FIGURAL CALLIGRAPHY IN THE MUSLIM WORLD by tyndale

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									FIGURAL CALLIGRAPHY IN THE MUSLIM WORLD

The images of living creatures fashioned by Jila Peacock from Persian poetry fall
naturally into a long and distinguished tradition within Islamic art. Unlike many such
traditions of that art, this one is still full of vitality in our own day, and has shown an
impressive capacity to regenerate itself. Indeed, it could well be argued that the art of
beautiful writing – for that is what “calligraphy” means – has, alone of the major Islamic
visual arts, continued its creative evolution without a break from the first Islamic
century until the present day. In other words, it has been less subject to failing
inspiration or to the dominance of ideas from outside the Islamic world than have all its
sister arts, from architecture to painting, from pottery to carpets. If any one art can
claim to evoke the essential character of the Islamic world, in medieval as in modern
times, this is it.
        It is worth pondering why this should be so. Part of the answer must lie in the
continuously high regard in which calligraphy has always been held throughout the
Islamic world. Its traditional association with the Qur‟an has conferred on it a particular
reverence. God, “the Supreme Pen”, first taught man to write. And Islam has always
seen itself as a religion of the Word; indeed, the Word is its essential icon. This nexus of
ideas helps to explain why calligraphers to this day ensure that when they copy the
Qur‟an they are in a state of ritual purity. As the saying goes, “Purity of writing is
purity of soul”. No wonder that the copying of the sacred text has always been
regarded as meritorious. Moreover, the need to ensure absolute accuracy in the
transmission of that sacred text – and here the copying of the Torah by Jewish scribes
offers an illuminating parallel – puts a premium on clarity and thus on the precise
execution of the letters. Once that degree of care has been learned, its effects naturally
make themselves felt in the writing of other, non-sacred texts as well.
        But there are practical reasons as well as religious ones which help to explain
why calligraphy should hold such a special place in the hearts of Muslims. It is an art
open to all. Its presence is pervasive in the Islamic world to this day; the quality of
signage in an ordinary street in a commercial quarter, whether in Morocco or Pakistan,
is much higher than in a comparable street in a Western city. In the visual arts,
inscriptions can be found everywhere, and they illustrate an endless range of variations.
People who can write well are widely admired, and the basis of expression for much
modern art in practically all Muslim societies is writing. Comparisons are odious, and
there is no need to attempt to establish a pecking order among the world‟s scripts. But
even to an untutored eye, the extreme flexibility of the Arabic script – which with only
very minor changes was adopted for writing such other “Islamic” languages as Persian,
Turkish and Urdu – is obvious at first glance. On closer inspection, numerous other
intrinsic features of this alphabet make themselves felt. They include its constantly
shifting interplay between angular and curved letters, its capacity to handle with equal
facility compression and prolongation alike, the visual unity that is a by-product of the
absence of a majuscule (capital letter), and the way it seems to lend itself with equal
ease to a very large and a very small scale, or can accommodate a sudden shift from the
baseline to the upper register. Nor should one forget such apparently innate
characteristics as dynamism, energy and rhythm. All this makes such calligraphy a
wonderfully responsive instrument for aesthetic expression. It has a chameleon-like
quality of adapting itself to all manner of purposes and moods.
        What follows from that flexibility? The malleability of the constituent letters of a
word can allow the calligrapher to employ such devices as symmetry, echo, antithesis
and the like, and even to make words look like each other although in any modern
typeface they would look distinctively different. It is here that the distinctive
curvilinearity of the Arabic script – so different from the angularity of Roman or the
squareness of Hebrew lettering, or for that matter the pictographic density of Chinese
characters – comes into its own. It somehow allows the calligrapher access to another
dimension; it is liberating. The letters can develop in virtually any direction. In many
scripts they acquire fanciful terminations, whether geometric, floral or zoomorphic. Or
the centre of the letter will develop an ornamental life of its own. No manual attempted
to control or systematise these idiosyncrasies. Even Victorian copperplate – the closest
that Western handwriting in standard use (as distinct from professional calligraphy
employing a variety of italic hands) comes to that curvilinearity – is far more
constrained by the rule-book than the Arabic script. Moreover, formal inscriptions in
the West are almost uniformly executed in Roman (or Greek) capitals, and the
conventions that apply in that context are extremely restrictive in comparison with
those that operate in formal contexts in Islamic inscriptions.
        Of course this does not mean that there are no rules which underpin Islamic
calligraphy. But there is no need to engage in deep study of this art to realise that, while
there are indeed rules to follow, these rules sit very lightly on the masters of the craft.
We are told, for example, that the celebrated calligrapher Ibn al-Bawwab followed the
standardisation of scripts introduced by his predecessor Ibn Muqlah a generation
earlier in the tenth century. A key feature of that attempt at uniformity was the system
whereby each letter was composed of a certain number of dots. Thus there was in
theory an “ideal” way to form each letter, almost as if the calligrapher were turning
himself into a typewriter. But one has only to study closely a page of the Qur‟an in the
