Love For the Gurmukhi Script

Originally Published By Sanjam Preet Singh, Hindustan Times

An akshara or letter flows from a calligrapher’s hand in a rhythm, takes a turn, settles at an angle, and lovingly weaves into other letters. Such rendition of letters is no less than a dance performance. “Like dance, the pleasure that calligraphy gives the eye lies in the excellence and aptness of its rhythm and gesture,” says South African calligrapher Andrew van der Merwe.

The word ‘calligraphy’ is derived from Greek and means beautiful handwriting. But it is not just that. Calligraphy is an art that flourished in India for generations during the Mughal period. The beauty of the written word was given primacy because of Islam’s prohibition against idols. Khushnavisi, as calligraphy is referred to in Persian, was used in sacred texts such as Qur’an, Guru Granth Sahib, Mahabharata and Ramayana, and to decorate monuments, metal objects and handicrafts.


Cut to the present times. Calligraphy is no more the revered vocation, all thanks to technology. But love for the written word still holds the charm and khushnavis (calligraphers) in Punjab, though few, are practicing the art with devotion. Let’s know them.


As a child, Kamaljeet Kaur used to draw alphabets as a hobby, ignorant of the art form she was dabbling in. It was not until she was presented with a set of nibs in Class 12 that she started focussing on the technique of writing letters. With no one to guide, and this says a lot about the state of art, she walked alone in her pursuit of learning, studying the works of global calligraphers.

Today, Kamaljeet is an accomplished artist. And her two exhibitions — Aneeq (beautiful) held in 2011 in Ludhiana and Sadaf (pearl) held in 2012 in Chandigarh, compilations of Gurmukhi and abstract calligraphy — are not a yardstick of that. Rather, her unwavering hand that draws stroke after stoke with spontaneity and eye for detail with regard to the choice of nib, texture, colour and medium (crayons, acrylic, water colours and gouache, to name a few) to match with the essence of the text, give a measure of her skill.

“For me, text is of paramount importance. It has to appeal to me before I take up a project,” Kamaljeet says. So what appeals to her? “Gurbani,” she says with a smile and adds that Punjabi was an ‘alien language’ for her till not very long ago. For someone who was born and brought up in Meerut, Uttar Pradesh, udda, edda, iddi (first three alphabets of Punjabi) were never part of the formal education. “My parents badgered me to learn the language, but I always escaped,” Kamaljeet, 42, recalls.

But how could Kamaljeet have escaped from Punjabi once she was married in Punjab, though she insists that the genesis of her interest in the language was rooted in the urge to read verses from Guru Granth Sahib and write them beautifully.  “Had I taken to calligraphy in Hindi or English, languages that I know well, I would have betrayed my inner self,” says Ludhiana-based Kamaljeet. No wonder then, she — to borrow lines from poet Robert Frost— “took the one (road) less travelled by, and that has made all the difference.”


Probe her about the future of calligraphy and she lets her work do the talking. Handwritten Punjabi alphabets on stoles, kurtis, mugs and lamp shades, besides using calligraphy to write sahe di chithi (special invitation letter) for weddings comprise her work and they sell like anything. “With such experimentation, calligraphy can be given a new lease of life,” she says.

Any challenge from computers? “Human hand cannot be compared with a computer. Computer does not have a heart.”

Rooted in tradition

Calligraphy gives Kamaljeet Kaur a chance to get acquainted with Punjabi literature, evident from her work on verses from the Guru Granth Sahib (in pic, right) and poems of Shiv Kumar Batalvi (in pic, far right) and Surjit Patar.

“Being a Punjabi, I consider it my responsibility to take up Gurmukhi calligraphy,” says Kamaljeet, for whom Punjabi was an ‘alien language’ till not very long ago.


Any memory of Guru Granth Sahib written in unbroken words? Well, Hardeep Singh’s work is a reminder.

From the Guru ki Nagri is an artist whose calligraphic work is an attempt to present the old style of drafting Gurmuki script and is “addressed to the new generation of Punjab oblivious to its past”. Not that he has written the entire Guru Granth Sahib in calligraphy, though he plans to, but a few verses from the holy book written beautifully are enough to take anyone on the path forgotten.

Hardeep, 33, from Amritsar comes from a family of artists. “My great grandfather painted frescos on Harmandar Sahib, while my grandfather painted episodes from the Sikh history and my father, too, is no stranger to art,” he remembers. Needless to say, artistic skill is in his blood.

Inspired by the play of strokes in Gurmukhi manuscripts and calligraphic work of Delhi-based artist Sidharth, Hardeep started with the art form in 2007. “Calligraphy is an ongoing learning process. I study Hindi, Urdu and English calligraphic works.”

“In calligraphy, there is no margin for error. It requires a lot of concentration for making borders, filling colours in them and writing the verse in calligraphy. A stroke here and there will ruin the entire sheet and I have to start all over again,” says the artist.

The computer teacher says there is no substitute to the written word. “There are a number of computer fonts of different styles but that is not art. Calligraphy imparts artistry to words.”


She writes poetry and lends it a playful touch by the moves of her hands. Combining two creative forms is the avocation of Maniinder Bains. Ignore the extra ‘i’, as she has studied numerology.

She is new to the small tribe of calligraphers. Her assignments as a newscaster with Doordarshan in Jalandhar kept her busy for more than 20 years. Maniinder says she should have turned to calligraphy much earlier.

