We are often privileged, amazed and inspired to see magnificent exhibitions of Islamic calligraphy, which was originally a practical instrument for recording sacred literature. It soon established itself as a venerated visual art form that Quranic scholars used to express themselves and the environment around them. It is held in great esteem by Muslims, as Arabic was the language in which the Holy Quran was revealed to the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) in the 7th century AD.
Like all Islamic art, calligraphy encompasses a diverse array of works created in a wide variety of contexts. It can be applied to a wide range of decorative mediums other than paper – such as tiles, vessels, carpets and stone. Before the advent of paper, commonly used surfaces to write on were papyrus and parchment. In more recent times, artists working in North Africa and the Middle East transformed Arabic calligraphy into a modern art movement. Artists working in this style use calligraphy as a graphic element within contemporary artwork. In Sudan, for instance, artworks now include both calligraphy and West African motifs. Jordanian ceramist Mahmoud Taha combines traditional aesthetic calligraphy with skilled craftsmanship, while contemporary Iranian artist Shirin Neshat integrates Arabic text into her black and white photography. And there are even those who entertain us with zoomorphic calligraphy, displaying peacocks and other works of nature.
In Pakistan, the illustrious Sadequain led the way in bringing calligraphy into a mainstream art form, and many Pakistani artists have followed him, so that calligraphic art has been said to dominate the art scene. He claimed that divine inspiration caused him to develop in this way. He also said that many of his paintings, especially after the 1970s, had been based on calligraphic forms to portray various subjects like cities, forests, people and so on.
As aforesaid, many artists have followed him, and today we see young artists such as Amir Kamal displaying their calligraphic compositions as spontaneous expressions of their artistic ability. Amir received his first training from masters of calligraphy in Pakistan, then moved to Turkey, which is acknowledged as the place of perfection in this art. The Turkish style, it is said, shows its influence here and there in his work, for which he received a certificate of excellence in that country. He has been participating in calligraphic exhibitions at home and abroad since 2000. In his recent solo exhibition at Mainframe Gallery, Karachi, all works were in mixed media on canvas, rather than on his customary paper and wasli. The entire display was of Mevlevi dervishes (their order named after the great Jalaluddin Rumi) quite surprising in their variety. A number of artists have fairly recently made their names painting the sema (ritual dance) of the whirling dervishes, notably Khusro Subzwari, who was first inspired by the spirituality of their dance while in Istanbul.
But whereas Khusro’s panoramic works are in various spiritual colours – often the colours of the chakras – along with fields of flowers and with mosques as the symbol of the divine, Amir prefers subdued shades which he feels are in keeping with traditional Arabic calligraphy, though now and then he uses silver and gold leaf to embellish his works.
He shows us dancers thus attired and enhanced by forms taken from Arabic calligraphy, but it’s interesting to compare the costumes in his work with the actual dervish ensemble.
Before dancing, the dervish removes his black cloak, a movement symbolic of spiritual rebirth into truth, while the rest of the costume is often but not always likely to be white – and the wide skirt (regardless of colour) representing the shroud of the ego. And in the camelhair hat we see the tomb of the ego. These two latter points are very much evident in Amir’s work.
On some of his canvases the circle is said to be the central image, identifying the psyche in all aspects, though in Muslim calligraphy it refers to the relation between human and God. He paints in a mystical state of mind, and says, “While painting (in this manner) my art and meditation become one; here my inner and outer reality meet.” Though he prefers subdued colours for this type of work, and feels that black is by far the best for the background, in this exhibition he has experimented with the use of a striking blue background in some of his works. One in particular demands our full attention, showing two slender, fast-moving dancers in different poses with a crescent moon – symbol of Islam – above. The variation of colour in their costumes adds to the attraction of the piece, and both costumes are half covered by graceful calligraphy, half by a circular floral pattern. This is his trademark in this particular show. In general, the lack of facial features in works on this theme by Amir and other artists emphasizes the suppression of the ego while striving for union with the divine.
Then we have a surprise, seeing a single dancer in front of a building which is basically of the same dull pink as parts of the costume. On the whole, Amir’s work in this show concentrates only on the dancer or dancers, though the structure portrayed here does not detract at all from the effect of the performer, who like Rumi seeks union with the divine. Though this dervish is not as slender as many others in the exhibition, the artist is to be commended for his skill in catching the costume’s movement, a lot of which depends upon the fabric from which it is made. But what is this building behind him, with its strange, cylindrical shape? It is actually a representation of Rumi’s tomb, built in Konya in the 13th century, and where he was laid to rest beside his father, also a poet. It is still a place of pilgrimage today. Its cylindrical dome originally rested on four pillars, while the conical upper part is decorated with turquoise faience. According to a decree issued in 1926 the splendid Mevlana Museum was erected over the tomb.
It is commonly known that the dervish dances with the right hand held upwards to receive the blessings of God, while the left hand faces down, so as to give that light and grace to the world. Many of Amir’s dervishes move in this manner, though some have both hands raised above the head, and in one piece, a diptych, all three have their hands crossed in front of the bosom, representing the figure ‘1’, thus testifying to God’s unity. This is an extremely graceful composition. In his triptych, however, all dancers have both hands raised above their heads. From this position the hands should be opened slowly, thus in effect parting the curtain that separates this world from the next. Though not as attractive as the former, partly as this particular composition would have been enhanced by a more colourful background, and partly due to the rather short and awkwardly used arms of the dancers, one must, even so, admire the variations in the size and placement of the calligraphy in this triptych. Then with the plant forms here and there, plus the intricately written lower border, and with the crescent moon included, it is a picture full of teaching.
How delightful is Amir’s dramatic presentation of two dancers embraced by a large form of the Arabic letter ‘vao.’ The Arabic ‘Wadood’ begins with the letter ‘vao,’ meaning love – which is one of the attributes of God. So in Sufi orders vao is shorthand for aspects of loving, and symbolizes the sense of being spiritually elevated. Done in his favourite colour combination of brown, black and beige, with the two graceful dervishes looking so much like father and son, it is quite striking against its black background.
And there is so much more. Dervishes dressed in blue, in full flight towards union with the divine – a dancer actually moving within an inverted crescent moon. Amir has indeed shown us lyrical calligraphy, and his understanding of the dervishes’ search for union with the divine is commendable.
The author devoted 17 years to classical kathak dancing and is a student of Tibetan Buddhism. She lives in Karachi