Chester Beatty Library, Dublin, dated 397/1000, which is signed by Ibn al-Bawwab, to
note that he can write the same letter (e.g. kaf) in as many as six different ways in a short
passage. That variety is not only what distinguishes a page of his work from that of a
typewriter, but also what gives it life. This small example shows how profoundly
unreliable the manuals on calligraphy can be. They can plainly be contradicted by the
evidence of the work itself. This is also the clearest proof that mastery can as well
express itself in creative disobedience to the rules as in following them to the letter.
        As it happens, the calligraphic tradition honours both kinds of masters, though
to judge by the histories of calligraphy it is those who can best copy their predecessors
who form the great majority. As in classic Persian painting, one mark of having reached
the status of master was the ability to copy closely the great work of the past. Hence the
genealogical nature of so many of the accounts of the great calligraphers. The citation of
the past masters in the same style is an integral part of describing the work of a given
great calligrapher. What we are never told in such frankly formulaic and adulatory
accounts is precisely how the work of one master differed from that, say, of his
immediate predecessors in that particular style. At any rate, the relationship to earlier
masters is the principal element of the calligraphy that is recorded for posterity – not
whether that person devised a new way of constructing a given letter or ligature, or
introduced a new layout for the page. It is almost as if the reader is expected to know
that kind of thing without any help.
        This situation highlights a perennial difficulty in how calligraphy is assessed
within the Islamic tradition: the lack of a useful and generally understandable
vocabulary of criticism. What exactly is it that constitutes a weak, average or superlative
hand? The great calligraphers themselves have left very little in the way of clues. This is
not surprising, for one very rarely finds in the same person the capacities of the creative
artist and the discriminating critic. Those who produce masterpieces are seldom able to
explain how they did it. But there is also a strong tradition of masters deliberately
concealing the secrets of their craft, for example hiding from sight the way that they cut
their reed pens. In part this conforms to the custom of passing on craft techniques from
master to pupil rather than putting them into the public domain. Whatever the reason,
the result is plain: there is no easy guide to what makes great calligraphy. Inductive
reasoning is required.
        One innate characteristic of the flexibility noted above is that the letters can
suggest something beyond their verbal meaning. This further significance may be
purely abstract, for example if it creates some kind of pattern, whether through the
design and placing of individual letters or of blocks of text, which themselves might be
so arranged as to create further texts; but it can also enrich the meaning of the words
themselves, or set up quite other meanings. An example from the Ibn al-Bawwab
manuscript just mentioned is the preternaturally elongated ba in the bi’sm of bismillah
(“in the name of God”) placed at the opening of each sura (chapter). This serves as a
visual marker, like punctuation or underlining. It indicates the beginning of a new part
of the text. But it has an aural quality too, as if it denoted a long-drawn-out and possibly
louder sound. This is the closest that Islamic calligraphy gets to the historiated initial
letter so beloved of the tradition of medieval Western illumination.
        The delight in constantly expanding the boundaries of expression explains why
so many contrived scripts were invented in the course of the centuries – scripts named
after the full moon or the crescent moon, after dust or the locks of the bride, after
trembling or after flowers or peacocks. But perhaps the most radical experiments with
calligraphy were those which involved figural designs. The earliest attempts to do this
can be seen in the inlaid metalwork made in the eastern Iranian world in the twelfth
century. Perhaps the first major example of this trend is to be found on the so-called
Bobrinski bucket made in 1163 in Herat (now in the Hermitage, St Petersburg). This
provenance is significant. Herat is sufficiently distant from Armenia, the easternmost
part of the Christian world to experiment – as did other Christian traditions – with the
notion of making letters of the alphabet come to life with figural or zoomorphic
elements, to make it likely that this was an independent local invention. Indeed, it was
the Iranian world that was destined to produce the richest variety of work in this
sophisticated subset of calligraphic invention. The beginnings of this mode in Herat are
modest, but they already display two distinct modes. The simpler of the two
(significantly placed at the base of the bucket‟s curvature, not a prime location, and
interwoven with a frieze of running animals) involves incising faces onto the thickened
upper shafts of the tallest letters. These faces could hardly be simpler: an eyebrow, an
eye and a mouth, with a neck below it. But in a larger band, advantageously placed at
the top of bucket‟s curvature and thus the natural first focus of attention, the artist takes
advantage of the extra space available to animate the letters still further. Now, the shafts
of the taller letters have morphed into legless bodies, some upright, some leaning
forwards or backwards, some bearded, some clean-shaven, some with long kiss-curls or
pointed hats. They interact with unmistakable humour, chucking each other under the
chin, patting each other on the shoulder or tweaking each other‟s ears, shaking hands,
holding beakers or jugs, and stirring bowls. Thus the upper storey of the inscription is
shot through with narrative while its ground floor spells out a message of good wishes
and happy life. In this way the figural elements tacked on to the letters themselves not
