Calligraphy exhibition: What it took to be an artist in medieval India

An exhibition on Arabic-Persian calligraphy in medieval India gives viewers a glimpse of what it took to be an artist in that period.
Updated on May 30, 2015 02:30 PM IST
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Hindustan Times | By

Calligraphy has always been high art but one of the most unstable of professions. A commission for a manuscript or items of utility might be upset by wars, regime change, the death of a patron or the flight of a co-worker to a rival court.

But if you were a flexible sort and amenable to putting together a single piece of work with atleast three sets of allied artists - the guilder, the miniaturist, the engraver - there were rewards. And there was work everywhere: in the courts of the great Mughals, the Ottoman Turks, and the subcontinent's old trading partner, the Shahs of Iran, with whom cultural links were deep.

Visitors at the ongoing 'Art of Calligraphy and Beyond

It is this traffic and creative output that is on display at an exhibition titled 'Art and Calligraphy and Beyond' curated by Anamika Pathak and Zahid Ali Ansari, at the National Museum.

The selection of artifacts made of a variety of materials such as ivory, jade, ceramic, textile, wood, metal, glass, paper, leather and bone, have been arranged into five main groups: writing implements, religion, faith, tradition and trade. A brass shallow bowl of 15th-century vintage is one of the oldest artifacts in the exhibition. It belonged to Sultan Sikander Lodi; the calligrapher is Mohmood Bin Mahammad Bin Haji Mahmood Farsi. A brass globe, another artifact, bears the signature of its maker, Mohammad Ibn Illahdad Humayuni Lahori, made during the rule of Mughal emperor Shahjahan.

Alam, the palm-shaped religious symbol carried during Muharram processions (centre) and medicine bowls (left and right). Delicate inscription on metal-ware pen-case, bowls, plates was common practice across the Mughal empire, Delhi Sultanate and Bahmani kingdoms of the Deccan. (Saumya Khandelwal/ HT Photo)

Mundane objects of everyday use have also been treated poetically. The lower part of a scissor has been shaped in the form of the letter 'Ya Fattah' which originates from one of the divine names of Allah.

"There was no restriction or boundary to what you could inscribe on an object," Anamika Pathak explains during a walk-through of the exhibition. "Sometimes, the ustaad's name was on the work; sometimes it wasn't. Some artists signed their work; some didn't." The tussle between individuality and team spirit was clearly, often inconclusive.

At the ongoing 'Art of Calligraphy and Beyond: Arabic-Persian inscriptions on decorative arts objects', exhibition at the National Museum

Calligraphy was also closely linked to matters of faith as the art began with the writing of the Kufic script in the Arabic language. It was not unusual for noblemen to wear clothes inscribed with a prayer. The rationale being that if you wore a talismanic tunic or jacket, you would be protected during war or could ward off illness.

The brass-copper and bidri akhbora, as seen in this exhibition, used for drinking water or medicine were also richly decorated with the holy tenets. So, it was not one thing or the other. There were various sensitivities involved with pieces like these and the calligrapher had to be mindful of them. His livelihood depended on it.

The exhibition is on until July 12


    Paramita Ghosh has been working as a journalist for over 20 years and writes socio-political and culture features. She works in the Weekend section as a senior assistant editor and has reported from Vienna, Jaffna and Singapore.

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