Line of control

Shujaat Bukhari reports on an event to revive calligraphy in downtown Srinagar

Line of control
Early this week the Jamia Masjid area in downtown Srinagar was in the news for an entirely different reason: Khush Khat, a celebration of Islamic calligraphy. This was refreshing as usually this part of the city hits the headlines for a shutdown or a showdown with the police as Nowhatta and its adjacent localities have been a hub of resistance and resilience for decades. The Jamia Masjid neighbourhood also recently earned the dubious “distinction” as the site where a Deputy Superintendent of Police, M Ayub Pandit, was lynched by a mob during the night of Shab-e-Qadr. Only last week when a hardcore resistant turned militant named Sajad Gilkar was killed, his body was wrapped in an ISIS flag here, sending tremors all round. Stories of stone pelting and confrontation with the forces have somehow become the hallmark of life in this politically vibrant neighbourhood which often demonstrates a deep anger against the state.

However, on Monday something different came alive at Nowhatta Chowk in the shape of a moment to celebrate Islamic calligraphy in Kashmir. Khush Khat, as it was named by the organisers, INTACH (Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage), drew a large number of people who would have otherwise avoided visiting the area. There was real jubilation as young boys and girls tried their hands at calligraphy at a workshop, which was part of the programme. Some of them came up with such fine sheets of writing that people marveled if they had years of experience, boosting confidence that this art is perhaps in the genes.

The star attraction, however, was the 93-year-old master metal calligrapher, Muhammad Amin Kundangar, who has spent his life working with gold. Kundangar was elated to open the week-long exhibition. He had thought that the art was dying with the advent of modernism but he was pleasantly surprised to see the enthusiasm of the younger lot.
The star attraction, however, was the 93-year-old master metal calligrapher, Muhammad Amin Kundangar, who has spent his life working with gold. Kundangar was elated to open the week-long exhibition

Art based on a famous naat by Jan Muhammad Qudsi, “Marhaba Sayyad e Makki Madani ul Arabi” (PBUH) got everyone’s attention. It is believed that its first two couplets have given birth to around 5,000 naats in the entire world. It has even made an appearances in movies. “This work on Qudsi’s naat is just a smaller version of my eight by six feet calligraphy of the same naat at Shadipora shrine,” boasted Ishfaq Ali Parray, a young calligrapher from Zadibal not far from Jamia Masjid. Similarly, the works of Fida Hussain Rather, Nadiya Mushtaq Mir, Iftikhar Jaffar and Taha Mughal won laurels.

Holding an event at Nowhatta Chowk was particularly significant to many visitors given the history of the locality that has earned many titles in the past 27 years one of which is ‘Kashmir’s Gaza strip’. Downtown Srinagar, also known as Shehr-e-Khaas, has been at the forefront of the struggle for political rights, and those against discrimination and suppression. It has also witnessed periods of political calm when religio-political leaders identified with the area entered into short term “accords” with political rivals. Overwhelming, however, is the sense of political disempowerment that is entrenched in this part of society. In nearly three decades downtown Srinagar has suffered and it is also eulogized by many who have migrated to “safer” uptown areas. In a way, the Khush Khat event reminded the people of the area of its glorious tradition and past and its unparalleled contribution to fine art.

93-year-old master metal calligrapher, Muhammad Amin Kundangar, who has spent his life working with gold

Calligraphy was born here when one of Kashmir’s illustrious rulers Zainul Abideen Budshah (1418-70 AD) set up Darul Tarjama or the Translation Centre under the supervision of Peer Haji Mohammad who brought calligraphists together and made it a school from where scores of others would learn the art. Budshah had initially brought some calligraphy teachers from Central Asia. The part where the centre existed is still known as Haji Mohammad mohalla. Its students used to copy the Holy Quran and Persian books since Budshah had introduced Persian as a language. Consequently, the production of books gave birth to the art of binding in a nearby locality that came to be known as Jiildgar (binders) mohalla. This was soon followed by paper production with a Kagazgari mohalla. Indeed, the material it produced was so well known that revered scholar saint Sheikh Yaqub Sarfi (b. 1521 AD) spoke of how his spiritual guide in Lahore would ask him to get paper from Kashmir since it was such fine quality. (Emperor Jehangir liked Kashmir so much that he spent his summers here.)

The Kashmiri tradition of calligraphic art predates Islam becoming the dominant religion.  Historians note that this art existed as far back as the 15th Century during the reign of Sultan Sikandar and it flourished during the Mughal period with many dynasties adopting it. It was a profession among the Wafais, Andrabis, Mukhdoomis and Mirs of Khanyar. A handwritten Holy Quran still preserved with the Jammu and Kashmir Academy of Art, Culture and Languages was copied by one Fataullah Kashmiri in 1237 AD. According to the event’s organisers, during the medieval period Kashmir produced a host of calligraphers with many attaining high positions in the Mughal court. Muhammad Hussein “zaren kalam”, Muhammad Murad “shireen kalam” are just a few names whose calligraphic works can be found in major museums all over the world. “The art of khushnavisi continued way down till the advent of modernity, with Kashmir producing many famous khushnavis.”

Calligraphy has also been the sole source of survival for Urdu newspapers in Kashmir. Until very recently when the computer took over, the Urdu press existed because of a host of calligraphers diligently wrote the newspapers word by word. The Academy still runs a school, which tries to draw in youngsters. “It is not [a] dying [art] but with so much technological advancement it is difficult for a calligrapher to survive economically,” remarked the academy’s secretary Aziz Hajini.

This is why the calligraphy workshop holds so much promise. Not only did it remind people that this area has a history other than what dominates the news but it also served as an opening into a brighter future that can be imagined. The biggest disservice to Sringar would be to paint it with one brush when there is so much more to it.

The writer is a senior journalist based in Srinagar (Kashmir) and can be reached at