The mystique of Islamic calligraphy

The mystique of Islamic calligraphy

By PAYEL MAJUMDAR | | 27 June, 2015
Exhibits on display.

An ongoing exhibition at the National Museum traces the history of Indian Islamic calligraphy from as early as the Lodi period to the Mughals. The exhibition has been divided into five major parts: writing elements, religion, faith and prayer, tradition and objects of everyday use. The inscriptions have been done on metal, wood, cloth and semi-precious stones such as jade. The show, titled the Art of Calligraphy and Beyond: Arabic-Persian Inscriptions on Decorative Art Objects will continue till 12 July and has been curated by Anamika Pathak and Zahid Ali Ansari. It aims to bring out the intricate art of Arabic-Persian inscriptions that are often presented with floral patterns that accompany the inscriptions.

Calligraphy was a prized art during the Mughal era, and artisans were financed and supported by royal and noble patrons. Books were, more often than not, painstakingly lettered with beautiful calligraphy; the finer the work of the artisan, the more valuable the book. It was unusual to find the name of the artist inscribed on a piece of art, even though there are exceptions to this. Since calligraphy was a team effort, with a number of other artists such as the miniaturist and the guilder also involved in the same work of art, the calligrapher did not deem it fit to sign his work. This was part of a larger culture, where miniature paintings were also made in a similar way, several artists sharing space to reproduce the exact prototype of a floral pattern in a painting, and avoiding any individualistic strains to "mar" the effect. Calligraphy, however, was the most valued if volatile art of that period.

The exhibition brings out the importance that the art of lettering of the Naksh script has in Arabic-Persian culture. Calligraphy emerged from the Kufri script of the Quran. In the absence of art that depicted figures in Islam, calligraphy was of great importance. Apart from the numerous folios, books and scrolls on display at the National Museum, there are inscriptions made on objects of everyday use that may have had significance beyond aesthetic appeal. For instance, whole dresses written over by prayers and worn as a talisman in the medieval period might not have been an uncommon sight, and some such dresses are on display here. Pathak, one of the curators of the museum has suggested that the artefacts on display at the museum had daily, ceremonial and religious uses and were made from a variety of materials like ivory, jade, ceramic, textile, wood, metal, glass, paper, leather and bone. The oldest exhibit on display at the show is a shallow brass bowl from 1495, that used to belong to Sultan Sikandar Lodi (who ruled Delhi from 1489-1517). Other items in metal include a metal palm, often carried as a religious symbol during Muharram processions, medicinal bowls that have been inscriptions on the side, pen cases, mendicant bowls, plates, amulets and bracelets.

There are 20 exhibits that have a name inscribed on them, and use techniques common to Islamic calligraphy such as koftagiri, bidri, damascening, niello, writing, printing and embroidering on textiles. One of the most striking artifacts is a brass globe, inscribed with the name of Mohammad Ibn Illahdad Humayuni Lahori, made under the rule of Mughal emperor Shah Jahan.

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