Artists: Notes on Art Making

Abul-fazl Allami in his treatise Ain-i-Akbari mentions while describing the arts of writing and painting under the Chapter ‘A’ - 34 that what we call form leads us to recognize a body; the body itself leads us to what we call a notion, an idea. Thus, on seeing the form of a letter, we recognize the letter, or a word, and this again leads us to an idea. Similarly it is the case of what people term a picture. But though there is no gainsaying the fact that painters, especially those of Europe succeed in drawing figures expressive of the conception which they have of any of the mental states, so such so that people may mistake a picture for a reality, yet, pictures are much inferior to the written letters, inasmuch as the letter may embody the wisdom of bygone ages, and become a means to intellectual progress.”

This version was recorded by Allami in the late sixteenth century on pictures versus letters. However, it requires a thoughtful study before accepting thius version. Yet, even today the importance of letters cannot be undermined although values have changed and so also the ideologies. Comparatively, however, now painting has not been merely a combination of successful drawings to reveal content or a conception but a result of continuous, intellectual exercise leading to an expertise which letters sometime fail to describe. It is an era of individualism devoted to personal interest which has indeed opened new vistas and offered new challenges. Yet, there are flexibilities and diversities in the embodiment of the pictures which eventually emerge due to the artist’s behaviour and mental stages. Sometimes artists look behind and owe traditional values and wherever possible their intrinsic characters are imbibed and synthesized in artistic manifestations. The use of calligraphic motifs or script in modern Indian art, by and large, can be similarly be regarded as an extended link with the traditional values and wherever possible their intrinsic characters are imbibed and synthesized in artistic manifestations. The use of calligraphic motifs or scripts in modern Indian art, by and large, can similarly be regarded as an extended link with the traditional values. Unlike medieval days, and without going into a hard competitive exercise and expertise in the art of calligraphy, a number of Indian painters during the past fifty years or so, recognizing the abstract values of the abstracts, have tried to use some sort of script in order to supplement demand of the pictorial space. Precisely speaking, the script is used to fill in the gaps and to harmonize the important compositional factor of the canvas.

This sort of adaptation in pictures was rarely observed in India before the advent of Rabindranath Tagore as a painter. He organised visual form of images - human, animals and birds - from the very body of Bengali script by way of erasures, unconsciously, in the first phase of his creation; but later, the script was probably introduced in the pictures in order to synthesize calligraphy and image-making, thus paving the way to harmonize the art of calligraphy and painting regardless of any positive, preconceived theoretical attempt. The script in his painting was not even a clue to the content of the final manifestation; it only served the purpose of inviting attention for a thoughtful consideration on aesthetic grounds.

The next example which we can account for on the issue is of M.F.Husain who in his early days used to prepare Tughras, an Arabic calligraphic manifestation, in abstract geometrical or representational forms on paper or sometime on glass for wall decorations. During 1940s when he rook to painting seriously inspired by folk themes, the calligraphic touch became evident in his drawings and black outlines of figures. A literal introduction of Arabic Nasakh calligraphy is of course there in the format of his signature. Of late, in certain cases, Husain introduces some script forms for positive reasons. For example, there is a portrait painting of Maulana Abul Kalam Azad by him in the collection of National Gallery of Modern Art. The whole portrait is sketchy in character and on top of the background space an inscription is given Urdu: Sham-i-mahfil ki tarah sab se juda sab ka rafiq (in a gathering like a candle which is different from all but serves to all). This script supplements the character of the portrait and it was a sheer necessity in order to enhance the personality which perhaps could have not been possible through any means or giving any metaphor in visual from the background.

His another painting on Diwan-i-Ghalib titled: Jannat-i-Nigah is in the collection of Ghalib Academy. Here, it is evident that he has revived his Tughra in Nasakh style as in the whole pictorial space, he has written only two words: Jannat-i-Nigah (sight’s heaven) in black with greens and blues in the background. Here the script and its stretched alphabetical forms are emphasised purely on pronunciational variations. To my knowledge, it is the only painting by Husain which can be classified as abstract without giving any representational form.

Eventually, G.R. Santosh in the 1990s and early 1960s used calligraphic motifs as a base for his abstract compositions. Those who are familiar with the forms of Arabic calligraphy, they can easily make out. These forms are generally textured with thick paste of irregular depths, followed by dry brush strokes in the active areas, whereas inactive planes are filled in flat. In Santosh’s later phase which is generally attributed to ‘Tantra’ period, he continued to absorb the calligraphic symmetric format. Some words and accent forms are even literally used, for instance, Iam-alif, do-chashmi, and Tashdid which is incidentally ascribed as a sign of Trishul etc etc. These forms are more precisely and accurately observable in their in his preliminary water colour sketches.

