December Issue 2014

By | Art | Arts & Culture | Published 10 years ago

Traditionally, Islam has always had a problematic relationship with figurative imagery. Unlike artistic traditions stemming from Catholicism, Hinduism and even strands of Shia Islam, there has always been an avoidance of representational art, fearing it will lead to idolatry: the elevation of the image/icon over the idea, and the profane (thus, imperfect) over the Divine.

Calligraphy of various Quranic verses provided a way for artists to express their faith without offense, which is why this form of art was patronised by Muslim rulers through the ages. Many calligraphers will say that its practice is a form of worship: the human hand recreating God’s word. While it is indeed a somewhat limiting form of artistic expression, within that limitation is a space for creativity and control.

Over the centuries, many different styles from various parts of the world —such as the bold Kufic or the refined, cursive strokes of Naksh — have developed. Outside of purely religious purposes, calligraphy has become an integral part of culture. Step into any Muslim home, bank or government office in Pakistan, and you’re likely to find a calligraphy mural, painting or print on the walls. Its popularity may have declined since the ’70s and ’80s, when it was given a special status by the ruling authorities, but there is still an appreciation for it.

Pakistan has also produced many great calligraphers over the years, with some of the best-known names including Gulgee, Ahmed Khan, even Jamil Naqsh.

And then, lesser known but no less revered by those who do know, there’s Ustad Khurshid Alam Gohar Qalam. Recipient of the Pride of Performance in 1992, Gohar Qalam is the only Pakistani calligrapher to have his work on permanent display at the British Museum. His hand-written copy of the Quran in 406 distinct styles of calligraphy sits at the Shah Faisal Mosque, and other prominent works are displayed at Data Darbar and the Allama Iqbal International Airport in Lahore.

Currently, a few of his works are on display at Sanat Initiative gallery in an exhibition titled Transcendence, curated by Qalam’s student and a skilled calligrapher in his own right, Muzzumil Ruheel. Though Gohar Qalam was unable to attend the event, Ruheel spoke on his behalf, familiarising guests at the gallery with the principles of calligraphy, the beauty and proportion of each alphabet and its faithfulness to the Golden Ratio. “The emphasis on accuracy and perfection in aesthetics and function, coupled with the seriousness of spiritual connotations, has developed within incalculable formalities and rules; how the script must be measured, a stringent system of formation, beautification of the script and so on. These formalities have been refined to the limit where it becomes almost humanly impossible to reach that perfection, and there are few who can,” says Ruheel.

The works are simple, with predominately just the use of black ink on paper, but each displays a different and distinct style. For example, there is one work in which Bismillah is written in five different styles, showcasing Qalam’s mastery over each.

Not all the works are verses from the Quran, there are also several that depict poetry by the likes of Hafez and Iqbal.

Some of the works seem unfinished, while others have grids and ballpoint pen or pencil marks still vaguely visible, as the idea is to show the meticulous process to attain perfection.

Ruheel speaks fondly of his teacher (“ustaad ji”), and is all praise of not just his artistry, but also his humility. He adds that the commercialisation of calligraphy, where it becomes merely a piece of decoration, has resulted in a loss of spiritual value.

Fads may come and go, but it is the rare artist who remains true to his roots. Gohar Qalam is one such artist.

This article was originally published in Newsline’s November 2014 issue.

The writer is a journalist and former assistant editor at Newsline.

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