He was a schoolboy in the summer of 1976, keen on playing in the scorching heat of Rawalpindi. But his mother wanted him to remain indoors, so she taught him to write Hindi in the Devanagari script.
Looking back, Islamabad-based corporate lawyer Syed Mohammad Anwer recounts, “I wasn’t too interested in studies, but I loved drawing. My mother scribbled some letters in my scrapbook and asked me to copy them a hundred times each with a ‘qalam’, a special pen with a broad slant nib meant to write Urdu letters in the Nastaliq (Arabic) script.”
The letters were unfamiliar to the boy, so he asked her what language was it. His mother, Mather Yunus, who hailed from pre-Partition Faridabad, told him that it was Hindi.
“I was stunned and asked her in panic: ‘By writing the language of the Hindus, would I not become a Hindu?’” At this, the wise Mather smiled and said, “Language has no religion. It is we who make one language Muslim and another Hindu.”
Thus Anwer learned Hindi and that has blossomed into unique fusion calligraphy some 40 years after the first lesson. This he has encased in a beautiful coffee table book called ‘Samrup Rachna: Apni Boli (Hindi-Urdu)’, which he gifted to poet Satyapal Sehgal, a professor of Hindi at Panjab University. Sehgal says, “Calligraphic art is very valuable in times when composite culture is a concept of the past. Samrup Rachna is a word coined by Anwer to convey the idea of similarity.” This creative illustration of the togetherness of languages was brought out last month.
In an interview on the phone, Anwer says, “My mother never learned Hindi formally. She told me that Hindi and Urdu are one language and only the scripts are different. She went on to say that in the girls’ school at Faridabad, they were taught Urdu and Hindi in one period at school. She had picked up the Devanagari script by just watching her Hindu classmates write. This discussion of half-an-hour or less with my mother was the first and perhaps the most profound lecture of linguistics I ever had.”
The book celebrating ‘Apni Boli’ comprises more than 60 works of calligraphy and half of them are done in such a way that a picture of the word’s meaning is formed. For example, the word ‘surahi’ (ewer) is written in a way both in Hindi (Devanagari) and Urdu (Nastaliq) that a clear picture of a ‘surahi’ is formed. The word ‘zaatpaat’ shows the roots and the thorns in both scripts. This is something new in the history of calligraphic art.
How did this experiment begin? Anwer says, “My interest in calligraphy of the scripts of my own language (‘Apni Boli’), initiated in childhood, led to the study of my own culture and society (‘Apna Samaj’), which culminated in an art form after so many decades. It was not a planned work or project, it just happened. Scribbling and doodling is one of my pastimes. One day, I was sitting in my law firm, doodling in Devanagari script when I started writing a few words in the two scripts of ‘Apni Boli’ (Hindi-Urdu) in unison. Some of them emerged as fascinating patterns. At home, I borrowed crayons from Sheher Bano, my daughter, and again drew those words in different colours. Next, I decided to paint them. Then all the other ideas followed.”
Anwer is an active member of the civil society peace initiatives and has written books on human rights and women’s emancipation. He also writes articles on social issues, including socio-linguistics. His calligraphic work has won much appreciation in Pakistan, but Anwar says, “My greatest joy was that my mother was thrilled with the work. Sadly, she died within a month of the book release. I dedicate this work to my mother, my mentor.”