Art

The call of calligraphy

Hope: Purani Haveli reflected on calligraphed mirror. Photo: Arunangsu Roy Chowdhury  

People believe that cultural nostalgia can be counterproductive to the climate of technological progress. The past seems so much more vivid and exciting that one is constantly reminded of the harshness and tastelessness of the present but more often than not the longing to belong to a different time disappears with the cold touch of reality. But how much have we lost as we drown in the sea of relevance and utilitarianism is worth considering.

Calligraphy is loosely stated as beautiful handwriting, but it’s more than just that, it is an art. Writing is about the expression of ideas but with calligraphy the rendition of letters adds to the meaning. And it is an art which has flourished in the country for many generations, especially Persian calligraphy.

The prohibition against idols in Islam is taken very seriously even now. Historically, this is what gave calligraphy its biggest thrust as artists diverted their attention to the beauty of the written word. Though calligraphy was initially used in sacred texts, its transition to secular texts and later broadly spreading to every branch of artistic expression was smooth.

However with the advent of computers and other electronic media, it is facing a sharp decline, with the art itself gradually disappearing from the mainstream. From being practised in every other household, it now has difficulty even finding space in the academic curriculum. Many academies have decided against continuing their two-year programmes in calligraphy.

The director of the Urdu Academy (which continues to have the programme) Anis Azmi, says, “I’m an old fashioned kind of guy, which is why I’m holding on to this course, but otherwise the pressures are very hard to ignore.” He informs us that the students who opt for the course in such academies come from humble backgrounds. Clearly the numbers are falling, indicating that people are not willing to spend their time in learning an art they once cherished because it is no longer connected to their livelihoods and it is not prudent to continue with something which the economic pressures have rendered useless.

Waseem Ahmed, a calligrapher from the Urdu Academy, is fond of the art and feels unhappy about the sorry state it has been reduced to. He mentions that calligraphy is now found only as a hobby.

But not all seems to be lost, as some organisations are stepping forward to preserve the art. Qamar Dagar a pictorial calligrapher and founder of the Qalamkari Calligraphy Trust feels the art of calligraphy is definitely losing its shine but simultaneously there are brand logos being designed in an extended form of calligraphy. The recently concluded One Asia festival in the Capital hosted an exhibition called Ek Sutra, displaying works of calligraphers from across the globe. But the audience at such exhibitions is limited.

One must worry at the rate at which the human civilization and its capitalist economic structure are making the arts obsolete. Are we too quick and presumptuous in deciding the fate of traditional arts and crafts? Should calligraphy be forgotten and preserved only through such exhibitions and other esoteric equivalents?

As an answer to this question, is was pleasant to discover that Steve Jobs, the poster boy of modernity and all that it stands for, wasn’t much interested in the modern mantra of relevance and utilitarianism. In fact, his success was founded on a discipline thought stunningly irrelevant: calligraphy. In 2005, Jobs addressed Stanford University, a centre of scientific and cultural excellence, and recalled an episode from his time at Reed College in Oregon, where, even though he had dropped out, he attended classes in calligraphy. “None of this had even a hope of any practical application in my life,” he said. “But 10 years later, when we were designing the first Macintosh computer, it all came back to me. And we designed it all into the Mac. It was the first computer with beautiful typography. If I had never dropped in on that single course in college, the Mac would have never had multiple typefaces or proportionally spaced fonts. And since Windows just copied the Mac, it’s likely that no personal computer would have them. If I had never dropped out, I would have never dropped in on this calligraphy class, and personal computers might not have the wonderful typography that they do. Of course it was impossible to connect the dots looking forward when I was in college. But it was very, very clear looking backwards 10 years later.”

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Printable version | Mar 6, 2021 9:02:22 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/features/friday-review/art/the-call-of-calligraphy/article4229368.ece

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