OF CALLIGRAPHY PROBLEMS AND PRINCIPLES
I Conceptual Framework
There have been at least two civilizations in human history,
namely, the East Asian civilization of china, Japan, and Korea and
the Islamic civilization of South West Asia and North Africa, that
are ready to assign to calligraphy the status of a major art.
Whether calligraphy is taken to be a creative art or an applied
art depends to some extent on the place accorded to writing in the
life of the people as a whole. Language is everywhere and at all times the
mainstay of human communication and speech is the mainstay of language
use. Writing is an occasional
substitute for speech, but what a substitute !
Writing helps us to overcome separation by time or space –
it enables us to send messages to our future selves or our successors
or our distant contemporaries and receive messages from out past selves
or our predecessors or our distant contemporaries.
Writing also helps us to overcome the limits on the quantity
and fixity of transmission through time and space and to insure through
easy copying against loss or suppression.
Writing is our defense against human forgetfulness and error
and human desire to suppress or distort messages to suit one’s convenience.
Naturally, writing comes to be valued socially in that it makes
a civilization possible –it strengthens the apparatus of enforceable
contract and law and the accumulation and dissemination of tradition.
In spite of these advantages of writing over speech some civilizations
have been slower tan other in taking to writing and providing the
infrastructure of literacy, libraries and archives, and courier and
post service. The Indian civilization
still boasts of oral culture and oral tradition.
In modern times the use of printing in a large sense and more
recently of sound recording and transmission on a large scale has
also worked against the importance of writing.
Even so, if speech offers us the presence of the living voice
that we miss in writing, writing in turn offers us the unseen presence
of the moving hand that we miss in printing.
While speech is a form of behaviour for which man seem to have
all along possessed an innate and universal propensity, writing (like
printing) is a late form of technology–if by technology we understand
any aspect of human adaptation that consists in the transforming or
restructuring of any feature of man’s environment.
Being a form of technology, writing is open to design effort.
Design is a meaningful form or order purposefully achieved
by man in a product or a tool or in the immediate environment. The design effort selects and shapes raw material to achieve a certain
texture and a certain structure so that the achieved design may fulfill
some purpose or function which in turn lends meaning to the design.
is a form of design art like architecture or lands-scaping or city
planning or textile design or garment design or design of machine-made
products or the like. Design
art goes beyond mere technology in that the achieved design also possesses
an achieved aesthetic quality. (whatever
aesthetic quality non-art artifacts may possess will be incidental). Calligraphy is writing so designed that the output is aesthetically
satisfying. Aesthetic quality
appears on the scene when an aesthetic object open to sense
perception or mental perception meets with an aesthetic sensibility
ready to explore that object. So
saying we have in a way answered the question, Does beauty; lie in
the object or in the beholder? by saying, Between the two.
More stringently put, aesthetic quality is a function jointly
of the aesthetic object and the aesthetic sensibility.
f (AO, AS)
One must not forget that
for writing to become calligraphy calls not only for the writer (navisī
in Persian) who has become an amateur or professional calligrapher
(khushnavīs) but also for the reader who responds to the
The art of calligraphy consists in the fusion of its characteristic
sort of vehicle and its characteristic sort of vehicle and
its characteristic sort of content into its characteristic medium.
The underlying design effort brings together the available
means, the calligraphic vehicle, and the envisaged ends, the calligraphic
content, in an achieved design within the calligraphic medium.
To take a different art, the graphic art, the graphic vehicle
is surface, pigment, and light organized visibly in relatively stable
and flat space; the graphic content is visual experience, sense of
occupying space, and feeling; and the graphic medium is colour, shape,
and tone in apparent flat or rounded space.
The calligraphic art is of course distinct from graphic art
– though pictorial elements may enter into it as in the pictorial
initial capitals in medieval European illuminated manuscripts or in
the tughrās with pictorial motifs in Arabic calligraphy
in which the letters themselves form the picture, say, a bird or a
beast, and vice versa, calligraphic elements may enter into graphic
art as in certain works of jaun Gris or Paul Klee or K.LG.S. Paniker.. And the there are these compositions of verbal
art, calligraphy, and pictorial art in certain medieval Indian miniatures
and Chinese scrolls.
II The Problem of Calligraphy as a Design Art
is the calligraphic vehicle? it is relatively stable and flat surface
with graven, painted, or drawn shapes together constituting visible
figure against ground, to employ a useful distinction from Gestalt
psychology of perception. This way of organizing the available space
is certainly one possibility in graphic art, but there are other possibilities
in graphic art that are not available to calligraphic art as its principal
What is the calligraphic content?
In common with other forms of design art, the dominant content
is creating something useful and achieving some practical purpose.
