Friday May 24, 2024

‘Art of calligraphy will never decline in Pakistan due to Holy Quran’

By Bilal Ahmed
April 14, 2024
Calligrapher Naveed Maroof teaches calligraphy to his students in Karachi. — Printed in The News/File
Calligrapher Naveed Maroof teaches calligraphy to his students in Karachi. — Printed in The News/File

At around 11am on Saturday morning at a house in Shah Faisal Colony, seven to eight women are sitting around a table. They have come here from diverse and even faraway areas, including Defence and Gulshan-e-Maymar.

The women have brought with them ink pots containing a special ink soaked in a piece of cotton or silk thread, sheets of shiny papers as well as reeds carefully clipped into calligraphic pens with broad nibs of various lengths.

After dipping their reeds in the ink pot, they try to create Arabic alphabets or write some Quranic verse in diverse Arabic scripts. Some of them are interested in the Diwani script, which is a curvy, flowery style of writing Arabic developed during the Ottoman era. Others are trying to write some verse in Naskh, which has been the standard Arabic script for writing and publishing the Holy Quran for many centuries.

And there are some who want to excel in Thuluth (pronounced as Sulus in Urdu), which is a relatively larger script extensively used in Quranic artworks that many people place on the walls of their houses.

Their teacher attends to each of them one by one, identifying their mistakes and helping them correct those. It is the house of calligrapher Naveed Maroof, who has taken upon himself to spread the art of Arabic calligraphy for many years.

Besides teaching calligraphy at the Karachi School of Art (KSA), he frequently holds workshops on the calligraphic art at universities and other places, makes videos on calligraphy for his YouTube channel, gives online tuition to those interested in learning how to write various Arabic scripts, including foreigners, as well as trains students in the art at his home.

Art lineage

Maroof mostly teaches scripts such as Riqa, Diwani, Thuluth, etc. that are used to write Arabic. However, he belongs to the lineage of Ustad Yousuf Dehelvi, who was a master of Dehelvi Nastaleeq, a style of Nastaleeq script developed in India to write Urdu that was also in vogue in Pakistan after Partition before it was replaced by Lahori Nastaleeq, another style of Nastaleeq developed by calligraphers belonging to Punjab after and around the period of Partition.

Ustad Yousuf was an esteemed calligrapher who wrote ‘Bank Daulat Pakistan’ (Urdu translation of State Bank of Pakistan) for the Pakistani currency. Maroof belongs to the fourth generation of Yousuf’s lineage, as he learnt the art from Ustad Mehfooz Ahmed, a student of Ustad Abdul Rauf Dehelvi who received training from Yousuf.

When Maroof’s teacher Ustad Mehfooz learnt Dehelvi Nastaleeq from Ustad Abdur Rauf, he was advised by the teacher not to restrict himself to Nastaleeq and explore the art of writing other Arabic scripts.

Mehfooz followed the advice, and through self-learning mastered various scripts such as Kufi, Naskh and Thuluth. He also learnt the art of Naqqashi to make beautiful borders around his calligraphy.

Maroof takes pride in being a student of Mehfooz, who has secured prizes in many international competitions of calligraphy held in Turkiye and the United Arab Emirates.

After he was born in Mansehra in 1988, Maroof was brought to Karachi by his parents the same year. He completed learning the Holy Quran when he was 11 years old, after which he was admitted to a madrasa, where he completed Dars-e-Nizami in Arabic and also learnt Persian. He has an equivalence certificate of MA in Arabic from the University of Karachi.

Maroof says that as he was casually interested in calligraphy, he took part in the Sadequain Awards organised by the Karachi Metropolitan Corporation in 2008.

He remembers that Ustad Abdur Rauf, who was the judge of the competition, asked him what made him write gigantic Alifs (the first letter of Arabic) stretching over the entire length of the paper.

Maroof replied he had not learnt the art and had just tried to write in a manner similar to what he had observed. He, of course, received no prize but Ustad Abdur Rauf handed him over to Mehfooz, who taught him the art of calligraphy for eight years.