A group of artists who directly and consciously adopted calligraphic motifs as a regular pursuit in order to provide an intimacy and a direct access to their canvases is: J. Sultan Ali, KCS Panikar, Nirode Mazumdar, Shanti Dave, Narendra Srivastava, Reddeppa Naidu and even SG Vasudev in a highly cryptic manner.

Sultan Ali, a stalwart and a devotee of Indian tribal and folk art, during 1960s started introducing Gujarati script on his colourful canvases initially as a title of the painting. The form of the scripts were however comparatively defused and in subdued tone, perhaps with certain visual apprehensions. But as soon as he realised that the complex dimensions of the script, leading to abstract values, quite away from the main active melodramatic planes, thus introducing two centrifugal and active spaces for perpetual visual focuses.

Shanti Dave, another pioneer from Gujarat started adding Gujarati alphabets onto his impasto compositions in 1960s. This experiment perhaps ledto a major breakthrough when three dimensional wooden alphabets used to be incised in the thick uneven surfaces of the impasto in the form of a collage which virtually helped to generate an incredible intimacy with the canvas. Gradually, in some of the cases, he arranged these alphabets in blocks in a flating manner in irregular directions along with the impastos creating a whirling speed and movement within the space. Sometime these alphabets in blocks in a flating manner in irregular directions along with the impastos creating a whirling speed and movement within the space. Sometime these alphabets had been applied through a pressure in the thick wax in order to introduce variations in their display. In the later phases, the Tibetan wooden script blocks were used to give an impression of undefined calligraphy, mystifying and crystalizing the arena of the active picture-plane. However, in all these experiments a slow gradual and well mechanised process is involved. Therefore, the fabrication of th script appears monolithic in character or of an insignia of specialization.

In contrast, K.C.S. Panikar used the script in a more painterly context. Apart from the problems related to intimacy or visual image, Panikar embraced the script as one of his fundamental motifs in order to build up his canvases. Tamil or Malayalam characters of the script in his compositions hardly denote any meaning, content or clue to the painted surface, yet, these characters are so integrally inter-woven that if they are presumably removed from the canvas there would remain nothing except the dead shaded or silhetted, elongated parabolas or allied monochrome geometrically based shapes. In other words, the presence of script in his canvases solve the problem of inactive space, thus creating a movement and action at different intervals. In uniform and equal strength, and script flow sometimes vertically and sometime horizontally in spontaneous character harmonising to the tune of the monochrome spaces. The way Panikar had experimented the application of Indian script on the canvases it has an answer to the crucial issue of Indianization of modern art.

Similarly a Pakistani painter Iqbal Jaffrey almost contemporaneously used Khat-i-Shikast in his compositions in talismanic deep-rooted orientalism.

Nirode Mazumdar, a founder member of Calcutta Group, started using words and alphabets to supplement his linear compositional pattern. With an half-inch thickness the lines move graphically usually either in dull white or dull blue and green. But script has rather no entity of its own in the building up of his canvases. It merges into the image and other forms like a formation of a cob-web. The crystal like uneven spaces between the script intewrlaced and defined lines crete an ornamental character on the whole.

Narendra Srivastava, basically a graphic artist, has been experimenting and exploring the use of Devnagri script in his artistic exposition through acrylic colours. Without adding any complementary motifs, pure calligraphic designs have been conceived, as Vasaraly in the West applied English/French alphabets. He has produced hundreds of facets of Om a musical vis-à-vis spiritual sound which proves the visual scope of the word in itself provided one has the potential to explore. Narendra has tried to capture sound vibrations of Om echoed through defined whirling lines of varied strength and successive strong colours in the chosen areas of the space. On the other hand when he composes various Devanagari alphabets for a meaningful pattern in black and white with a little addition of red, the movement becomes inadvertently slow because of its graphic format on fill-in-the-gap-basis.

There is another group of young artist who have been applying Arabic-Urdu script for their artistic pursuit. A.A. Raiba, Mohd. Yasin, Raza Zaidi and youngest among all is Mushtaq Ahmed of Kashmir. Raiba, to my knowledge, for the first time used such script in his Ghalib series of painting. However, its application has been rather literal, in the sense that the character of the calligraphy had no synchronization with the reproduced image, even no stylistic exercise is observable as far as the calligraphy had no synchronization with the reproduced image, even no stylistic exercise is observable as far as the calligraphy is concerned. It was an attempt which denotes naivety.