only enrich but also reinforce the content of the inscription. This fashion of animated
inscriptions lasted for the best part of a century and a half. It ranged from shafts ending
in a head, giving the visual effect of a long row of circles at the very top of the band, to
tightly packed seated figures gesticulating vigorously, and finally the Arabic letters
themselves either give birth to, or are integrated almost seamlessly with archers,
spearmen and swordsmen in combat, revellers, and dancers performing to the music of
tambourine, harp and wind instruments. All this occurs in the context of letters ending
in the heads of dogs, hares, bears, harpies and birds, as in the famous Wade Cup (in The
Cleveland Museum of Art).
        The next experiment in bringing living creatures into the ambit of calligraphy
was even more radical, and it seems also to have originated in the Iranian world. Here
we meet the ancestors of modern masters like Ahmad Mustafa and Jila Peacock. This
new mode was not a matter of script metamorphosing into living forms which are also
readable letters, but of using script to delineate such forms. Seldom had the flexibility of
the Arabic alphabet been so tested. This practice established itself only relatively late in
Islamic art, when the taboos outlawing religious iconography had lost some of their
power. Indeed, it developed in the very same areas – Ottoman Turkey, India and Qajar
Iran – where iconographic cycles of complex narrative scope involving the lives of
Muhammad, „Ali and certain Islamic saints gradually won a degree of popularity.
Clearly, then, the practice is related to a loosening of earlier restraints.
        When did this practice begin? According to a treatise on calligraphy written by
Qadi Ahmad around 1606, it was once again in the city of Herat that this invention was
made. The alleged inventor, Maulana Mahmud Chapnivis, “wrote the hemistich: „The
price of sugar and candy has come down because of the lips of the beloved,‟ on two
sides [in mirror writing?], in the shape of three or four men standing one under the
other, and both the figures and the writing were executed with perfect skill and charm”.
No date is given, but the context suggests the reign of Shah Tahmasp (1524–76). This all
sounds convincing enough, but once again it is contradicted by the facts, which show
that zoomorphic calligraphy was known at least as early as 1458, when a certain „Ata
Allah b. Muhammad al-Tabrizi produced a scroll (now in the Topkapi Saray in
Istanbul) which included this motif.
        Perhaps the most celebrated of the early attempts in this mode is a probably
sixteenth-century pacing open-mouthed lion, largely created in gold both within the
body and in outline by a prayer to „Ali, the Prophet‟s cousin and son-in-law, known as
Nad „Ali. Since „Ali was known as Haidar, “lion”, the design is also a visual pun. The
piece is signed by the scribe „Ali who “cut it out”. The calligraphy fills the body only
loosely, and scattered white and red blossoms, sprays and tendrils, as well as a
continuous lapis-blue ground, serve to fill the many gaps. Thus script and decoration
counterbalance each other, and to some extent are even at cross purposes; this is by no
means a purely calligraphic exercise. This lavish use of infill, and the sudden thinning
of the outline at breaks of sense, suggests that the conventions of this kind of
calligraphic tour de force were not yet fully established. In particular, the emphasis on
outline, which involved many awkward curves, points – despite the calligrapher‟s
obvious skill – to a certain unease with this form of expression. Perhaps the clearest sign
of this is the fact that the tail is only feebly incorporated into the text of the prayer;
indeed, the tail remained a problem in many subsequent renderings of calligraphic
lions.
        Later essays in this manner, whether of tigers, parrots, ostriches, storks or
cockerels, though often constrained to add such necessary details as feet, tail or crest
without recourse to writing, tended to minimise if not exclude added ornament, and
indeed polychromy, so that the calligraphy itself reigned supreme. Gradually
calligraphers learned to use outline better, for example in the depiction of fruit or the
conical hat of the poet Maulana Jalal al-Din Rumi. The calligraphy of such designs,
whether of living beings or other subjects, was usually of pious content, even if (as in
the case of a human face created entirely by writing) this consisted entirely of venerated
names such as Allah, Muhammad, „Ali and his two sons Hasan and Husain. This goes
also for the many essays involving cursive hands, and also rectilinear Kufic, to create
images of mosques, boats (the ship of salvation and Noah‟s Ark), helmets, lamps and
vases. Very often the image thus created has its own symbolic associations which are
independent of the writing of which it is formed, though that writing may further
deepen the meaning of the image. Thus a mihrab may be formed of a quotation from the
Qur‟an attacking unbelievers, or a multi-domed mosque complete with minarets may
appropriately be constructed out of the words of the shahada, the Muslim profession of
faith. In a still more ambitious design, a huge horse composed of the Throne Verse
(Qur‟an 2: 255) carries a dignitary whose tiny scale underlines both the pride of man –
perhaps also symbolised, in yet another pun, by his throne-like saddle – and his
insignificance before God, as represented here by His Word.
        Given the complexity of these “word-pictures” and the clearly symbolic use to
which they put the Arabic script, it is not surprising that magic powers were often
ascribed to them and that they served as amulets. In such images one encounters an
out-and-out violation of Islamic norms, in which blasphemy is added to injury because
it is so often the very words of the Qur‟an which are tortured into forming the
previously hated images. In his defence against such an accusation the scribe would no
doubt argue that to create forms by means of actual letters would so distance those
