Last year, when life in Kashmir was paralysed due to curfews and strikes following the killing of rebel commander Burhan Muzaffar Wani, millions of people were confined to their homes, unable to do anything for a large part of the year. During the period that schools, colleges and business establishments remained shut, 29-year-old Nadiya Mushtaq Mir became bored with the situation and started to do what she was best at. Blessed with a beautiful handwriting, she started to scribble words and sentences in the finest styles on the tiles in her kitchen.
A Quranic verse she calligraphed with acrylic colour attracted the attention of visiting relatives so they requested Mushtaq Mir to make some similar art for them too.
Word soon spread about Mushtaq Mir’s calligraphic expertise, and she became a star of sorts with requests and demands pouring in.
On the other end of the city, Ishfaq — employed in the police department — always wanted to indulge his passion for calligraphy. In between his busy schedule and during his holidays, Ishfaq took up his pens and canvas to create amazing pieces of calligraphy. Living in an area famous for papier mache craft, Ishfaq was always surrounded by art. His work too attracted buyers. Yet another young calligrapher is an architect and others are in different professions, but it is the art of calligraphy that binds them all. Despite security concerns in the state, they managed to hold on to the art that was on the verge of extinction in Kashmir a few years ago.
Interest in the beautiful art had waned due to a lack of exposure, the introduction of computers, dwindling art lovers, the delicate political situation and other reasons.
Now, thanks to the efforts of these young professionals, the art of calligraphy has been making a comeback.
“I have always been inclined towards the field of art, and calligraphy happened just by chance,” says Mushtaq Mir, who had been planning to design a clothing line for a long time before switching to calligraphy.
After her initial calligraphic specimen became public, Mushtaq Mir has been busy fulfilling orders from customers. There has been a renewed interest in calligraphy — both from artists and lovers of art. “Yes, there has been a change in perception of people towards calligraphy. Over the last few months, I don’t have any time left for anything else. The majority of my time is taken by completing various works,” she says.
Terming calligraphy an art that needs immense patience, Mushtaq Mir says that there is no scope for working with 99 per cent conviction — in calligraphy, one has to devote a full 100 per cent.
The art of calligraphy in Kashmir got a huge push after an Islamic calligraphy exhibition was organised at the Islamic Cultural Centre (ICC) in Srinagar. The location of the exhibition was significant as it is the same area where most of the famous calligraphers of Kashmir were born and trained.
In a rare initiative, independent experts, NGOs and government bodies came together to promote, exhibit and train enthusiasts in the art that combines words and geometrical shapes.
Ishfaq, 29, whose calligraphic art was also shown at the exhibition, says Kashmir has huge potential in Islamic calligraphy but the lack of opportunities has marred its growth. He always wanted to become a calligrapher, but a lack of opportunities didn’t allow him to follow his dream.
“I am not able to do calligraphy on a full-time basis due to my job, so whenever I get time I use it for calligraphy,” Ishfaq says.
His work adorns various houses and some shrines in Kashmir.
One of Ishfaq’s best calligraphic specimens is the Naat Sharief of Jan Mohammad Qudsi, “Marhaba Sayyad-e-Makki Madani ul Arabi,” (PBUH), the first two couplets of which is said to have become the source of around 5,000 more naats. The naat (poetry in praise of Prophet Mohammad [PBUH]) has been used in movies too. “This work on Qudsi’s naat is just a smaller version of my eight-by-six-foot calligraphy work of the same naat at Shadipora shrine in north Kashmir,” he says.
“Such was the dismal picture of facilities here that up until now we had no place or gallery to display our work,” says Ishfaq. “But now things seem to be changing for good. The ICC has been helpful.”
The exhibition also had works by other calligraphers such as Fida Hussain Rather, Iftikhar Jaffar and Taha Mughal, with each displaying their own unique styles.
From Bismillah written in the shape of a building to a calligraphic piece looking like a QR Code, the variety on show inspired and drew admiration from onlookers. The exhibition also included a training workshop for budding calligraphers and the response was equally overwhelming.
“Shahr-e-Khas (Downtown Srinagar) was and continues to be a culturally-rich area. Its various localities often represented extreme skill in particular art forms. In about a dozen communities around Jamia Masjid, calligraphy — particularly Islamic calligraphy — was the choice of artists,” says Salim Beigh, the state convener of the Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (INTACH) that helped to organise the exhibition.
Masterpieces created by the artists who were born in the Jamia neighbourhood adorn various shrines, mosques, books and even museums around the world. When calligraphy went out of vogue, some calligraphers abandoned their art and took up painting while others just looked to new ways to make a living. That’s where the ICC at Jamia Masjid has stepped in. It aims to become the hub of Islamic calligraphy in Kashmir through training and promotion.
The success of young calligraphers has already started a trend. Calligraphers such as Mushtaq Mir and Ishfaq are getting orders from the UAE, Saudi Arabia and even the United States, making it lucrative as a career too.
Beigh said the ICC, with the help of master calligraphers, will train local students and those with the most potential will be selected for six months’ extensive training.
Thousands of eager people attended the ICC event. The workshop which included basic and advanced training in Islamic calligraphy, turned out to be one of the major attractions. In the basic course, about 350 boys and girls were provided training, while in the advanced clace, 60 local students were trained in the art of calligraphy. The best of these students will be trained further to become master calligraphers at the Institute of Music and Fine Arts.
“There is a huge demand from people as they have suddenly become aware of this art form. We are getting requests for registration from thousands of students, some being doctors, engineers and other professionals,” Beigh says.
The students will also be taught the history of calligraphy, with particular reference to Kashmir. According to the Archeological Survey of India, scholar Sharaf-ud-din Bulbul Shah introduced calligraphy to Kashmir in the 14th century.
During the medieval period, Kashmir produced a host of calligraphers with many attaining high positions in the Mughal court. Muhammad Hussain, known as Zaren Kalam; Muhammad Murad known as Shireen Kalam; and Ali Ju Kashmiri are just a few names whose calligraphic works can be found in major museums around the world.
The greatest of all, Mohammad Hussain, was a master of Nastaliq style at par with the greatest Persian masters of his time. He was included among the navratnas (nine jewels) of Mughal Emperor Akbar and was bestowed with the title of Zaren Kalam. There are many fascinating stories around the calligraphy of Kashmir and it’s claimed that Kashmir calligraphers invented an irremovable ink during the period. Yaqub Muhammad, the son of famed calligrapher Murad Kashmiri who excelled in the Kufi style, even compiled a book on calligraphy.
Haroon Mirani is a writer based in Srinagar.