Raza Zaidi, more or less in traditional Tughra manner experimented with plain and simple Nasakh style without indulging in any complexities. Selected short verses from the Holy Quran composed in undefined squares, circles and rectangles of medium size canvases in delightful colours may however rejoice to a modern clergyman or a faithful. Artistically speaking, his canvases do not provide any solution to the visual problems or any substantive use of the script. For thre hundred years, i.e. 16th to 19th centuries our oriental painters from Deccan to Persia produced ample examples of their expertise in the use of calligraphy and in some cases fantastic forms of birds and animals were created which sufficiently proves the scope of script. (In this context, however, comparatively a more successful manipulation was made in this direction in Pakistan and Indonesia. Specially Hanif Ramey and Sadiqain of Pakistan, Abdul Djalil Pirous and But Muchtar of Indonesia have shown their expertise and command over the script and its presentation on the canvas by creating mobility, dimension, curvature without losing its basic forms.)

Mohd. Yasin for certain period went on exercising for the adaptation of Arabic script mainly derived from Koofic style. He experimented with architectural motifs with selected inscriptions: Allah or Muhammad, and the like. The whole manifestation, however leads to an impression, of a colourful tile executed through a non tectile method. The script runs with equal dimension along with the rectangular channels within the squares. The motifs remain symmetrically repetitive which ultimately characterises to a decorative panel. In his black and white drawings, attempts have been made to defuse the script with the dark background creating a somewhat mystical effect.

Mushtaq has been using Arabic script comparatively in a well-conceived artistic manner. He tries to define every alphabet as a basic organic form and composes them diagonally with a preference. For example, he choses a word hu consisting of only two alphabets hey and vaw, i.e. ‘H’ and ‘V’ respectively; hey is basically a triangle and vaw is a circle; hence he combines the triangle and the circle with three cuts only to recognize the word hu. In order to suggest the vibration of this word, hu (similar to Om) he uses mostly warm colours in receding hues and in variation. The whole conception and its dileanation leads to an abstract like format yetmeaningfully solving an aesthetic like format yet meaningfully solving an aesthetic and communicative problem. Yet it is premature to predict anything for his seriousness in his experiments.

Reddeppa Naidu and S.G. Vasudev, at times, had been applying script, more or less, in the same format as Panikar was applying on his canvases. The difference, however, reveals that Reddeppa’s script is meaningful whereas Vasudev has given only suggestive forms without implying any meaning. In both there cases, however, the utility of the script and its visually substantive use for building up the canvas could hardly be compared with that of Panikar’s. for, Panikar’s aim was to evolve a style deep-rooted to the soil to which he belonged. It was the result of his love for the traditional values which he had been advocating throughout his life; as he was of the opinion that if Matisse and Kirchner could be inspired by the oriental sources why an artist from the East cannot imbibe those values and transpire them to a new visual format aesthetically suited to the modern requirement, and, for that reason only, as I believe, he had exclusively chosen the basic element - the cript of the land.

Satish Gujral was not directly involved in the experimentation of calligraphic compositions. However, in his series of collages, he introduced the script, be pasting pags from printed magazines or newspapers, in order to evolve a new texture. The script, therefore, does neither link with the theme nor provide any transmitting clue to the chosen images created through crafty exercises. The script explicitly fills the widening gaps between the images irrespective of their perceptive forms.

In one of his series of paintings where Gujral applied thick pigments superimposing sand for textural qualities, he used to sign on the canvas in Hindi in bold scripts similar the that of ‘univers’ typeface. The style of the script, however, becomes the part of the composition achieving a measured balance between the variability in forms. Colours are specifically incised within the contour of the alphabets.

Similarly, Mohan Samant while signing his canvas used the same technique in delineating the script, but, the character of alphabets is naïve, 9as if written through the hand of a child), and at the same time highlighting it as a distinctive visual feature.

Mansaram in some of his canvases boldly introduced the meaningful script specially providing the content of the painting. For example, he wrote in Hindi: Gulab Ka Phool on one of his canvases which is in the collection of the National Gallery of Modern Art. This canvas, is, by and large, of a Fauvist nature. Here warm colours in rewd hues are boldly poured on the canvas in pure abstract order directly from the oil colour tube without even using the Spatula or the brush. Perhaps artist had thought that without writing the caption on the canvas it would be difficult to make out what he painted. Therefore, essentially to make an easy access to the canvas he devised a means of using the script was not at all necessary since the subject matter, ‘Rose’, was understandably visible. In his latest phase of colour Zerox on cloth. Script is literally transmitted without any utilitarian role.

Ashwin Modi, who paints the canvas like an ‘Intaglio’ product, has been using the script as a substantive allied motif for his compositions. There are, however, no complexities or even any calligraphic preferences. On the contrary, it is a sensitively decorative application systematically composed through a fevicol base. Jyoti Bhatt often uses numericals at the chosen place in the composition as a motif on pure linear principles bringing an allied mystical elegance to the undefined floating images keeping an active surrealistic game.

Published in Lalit Kala Contemporary, April 1985.
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