forms from reality that no-one could reasonably believe that he was trying to breathe
life into them. Even when the texts are not Qur‟anic, their normal content is prayers or
invocations and benedictions, rather than secular matter. It is this detail which clinches
the religious intent of such images, for at the time that they began to be made figural art
had already been established in the Islamic world for a millennium. There would have
been no difficulty in forming images from secular as distinct from religious texts, and
the contemporary fashion for creating images out of smaller figures or objects in the
style of Arcimboldo (the Renaissance painter famed for his fantastical portraits made up
of vegetables and fruit) shows that the idea had already long been in the air at the time.
The choice of religious texts for these figural images, then, betrays the desire both to
flout and to circumvent the orthodox disapproval of religious images.
        In many of these calligraphic images, one senses that writing is being pushed to
its furthest limits so as to make it express unnaturally what it cannot do naturally. With
their elaborate mirror-writing and the flavour of secrecy and cipher which pervades
them, these arcane images offer striking evidence as to the slightly perverse outlets into
which Islamic artists channelled their frustrated desires to create religious pictures. It
was a current which proved too strong for Islamic orthodoxy to dam, but that same
orthodoxy compelled it to take a remarkably roundabout route before it found the
expression it craved.
        This, then, is the wider context of the images that Jila Peacock has created out of
the poems of Hafez. Where, one might ask, does she belong within this tradition? She
differs from most of her predecessors on many points: her choice of text; her use of
nasta’liq rather than some other cursive script; the density of calligraphic mass which
makes up her images; the sheer range of creatures she depicts; and the way she glories
in that dimension of colour which most practitioners in this specialised field discarded.
These features bear further discussion.
        The texts are taken from the Divan of Hafez (d.1390), Iran‟s premier and most
quoted lyric poet, whose status in his own country can be compared with that of
Shakespeare in the English-speaking world. As the saying goes, every Persian home has
a Qur‟an and a Hafez. His magical use of language, his towering spirituality, the
passion with which he explores the seemingly inexhaustible themes of love and wine,
his vehement satire and invective, the mysticism which suffuses so many of his lyrics,
and the subtlety and allusiveness which permit so many contradictory interpretations
depending on the reader‟s mood, have endeared him to generations of Persian speakers
from Turkey and Iraq to India and Central Asia. Not for nothing is his tomb in Shiraz to
this day a magnet for lovers and for connoisseurs of poetry. He is, moreover, popularly
regarded as a seer and soothsayer, and his lyrics are often used to this day for purposes
of divination, much in the manner of an astrological column in a modern newspaper.
Thus the text of Hafez, while not holy writ like the Qur‟an, is – like that of no other
writer of poetry or prose – part of the warp and weft of Persian life.
        What follows from the use of nasta’liq for these images? To begin with, this is a
ductus not often used for calligraphic pictures. This type of script, above all other
Islamic hands, encourages the most complex rhythms and asymmetries, with its natural
tendency towards the layering or tiering of words and phrases, its swooping lines, its
constant switching from razor-thin to fat, thick strokes, its full-bottomed curves and its
powerful momentum – the very image of rapid thought. These characteristics allow the
artist to vary the nature of the outline not only from one creature to the next but also
within a given image. Thus in the case of the fish (whose outline itself recalls a flourish
of nasta’liq, for example a terminal letter nun) only a very few letter forms suffice to
suggest the upward curve of its back, the flick of its tail and the jut of a fin. This
function of nasta’liq suggests an affiliation to the changing thickness of line in
superlative draughtsmanship.
        Traditionally, most calligraphic pictures rely heavily on outline, often of a very
contrived kind, in order to establish the shape of the object which is being portrayed.
That in turn demotes the writing inside the outline to infill. Jila Peacock‟s technique
does not privilege any part of the text in that way. It builds up the form of the creature
as if techniques of modelling were being employed. Thus sometimes the letters and
words are densely packed, while at other times the arrangement is looser, though never
so loose as to break down into incoherence or to leave awkward gaps. It is a delight to
admire the high-stepping canter of the horse, the proud sweep of the peacock‟s tail or
the branching antlers of the stag, details which are perfectly captured in this technique.
        Some scholars argue that there is a subtle but almost invisible unity that links
each hemistich to the next in his ghazals; others prefer to see them as “Orient pearls at
random strung”. But in either case, the choice of creature for illustration picks out one
element – often the key image of the poem – for special attention. When the image and
the poem from which it is taken are considered together, and the reader meditates on
the connection, the words of Hafez come alive, often in an unexpected and gripping
way. “Neither noose nor net shall capture the bird of wisdom”, for instance, seems a
peculiarly apposite caption to the image of a bird whose very body is made up of wise
words. Since Jila Peacock has herself translated the text which she has fashioned into
these shapes, she is uniquely placed to plumb the subtleties of the poet‟s diction, and to
bring word and image together. The poem which begins “O Heaven show me your
redemptive fire” contains the stanza