More specifically, a calligraphic place should be legible. The minimal programme for any calligraphy is
relieving perceptual fatigue through a play of constancy and variation
and presenting perceptual confusion through adequate resolution and
discrimination. Can one enjoy
and respond to calligraphy in a script that one cannot read? One can, within limits, but for the full response
a knowledge of the script, if not of the language served by the script,
is essential. The calligrapher
ay not be and indeed quite often is not the composer of the text written,
but he has to have the capacity to find the text not only legible
but also readable. What we
have said earlier about writing in the context of human communication
(about writing being a substitute for speech and thus a language use,
the overcoming of time and space barriers, the relative fixity and
performance of writing, its contribution to tradition and social apparatus,
the unseen presence or the moving hand, and so on; is all so much
a part of the content of calligraphy. Calligraphy is saying something over the above
the composed text, it is embodying what it says.
Calligraphy does not convey its content but embodies it by
virtue of the calligraphic medium – shapes in linear procession salient
against a ground and adding up to a textured mass.
(Any use of colour and tone and size is ancillary)
Calligraphy is aesthetically designed writing, and writing
is speech made permanent. While writing shares the unidirectional linearity
of speech, It does not share the one syllable one phrase at a time
transience of speech. (Compare
the effect of calligraphy with the effect of lighted letters sliding
through a frame or window.) Calligraphy
embodies its content because its medium fuses the vehicle and the
In common with other forms of design art, this fusion of vehicle
and content admits of three alternative possibilities.
In decorative design, calligraphic or otherwise,
the vehicle dominates the content; the designed object claims more
attention than its actual use; the medium,; for example, celebrates
the very possibility of the vehicle.
Calligraphic flourishes constitute a very simple instance of
decorative calligraphy. Ceremonial messages often select decorative
calligraphy. In functional
design, the opposite is true; the content dominates the vehicle,
the designed object as it were effaces itself and doesn’t obtrude
on the message that is being read.
It is only after reading the letter that the recipient realizes,
if at all, that its calligraphy has ingratiated the sender of the
letter with him or that its calligraphy has claimed his serious attention
by its grave and dignified mien. Finally, in expressive design, neither
the vehicle nor the content dominates but the two are in overall balance;
the designed object and its actual use equally claim our attention.
Expressive calligraphy is especially appropriate where the
text is something that is widely known and is ritually reenacted.
The calligraphy of Quranic citations or sacred mantras are
a case in point. Legibility of the elementary kind is often
sacrificed but the calligraphy may, for example, as much make its
declaration of the majesty and power of God as the sacred verse being
cited. To the extent that a classical Chinese poem
or a concrete poem s composed not of words spoken but of words written
in ideograms or iconic layouts, expressive calligraphy may be more
appropriate than decorative calligraphy for writing these out.
The relation between the linguistic text and the calligraphy
varies as between decorative and functional ad expressive design. This variation may be compared to the varying relation between the
linguistic text and the music in, say, dhrupad, khyāl, thumrī,
bhajan, and paṭhan.
The need not be surprised if decorative elements enter into
what is essentially functional or expressive calligraphy.
Such interpenetrations are quite common in all forms of design
art. An interesting example is the design
of a calligraphically shaped mosque at Bhilai, India where calligraphy
enters as an expressive elements in a piece of architecture, another
III The problem of Calligraphic Style.
Having introduced the proper perspective for understanding
calligraphy as a design art in section I and the problem of vehicle
and content and its three way resolution in calligraphy in section
II, we shall now, in the concluding section, proceed to see how calligraphy
achieves aesthetic quality in solving this problem.
Let us go back to our initial formulation, namely,
AQ = F (AO, AS)
quality is a function jointly of the aesthetic object and the aesthetic
sensibility, there should be some way of understanding this function. Obviously it is not a simple addition of the
object and the sensibility. (Whether
the sensibility under consideration is the artist’s sensibility or
the recipients’ sensibility does not matter – the principle is the
same). The function is a complex one and we usually
call it style. Style
is what imparts a certain aesthetic quality to the object meeting
with the sensibility. An understanding
of style is an understanding of the relationship between features
of vehicular material and features of content material and feature
of form achieved in the medium. Such
an understanding of style is often conveyed in informal observations
about tendencies such as the following:
vacant patches in the ground tend to give the impression of spaciousness.
angular transitions tend to impede eye/hand movement and smooth, curving
transitions tend to speed it up.
random variations in recurring letter shapes tend to give the impression
of casualness, personal approach, liveliness and their absence the
impression of deliberateness, impersonal approach, repose.
tends to be appropriate for monumental quality and liveliness for
of certain fixed strokes in the formation of a large variety of letters
tends to make for an even texture.
Some of the observations
used by those who read a person’s character in his handwriting
will no doubt be of interest and relevance to the technical study
of calligraphic style. Then there are technical prescriptions such
as the use of disproportionately large letter size when the letter
placed at a height is to be read from the ground level.
Let us now briefly consider the three terms, AQ, AO and AS
which are linked by the function called style.
