“The beauty of writing is the tongue of the hand and the elegance of thought.”
-Ali Ibn e Ibi Talib
The discipline of writing calligraphy has a spiritual importance and calligraphy’s fusion with art is spellbinding. Calligraphy is not new to anyone, but its history and roots resonate within Islam since the early centuries. It is believed that the recognition of Islamic calligraphy is attributed to Hazrat Ali ibn e Ibi Talib and the script has originated in Kufa so the oldest calligraphy style was named Kufic.
As Islam spread, calligraphy further gained advancement and maturity in techniques and forms by coming in touch with the diverse local and regional art styles of many lands. The foundation of Islamic calligraphy was laid by three calligraphers from Baghdad, the Vizier, and Ibn Muqla of the Abbasid Court who established the principles of calligraphy which are still practiced, Ibn al-Bawwab, and Yakut al-Musta’simi of Amasya.
Since decades this supreme art is practiced all over the world and Pakistan is among those countries which were bestowed with master calligraphers like Ismail Gulgee, Sadequain, Askari Mian Irani, Jameel Naqsh and Ahmed Khan who accelerated calligraphy towards a modern and contemporary progression.
Rashid Arshed is among the predecessors of Pakistani calligraphists who has kept the script alive and an equally important fragment of contemporary art in Pakistan. He did not only decode the beauty of calligraphy in his each piece of art but also reinvented it through unique techniques without losing the essence of the old style calligraphy.
Arshed is a very well-known calligrapher who has not only gathered appreciation in Pakistan but his work has also been lauded internationally. Like always, Arshed once again astounded the art enthusiasts and art community through his mezmerising calligraphy in a show titled Text and Texture which opened at Koel on the February 27, 2018.
In his show, the artist displayed 22 paintings using oil and acrylic on canvas. He utilized the dichotomic play of soft and vibrant colors for the background while multiple colors were used to enhance the letters and calligraphic script which complimented the background and highlighted the beauty of both, the background colors and the foreground text purely depicted peace and spirituality.
Talking about the process the artist explicated:
“You start with a blank canvas. Everyone does. There is always something in the mind, either after seeing the canvas, or before. You follow the trail of your mind. Often you are pretty much on track. Every now and then, you may want to change the course of your pre-conceived thoughts according to the dictates of the moment. This is basic creative process. The canvas may be a piece of paper used by a poet or a writer, the medium may be clay used by a sculptor, sounds used by a composer or pigments used by an artist. Then there is composition in every work of art, the movements of lines or sound in every direction, projected and receding, bright and faded, soft or robust. The text in my work is nothing but the lines and forms. You may also call them sounds, almost always illegible, but visible or audible. Occasionally, when a readable word comes to my mind, I do not hesitate to jot it down, although the presence of a readable word may be more significant as an element of the composition than its literary meaning.”
The exhibition had a range of paintings vacillating from minimal to maximum employment of text on canvases, to surfaces rendered in such a way that they appeared to be patterns and textures. When asked on how he organizes his canvas the artist replied:
“Space is the most important element in any design. While composing a painting I am actually working with space. Space in its simplest definition is the unused part of a composition, but this definition is incomplete and deceiving. In fact, the entire design is based on the concept of space. Consciously or unconsciously an artist is playing with space to organize his elements of design. Often I try to keep my composition minimal, yet at times the phenomena of meditation takes over making the text look too busy. As I have already stated, most of the text I use is unreadable. There are exceptions nonetheless.”
Not every painting has to have a meaning and understanding, it’s just the eyes and the mind of the viewer who gives art its meaning. Rashid Arshed expands on the purpose and motive behind the incomprehensible text:
“My medium is visual, not textual. Even a large number of specimens, ranging from artistic masterpieces to traditional calligraphy, are unreadable. They appear indecipherable either because the text is very intricate, or placed high on a dome, minar, or an arch of a mosque or on a tomb. Then there are millions which are foreign in language, and though unable to decipher a word or a letter, yet we admire and appreciate its aesthetics. I want all viewers to become aliens to the literal meaning of the text in my paintings and explore and admire the visual and aesthetic appeal.”
The saying purity of writing is the purity of soul best describes Rashid Arshed’s calligraphy which is not only a medium of expression but also food for his soul.
Arshed dedicated this exhibition to Late Imran Mir, a successful and renowned artist, who was his student at the Central Institue of Arts and Crafts (CIAC) in Karachi. Arshed shared the sentimental reason behind dedicating the exhibition to one of his best students, a friend and among the best artists that Pakistan has produced. He said:
“Since his school days he showed lot of talent and was highly respectful of me. In the course of time we became good friends. He and his wife, Nighat Mir, received me with open arms whenever I came to Karachi. Sadly, Imran passed away a little too soon, leaving many of his friends and admirers agrieved. Dedicating my show at Koel Gallery is a small way of paying my homage to a person who left behind a great legacy.”
Arshed has not only performed miracles in calligraphy but also reinvented it. His work enjoys recognition all over the world with his art serving as a source of mediation relieving the soul from agony. The tranquility of spun through the magical strokes construct an amalgamation of colors and scripts in ways which soothe the eyes and nurtures the soul.
Arshed extends support to established and upcoming artists working with calligraphy. He expands:
“Change is the only constant. The young artists should practice what they believe is right without rejecting the genuineness of any form of art. There would be no progress in any filed if we stick to old practices alone. The artist of early decades of Pakistani art played their role in inventing and advocating what they believed was right. You cannot undermine the role they played. They played a remarkable innings before going back to the pavilion. Their names have been carved in history. Now, the young artists are at the crease. Let’s see how they handle the curve ball.”
He further discussed the future of calligraphic paintings in Pakistan and said:
“In order to determine the future of calligraphy in Pakistan we ought to look at its past and present. Calligraphic paintings were introduced in the fifties and sixties, an indigenous and genuine expression of art according to some. Some of the earliest exponents of calligraphic paintings were, Hanif Ramey, Sadequin, Guljee, Zahoorul Akhlaq including myself. Many more followed. At the same time, calligraphic paintings gained popularity in almost all other Islamic countries. Overtime, the political and cultural scene in Pakistan began to change rapidly. With the Russian invasion of Afghanistan, Pakistan became the center for global, political and cultural change. Our young artists, and in particular the art schools, began to address the issues of war, oppression of women and other socio-political concerns. Even in this scenario, calligraphy continued to be used either independently, or as part of the artistic work. But it lost the scale and sublime of the era of sixties and seventies. Although calligraphy will continue to be practiced, both in traditional and contemporary forms, with the ever changing patterns of life, the political turmoil, and rapid globalization, I hope that it will continue to influence the art world with the same vigor as it did in the past.”