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.


Calligraphy 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.


AQ = 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 art.


            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


            What 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 vehicle.


            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 content.


            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 pahan.


            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 design art. 


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)


If aesthetic 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:


Large vacant patches in the ground tend to give the impression of spaciousness.


Abrupt, angular transitions tend to impede eye/hand movement and smooth, curving transitions tend to speed it up.


Small, 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.


Repose tends to be appropriate for monumental quality and liveliness for improvisatory quality.


The recurrence 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 –


(i)                 Perfection – imperfection (where ‘perfection’ subsumes harmony, self-sufficiency, balance, closeness to type or norm and ‘imperfection’ subsumes incongruence, fragmentariness, oddity);

(ii)                Infinitude – finitude (where ‘infinitude’ subsumes generation of endless possibilities, overwhelmingness and ‘finitude’ subsumes manageableness);

(iii)              Plenitude – parvitude (where ‘plenitude’ subsumes richness of detail, variation around a norm, variety, novelty, liveliness and ‘parvitude’ subsumes poverty of detail, sparseness, monotony, familiarity, dullness)


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. 




This 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]