Apart from teaching the art, Maroof works on artworks whose commission he receives. He has also designed titles for the covers of books and magazines, including Umera Ahmed’s novel ‘Alif’. He has also written epitaphs for tombstones.

Not declining

Maroof has an interesting take on the state of the art of calligraphy in the country. He says the art would never decline in Pakistan because as long as the people recite the Holy Quran, some of them would always be interested in the art of writing it, which would draw them towards Arabic scripts and the art of calligraphy.

However, he also laments that calligraphy is not being taught as it should be. He says that currently the KSA is the only art institute of Karachi that offers extensive courses in calligraphy.

Institutions like the Arts Council of Pakistan or the Indus Valley School only offer short courses or crash courses in the art, he says, adding that calligraphy is also included in the curriculum of KU’s Department of Visual Studies, but as they have to teach many other things there, the only script they teach is Kufi, an old script of Arabic mostly based on straight strokes with less use of curves.

He explains that in many other areas of the country, the teaching of calligraphy, or Khataati, as it is called in Urdu, is restricted to the Nastaleeq script, which is the standard script to write Urdu. Nastaleeq was evolved in Iran from an earlier script called Taleeq.

Maroof has always had more female than male students. He feels the reason for this is that housewives can easily find time to practise calligraphy than working men and women.

“This art demands investing a lot of time,” he says, adding that he always tells his students to practise at least two hours every day if they want to become a professional calligrapher.”

A regal art

Calligraphy is a regal art, and one must give it due respect and adhere to its regal requirements, says Maroof. One has to spend financial resources on it, and sacrifice other interests and even basic needs in order to attain excellence in the art, he stresses.

Many of the regal requirements, which Maroof calls ‘Shahi Shashkay’, can be easily substituted by cheap alternatives. For example, any piece of cloth would suffice for keeping under the palm while creating a calligraphic artwork to prevent the sweat from the hand from spoiling the paper. However, Maroof has rabbit furs to serve that purpose because the earlier masters recommended them.

Likewise, a piece of cotton can also be used in the ink pot to soak ink so that the pen could be pressed against it to take ink from it, but traditionally, calligraphers use threads of pure silk for that because they believe silk is more appropriate to use when you have embarked on some royal task.

Another interesting accessory that Maroof keeps is a porcupine’s spine. Its purpose is just to mix water and ink. Apart from these unnecessary expenses that newcomers can easily find alternatives to, almost all necessary accessories that a professional calligrapher needs are imported.

Maroof says that Narkal reeds of Pakistan are also good enough to write with, but high-quality reeds such as Khezran and Disfoli come from Iran. Some calligraphers also seek Javi Qalam from Indonesia.

Maroof finalises his art on handmade paper produced from the barks of banana or mulberry trees. He laments that although banana and mulberry trees are found in abundance in Pakistan, no one here seems to know how to make paper from them, because of which that special paper is imported from India.

The black calligraphic ink made from soot that he uses is Japanese, and the coloured inks come from Germany. Many of these accessories are not available at stationery or even art shops, and they have to be privately ordered.

The Qalamtarash, which is a special knife to clip the reed to form a pen, is also not available in Pakistan. Maroof has one from Iran. He advises his students to use a paper cutter for trimming their pens.

Variety of styles

Maroof mostly teaches the Arabic scripts of Riqa (also pronounced as Ruqa), Diwani, Diwani Jali, Naskh and Thuluth. If any student wants to learn more than one style, he prefers to use the Turkish teaching model of starting from Riqa, which is the official script of Arabic in the Arab countries these days and considered an easier script to learn, and ending on Thuluth, which is a difficult style to master.

About the Turkish model of teaching calligraphy, he explained that although Turkiye is not an Arab country, it is still currently the hub of calligraphic art because calligraphy flourished during the Ottoman era and is part of the country’s heritage.

The trend of calligraphy in Turkey was heavily jolted when the country was secularised following the First World War. The largest academy of calligraphy was shut down, as a result of which one of the leading calligraphers had to adopt the profession of gardening, Maroof says.

However, he points out, after a while the prestige of the art was restored there, and today Turkiye is the only country whose institutions award degrees in calligraphy.