                     O fellowship of that blissful flame,
                     Pray call on God to tell me
                     Whose is the burning butterfly, whose?

The insistent questioning of this poem, its anxious uncertainties, its intensity, its
repeated images of fire, find apt expression in the tremulous fluttering of the outspread
wings of the butterfly. It is the very image of mutability. It is here that the very lack of
firm outline in these pictures comes into its own, for the continuously broken silhouette
conveys the pulse of life itself. One last example must suffice. The couplet

                     The falcons of the path repose content as flies,
                     Such is the sweetness of the world.

speaks of repose, not action; but a few lines later the mood changes abruptly:

                     How many bells must ring
                     To rouse you from your daze?

                     Pity a bird like you
                     Imprisoned in a cage.

                     Spread your wings and sing
                     From the Tree of Paradise.

and it is this moment of dynamic energy that the artist has captured in her image of the
hovering falcon with its wings beating powerfully and its talons outstretched. The
rendering of each of the last three outer primaries by an outsize letter ya epitomises the
inherent flexibility and expressive power of this nasta’liq script.
       Finally, what of the dimension of colour? As suggested above, artists in earlier
centuries who experimented with figural calligraphy tended to work in monochrome.
But recent practice in this genre has eagerly embraced the potential of colour. In colour,
as in other respects, the images in this book operate on more than one level. The use of
different colours for successive images gives each of them its own distinctive character.
But the sequence of strong colours also has a cumulative enriching effect on the whole
book. And when an image is viewed at an oblique angle, it comes to life in a
dramatically different way, seeming to leap off the page. The shimmering, reflective
quality of the writing as it catches the light evokes the quintessentially Islamic medium
of lustre pottery or glass, whose fitful iridescence suggests the glint of such precious
materials as silver and gold. Thus the dimension of colour sets up a certain ambiguity
whose character changes from one image to the next. This is because not only the
background colour changes, but also the colour used for the script itself, which is by
turns emerald, magenta, silver, violet, turquoise, vermilion and so on. One might catch
an echo of the famed allusiveness and ambiguity of Hafez himself in this constantly
shifting panorama.
       Jila Peacock, then, like a host of Islamic scribes before her, illustrates in our own
day the untiring virtuosity of those who use the Arabic and Persian script as their
preferred form of visual expression. Thanks to her choice of Hafez as a text, her
innovative use of nasta’liq, her sensitive handling of script as mass, her imaginative
bestiary and her radical approach to colour, she has revealed new riches in this
traditional genre.
Robert Hillenbrand

								
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