The understanding of aesthetic qualities has been severely
hampered by the monopolizing of the discussion by the adjectives beautiful
and ugly. In actual ascriptions of aesthetic quality
any respectable use of critical language shows up a variety of adjectives
besides these two—sublime, ludicrous, handsome, pretty, majestic,
grand, dainty not to mention a variety of adjectives conveying
impressions of perceptual qualities such as – clumsy, bulky, brusque,
flowing and the like. In
the earlier discussion (‘On aesthesis’) I have suggested three parameters
along which most if not all aesthetic qualities and aesthetic connotations
of impressionistic qualities could be plotted in a three-dimensional
space of aesthetic quality. These are –
Perfection – imperfection (where ‘perfection’ subsumes harmony,
self-sufficiency, balance, closeness to type or norm and ‘imperfection’
subsumes incongruence, fragmentariness, oddity);
Infinitude – finitude (where ‘infinitude’ subsumes generation
of endless possibilities, overwhelmingness and ‘finitude’ subsumes
Plenitude – parvitude (where ‘plenitude’ subsumes richness
of detail, variation around a norm, variety, novelty, liveliness and
‘parvitude’ subsumes poverty of detail, sparseness, monotony, familiarity,
It will be worth somebody’s while to make a review
along these lines of the adjectives calligraphers and the connoisseurs
of calligraphy habitually employ in their shoptalk.
The parameters of perfection – imperfection etc. will be manifest
in calligraphic vehicle and / or calligraphic content.
The object of calligraphic judgment is ideally the specific
piece of calligraphy (maktūb in Arabic).
But usually such judgments are inseparable from calligraphic
judgments of bodies of calligraphic work- such as Victorian commercial
papers or medieval Gujarathi or Rajasthani Jain or Vaishnava literary
manuscripts or Renaissance Europe cartography. Such bodies may be identified by genre, period,
region, or the like. A special
aspect of calligraphic art that one must make not of at this juncture
is that the play of calligraphic style is constrained by the norms
of the particular script or the particular ‘hand’ of the script.
The predominance of detached letters in Greek, Latin, Brahmi,
or Indus valley scripts or that of complicated ligatures in Arabic
or Devanagari scripts, or the interlacing of brush strokes in Chinese
or Japanese scripts surely opens up certain possibilities and excludes
certain others. Again, a script is not only defined by certain
directions of eye and hand movements (left to right, right to left,
top to bottom) as they apply to a line or a layout or a sheaf of pages
but also defined by the movement of the unseen hand within each character. Thus, in Devanagari the movement is top-left
to bottom-right; in Latin it is bottom-left to top-right, in the Naskh
hand of Arabic it is right to left; in nasta hand of Arabic it is
top-right to bottom-left; in Chinese it is top-to-bottom and centre-to
periphery within a square; and so on.
Whether one evolves a calligraphic style or one appreciates
a calligraphic style so evolved, one has to refer to the norms of
the given script or the given traditional ‘hand’ for the script.
(Thus, Urdu selects the Nasta Liq hand of Arabic script but
Sindhi selects the Naskh hand of Arabic script, English used to select
the Chancery ‘hand’ for commercial papers but the Italic hand for
cartography and other purposes. English written by an Urdu literate can be distinguished from English
written by a Telugu literate. Marathi
and Hindi both use the Devanagari script but use noticeably different
hands. The calligraphic style
may often take the form of a systematic ‘distortion’ of the normal
hand – squeezing or stretching the letters vertically or horizontally
is a relatively simple example. More
‘fancy’ distortions may be indulged in for purposes of ‘display’ names.
Aesthetic judgments and stylistic observations of tendencies
are necessarily made within the amoit of a given aesthetic sensibility.
To begin with such a sensibility may have a frankly egocentric
or I-say-so character or a frankly ethnocentric or we-say-so character. A systematic comparing of notes may occasionally
yield judgments or observations of tendencies of an anthropocentric
or we-human-beings-feel-so character. Thus, one could safely say that
informal nanos tend to be glissando, gliding in effect and deliberate
hands (like Kufa in Arabic or fraktur in Latin) tend to be staccato,
angular in effect; or that decorative styles tend to be rich (plenitude)
and functional styles tend to be economical (perfection with finitude).
It will be a rewarding endeavour indeed if calligraphic appreciation
and analysis graduates from informal, egocentric (or ethnocentric)
prejudgments into careful, critical post judgments.
Comparative criticism of the great calligraphic traditions
of India, East Asia, the Islamic Civilization, Classical Europe, and
Medieval and Modern Europe is going to be or great assistance in any
attempt to come out of mere antiquarianism and documentation.
Into critical analysis and history.
was presented at Aksharvinyasa, an international seminar on the philosophy
process and practice of calligraphy at New Delhi, 5-9 December 1968
hosted by Indira Gandhi National Centre for Arts, New Delhi.
[Abstract : I
A conceptual framework is offered.
Certain civilizations have promoted calligraphy as a design
art. Aesthetic quality is the function of an aesthetic
object and an aesthetic sensibility.
In an art form this function is seen as a certain medium combining
a certain content and a certain vehicle.
II Calligraphy, being a design art, with its own content, vehicle,
and the resulting medium. This
fusion can be decorative, functional or expressive.
III Calligraphy achieves certain aesthetic qualities through
evolving varied styles worked out in a given script and its hands. Understanding how this is achieved takes us
beyond description or narration to critical analysis and history of
this art form]