In praise of letters

September 4, 2022

Abdullah Shah Alamee highlights the slippage between linguistic signifier and loaded symbol, both embedded in the practice of calligraphy

In praise of letters

Writing also means not speaking. Keeping silent. Screaming without sound.

Marguerite Duras, Ecrire, 1993


Three years before his death, Umberto Eco expressed the concern that we are on the verge of losing an art form. He stated: “The art of handwriting teaches us to control our hands and encourages hand-eye coordination. It obliges us to compose the phrase mentally before writing it down. Thanks to the resistance of pen and paper, it makes one slow down and think.”

If handwriting is an art, calligraphy is its highest expression; it transforms letters, words and grammatical symbols from mere vehicles for linguistic meaning into repositories of history, personality and culture. Etel Adnan goes a step further saying “writing is a form of drawing, although we don’t notice it.”

Abdullah Shah Alamee highlights this slippage between the linguistic signifier and loaded symbol, both embedded in the practice of calligraphy. The medium can also be used to disrupt or develop established traditions, as much as to preserve them. Late Zaha Hadid, the Iraq-born architect, described her interest in calligraphy as related to the categories of fluidity and fragmentation.

In a recent show titled, Naghma-i-Besada, at Tanzara Gallery in Islamabad, Abdullah Shah Alamee argued that each letter as an abstract image fulfilled a specific meaning, and that through their differences in expression these letters become a source of inspiration. He composes letters inspired by the angular Kufic script and adds calligrams, markings with no meaning. Approaching Persian calligraphy through the prism of modernism, he listens to his hand, to the call of the ink, and surrenders to the brush. He wants to liberate the calligraphy from the language and the meaning of words, and go back to the moment of its birth, to the universe of signs and symbols, when letters were hanging between mud and water.

Hurufiyya is a term that denotes works of art which deal with the Arabic script/ language, letter or text, as a visual element of composing. Abdullah Shah Alamee’s emphasis on the Persian/ Arabic words in this context emphasises how deeply embedded is the love of literature - modern – in the consciousness of the peoples of the East. The love for the early classics, the odes of the pre-Islamic or early Arab poets Zuhayr and Mutanabbi, for example, is encapsulated by Elias Khoury in his epic novel Gate of the Sun where the narrator describes what such poetry means to him: “I love the melody that makes the words revolve inside their rhymes and rhythms. I love the rhythm and the way things resonate with one another and the reverberation of the words. When I recite that poetry, I feel an intoxication equalled only by the intoxication I feel when I listen to Umm Kulthoum. It’s what we call tarab.”

For the modern period, poet Faiz Ahmed Faiz stands out in particular. His innovative use of language and powerful sense of history have made him one of the best-loved poets of the East. Alamee’s recent show of calligraphic paintings took its title from a verse by Faiz: Mera Dard Naghma-i-Besada / Meri Zaat Zarra-i-Benishaan... Taking inspiration from the structure of the script, Alamee is one of the few artists who turns the script into, in essence, word pictures. Going beyond the word, he states: I believe in using visual elements in a painting as primary material: Persian script can be a part of it. I do not think a painting becomes Persian by the use of the Persian script. The painting’s identity comes from several elements, not just script or ornament.”

Can this now ubiquitous use of script be described as a movement, just like its counterpoint like marks and doodles? To what extent does Alamee’s work still consciously connect with a Persian/ Afghan Muslim identity, or in some cases with an open rejection of Western representational art? In recent years, Alamee who was trained as a miniature painter at the National College of Arts in Lahore and exposed to Western art traditions, has begun to seek inspiration from aspects of his own indigenous culture.

It is not only Persian script that has been adopted as a medium of expression and turned into art; Alamee is also fascinated by “notions of text, signal sign, and the visual appearance of language”. The works presented in the show have many stories to tell. One can detect a newly-found love for calligraphy and the art of the book itself, which has a long tradition in the region and is now being dramatically transformed. Obvious, too, is the fascination with the structure of letters and the words themselves. Finally, potent messages contained in these works cry out and haunt us.

By drawing on the rich interplay between word and image, historic and contemporary forms, popular and iconographic, Alamee has no longer contributed only to Iranian art, but to art itself. For he has best crystallised the fullness of calligraphic effect, a moment when letter, word, line and text cease to be vehicles of meaning and glide into the pure visual significance of the brush stroke.

For Alamee, a letter is not just a shape or form but has a spiritual quality that opens the path of meaningfulness considering that the Persian script, like music, is a finely tuned abstract vocabulary embodying universal mathematical laws, and therefore has the power to have a spiritual effect on the viewer. There is rhyme and rhythm in the intentionally non-readable calligrams. The squiggly, abstract and illegible scribbles of Alamee show the many decorative possibilities that a script offers.

Deeply inspired by Hasaan Massoudy, who has staged dozens of performances, Alamee sang out to a group of visitors on the opening night at the gallery while putting daubs of black Persian ink on a flatly laid gold-leavened canvas. Like his mentor, Alamee has attempted to introduce a novel approach to calligraphy. Whenever our poetry reflects pain, he uses blunt, thick instruments that block the space. When a singer chants in a voice charged with emotion, he performs with slow and solemn gestures, and when the voice rises in anger, his hands accompany it with frantic haste. Calligraphy helps to control the body’s energy and channel it towards precise movement. When words are soaring, elevated and light, one might fly along with them. Sometimes, perhaps for several moments at a time, the calligrapher becomes the master of himself.

Inspired by the shapes of the Persian letters, Alamee describes himself as an architect of words, seeking to make the letters as poetic and plastic as possible. His characteristic style is the use of single words or short phrases, whether it’s the thick ultramarine strokes evocatively suggesting a steep and winding road in Jag Sahar Aayi Hai/ Chand Nay Mujh Say Kaha or the burnt umber script repeating letters for their intrinsic beauty, rather than particular meaning such as in Meri Umr Ka Bemanzil o Aaram Safar. Alamee has been especially inspired by calligraphic practice sheets in which the page is rendered black with the ink of repeated letters known as siah mashq. Alamee incorporates script in his near abstract works. Poetry inspires him but is deliberately beyond legibility. This draws our attention to the query: What exactly is the significance of quoting Iqbal, Rumi and Faiz as titles to the works on show when the letters chosen out of their poems defy legibility? Are these works some kind of a visual interpretation of the text? What kind of a relationship is being forged between text and picture through these paintings?

The writer is an art critic based in Islamabad.

In praise of letters