Delhi Diary: Preserving Islamic Art of Calligraphy

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By Shakir Husain


Shakir Husain, Bernama correspondent in New Delhi shares his side of the story from the Indian sub-continent.  

NEW DELHI, July 10 (Bernama) -- When the Mughal era in South Asia came to an end, it was a devastating blow to the flourishing Islamic arts and culture.

Calligraphy was one practice that was deprived of patronage and faced a gradual decline.

The rulers used to employ calligraphers to produce artistic writing for literature, crafts and architecture.

In post-independent India, the dwindling community of calligraphers found refuge in the marginalised Urdu newspaper industry.

They wrote headlines in lovely patterns and styles but such work neither brought them much recognition nor monetary rewards as the Urdu press increasingly faced financial difficulties and loss of readership.

As technology took over newspaper designing, the prospects for calligraphers became even bleaker. All the fonts needed to make attractive pages were at your fingertips when you used computers.

Today, calligraphers survive only in small numbers in India.

Their work, however, remains relevant and many excel in what they do, bringing to focus the intrinsic quality of calligraphy.

Vast treasures of Islamic calligraphic works produced during the Mughal period are preserved in museums and libraries across India.

Some of these were on display in New Delhi for two weeks at a Quranic exhibition organised jointly by Dr Zakir Hussain Library of Jamia Millia Islamia University and Iran's Noor Microfilm International Centre.

The more than six dozen displays included a 400-year-old handwritten Quran, measuring 8x8 cm, and various other centuries-old works.

The Jamia library has a special section for manuscripts and had put up 36 of its rare possessions for public viewing.

"We selected the works on the basis of calligraphic style, script and illuminations," Umaima Farooqui, the library's assistant archivist, told Bernama.

Talking about the present state of calligraphy in India, Umaima said: "Calligraphy is suffering from neglect, a lack of funding and shortage of work opportunities."

Calligrapher Shamim Ahmed Bijnori, 40, has experienced such difficulties first hand during his two-decade career.

Making his dexterous moves on a paper to create a souvenir for an exhibitor visitor, Shamim said he was trained by his father in the art of calligraphy.

"I enjoy my work even though it is financially not so rewarding," he said.

His dedication led him to write the complete Quran in tiny and intricate patterns on a goatskin in one year.

Calligraphers not only produce new work, they also offer crucial help in preserving and restoring damaged manuscripts.

One such Iran-aided project involves restoring parts of a 250-year-old Quran manuscript belonging to the Jama Masjid in Baroda in the state of Gujarat.

Written on handmade paper, some of its 30 volumes were damaged when rainwater seeped into the room where it was kept.

This is the sort of incident that may happen when the expertise to house historical works or proper storage facilities are not available.

Mahdieh Khajehpiri, who is assistant director of Noor Microfilm International Centre in New Delhi, said calligraphy lost its importance after the Mughal empire fell.

"There is a lack of readership in Arabic, Urdu and Farsi. You have to know these languages for calligraphy but schools do not teach them," Mahdieh told Bernama.

"We hope the exhibition would help in promoting calligraphy as an art and spread awareness. State support is necessary for promoting calligraphy, but other sources must be found if government help is not available," she said.

Her organisation is working with libraries and museums in India in areas such as digitisation, conservation and cataloguing of Islamic manuscripts.

Sometimes even basic expert technical help in lamination, dusting, cleaning and temperature management can go a long way in preserving the past works for posterity.