Maniinder started off in 2011 when her friend and veteran writer Khushwant Singh encouraged her to do calligraphy. “After I completed my book of English poems titled This Dewdrop World, I had sent a few of my calligraphic works of Punjabi haiku poems (a Japanese form of 17-syllable poem that describes a moment in three lines) to Khushwant. He liked it and suggested to continue with it,” she says. An ordinary post to Singh resulted in an addition to the repertoire of Maniinder, who is ready to learn new things as in her words, “Age is by heart.”

She was already into painting, so turning to calligraphy was seamless. She bought books on calligraphy, art pens and cartridge paper from London. As creative persons become critical of their initial work as they mature — so is Maniinder. “My initial work was ordinary and I have lost it,” says Maniinder, and the lady from SAS Nagar doesn’t regret it because “I don’t do calligraphy for anyone, but myself.”

And then the practitioner of vipassana meditation delves deeper. “Calligraphy, like water colour painting, is therapeutic; it heals me. It is like a meditation because one needs to be involved to ensure free flow of the stroke and this is only possible when the mind is clear,” says she.

Any plans to exhibit the work or put it up for sale? “Ehna cheezaan ch kuch nahi rakhya (These things are of no use),” says the postgraduate in philosophy and adds, “Khushwant had told me, ‘Keep writing and keep painting. Don’t bother whether or not your work sells. Being creative is in itself a reward.’”

Bits and pieces from history

1) The history of calligraphy goes back to the earliest beginnings of man: scratching out symbols to express himself on cave walls. With the invention of writing, those symbols eventually became dressed up with decorative embellishments in all cultures.

2) In India, early works of calligraphy were found in Sanskrit text written on palm leaves.

3)  Emperor Ashoka, whose edicts were carved on Ashoka Pillar, was a patron of calligraphy.

4) It was not until the Mughal period that the art of calligraphy attained the highest development in India. Many styles of Islamic calligraphy were developed — the notable ones being Kufic (found on Qutub Minar, Delhi); Naksh (Muthamman Burj, Agra); Thulth (Tomb of Feroze Shah Tughlaq, Delhi); Nasta’liq (Taj Mahal, Agra); Shikasta (used for writing orders, letters, documents); and Tughra (in pic) (Buland Darwaza, Fatehpur Sikri, Uttar Pradesh).

5) When Humayun, the second Mughal emperor, reoccupied India in 1555 AD, many artists accompanied him from Iran. Among the famous ones were Mir Sayyid Ali Tabrezi and Khwaja Abdus Samad.

6) It was a tradition in Mughal times to train princes in calligraphy. First Mughal emperor Babur was capable of writing in several styles. The last Mughal emperor, Bahadur Shah Zafar, was a fine calligrapher.

7) Princesses had a share in artistic training. Jahan Ara, the eldest daughter of Shah Jahan; and Zaib-un-Nisar, daughter of Aurangzeb; were good calligraphers.

8) Mughal emperors honoured calligraphers with titles. Abdul Haq, who carved inscriptions on Taj Mahal, was conferred with the title of Amanat Khan. Later in his life, he settled at a place that has come to be known as Sarai Amanat Khan village in Tarn Taran district. The mausoleum and his house there have Arabic calligraphic inscriptions by him.

9) After Partition, calligraphers of prominence were Khaliq Tonki, Yusuf Dehlvi and Majid Dehlvi. Now, practicing calligraphers outside Punjab include Anis Siddiqui (Delhi), Sayed Abdul Hannan (Panchkula), and Achyut Pallav (Mumbai).

Sources: The Story of Islamic Calligraphy by Atiq Siddiqui; Sayed Abdul Hannan, calligrapher with Haryana Urdu Akademi, Panchkula; and articles posted on the Net.

When Steve jobs ‘dropped in’

For those concerned about calligraphy fast becoming redundant in times of computers, late Steve Jobs, the co-founder of iconic brand Apple, has an answer. On June 12, 2005, Jobs addressed Stanford University, US, and recalled an episode from his time in college. “Reed College at that time offered perhaps the best calligraphy instruction in the country… because I had dropped out and didn’t have to take the normal classes, I decided to take a calligraphy class to learn how to do this.

I learned about serif and san serif typefaces, about varying the amount of space between different letter combinations, about what makes great typography great. It was beautiful, historical, artistically subtle in a way that science can’t capture, and I found it fascinating,” he had said.

“None of this had even a hope of any practical application in my life. But 10 years later, when we were designing the first Macintosh computer, it all came back to me. And we designed it all into the Mac. It was the first computer with beautiful typography.

If I had never dropped in on that single course in college, the Mac would have never had multiple typefaces or proportionally spaced fonts. And since Windows just copied Mac, it’s likely that no personal computer would have them. If I hadn’t dropped out, I would have never dropped in on this class. It was impossible to connect the dots looking forward when I was in college. But it was very clear looking backwards 10 years later.”

Font of elegance

Paul Alan Grosse, 53, has designed and developed a font based on a 97-year-old handwritten Punjabi primer marked by calligraphic elegance. “Joining each letter to the next without using the top bar meant that there were a number of possibilities of where and how letters join. As a result, each letter in font GHW Purani Primer PDL possesses quite a few versions,” says Derby (England)-based Paul says over e-mail. He has developed more than 200 Punjabi fonts.

He got the lead from the Panjab Digital Library (PDL), Chandigarh, which has digitised the primer titled Ram Partap Gurmukhi Sikhya. “The primer was prepared in 1916 and it is kept with the languages department, Punjab,” says Devinderpal, director, PDL.

“Paul asked for high-resolution images of the primer. We gave him the images on the condition that the font should be available free of cost,” Devinderpal says.

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