word excites me and I am driven to express it in a certain way,” says the artist who studied art at Fine Arts College in Thiruvananthapuram. To elucidate this point he writes out mazhavil catching its colours and romance in the lettering. So does tamara acquire the curves of the lotus petals, the sea begins to write excitedly in Kadalezhthumbol’ and in échil one can find the artist’s censure against wastage of food.

Word play

Bhattathiris’s play with letters and words does not stop at this, he indulges in various permutations and combinations in the letters of words, sentences and small poems. There are works in which he quotes from Poonthanam’s, Njanapana, he celebrates the alphabet from a work by Kunjunni Master, known for his poems for children, “akshareme ninneyenikku iksha chha pidichu eedichi-O alphabet, I admire you so much…”

“That very much is the quintessence of Bhattathiri’s love for calligraphy,” says Sundar. His mastery over the art is also seen clearly in ambigrams, in works like ‘padav’ and ‘Jayaraj’ where the letters look aesthetically alike from either side. Daya is expressed in a decorative square work, catching the spirit of mercy in loops and curves.

At the workshop, surrounded by wonder-eyed children , Bhattahiri finds imparting his skill to them most satisfying. He feels that the “SMS generation” is veering away from basic writing, “leave alone calligraphy”. For his art he uses ink and the basic fountain pen, plain brush, ice-cream sticks, pen and even a toothbrush.

Bhattathiri began as a layout artist with Malayalam publication Kalakaumudi, at a time when there were very few vernacular typefaces.

Though a self-taught artist, in this genre, he was roped into the field by none other than noted painter and illustrator A.S. Nair, after which his journey has been pretty much been about self-motivated dedication towards his art. Sundar discloses that in the first two years of his work, “for 104 issues” of the periodical, Bhattathiri did not repeat a design “but it went unnoticed”. “That’s because we do not have a culture in calligraphy in Malayalam. We need to encourage this,” says Sundar. And the artist, quite forgiving of the omission by art lovers, says, “I am happiest showing children how to work with letters. There is hope from them.”

‘Kachatathapa’ is conducted by Alliance Francaise de Trivandrum and is on till October 12 at David Hall.