The written word has an impact far greater than that what is heard. It has a farther reach, can be authenticated easily and preserved in a better way than just in memory. Communication and transfer of knowledge, in Ancient India, was more popular through oral means. We have a reference in Chanakya Niti, where Chanakya says “Knowledge reduced down to the book, like loaned money, will be of no use in time of need.” However, as time progressed most of the things began to be written down in various texts and treatises, Chanakya Niti included. This art form has served multiple purposes since its inception including the duplication of religious texts and as a form of basic communication.
As rich were the oral traditions of India so was the art of writing and calligraphy. Starting from the earliest undeciphered traces of inscriptions found in the Indus Valley Civilisation to the beautifully crafted calligraphies on the monuments, our history of the art of writing and calligraphy spans a variety of languages, scripts, writing materials and styles. While the art has easily morphed and adjusted itself in the modern digital world, the ancient style of calligraphically writing and documenting forms an alluring part of our heritage.
Our story starts with the earliest deciphered epigraphic findings from the “Edicts of Ashoka” and the “Samanam Inscriptions”. While the former is from the 3rd century BCE, written in Prakrit-Brahmi, the latter belong to a similar or an earlier timeline and are written in Tamil-Brahmi. With time, Indian epigraphy became more widespread and we find several engravings on rock faces, cliffs, pillars, bedrocks, and copperplates.
Beginning in the 2nd century CE, Indic literature was transferred using “Bhojpatra” (birch bark) as a writing surface. Several other “Patras”, meaning leaf/bark/sheet in Sanskrit, were also in use. Palm leaves (Tadpatra) were used as a substitute for paper. Later with the introduction of paper, there was a huge impetus to the art of writing and Indic manuscripts came to be elaborately designed in beautiful calligraphic styles.
But what is calligraphy?
Calligraphy is basically designing and execution of letters in a beautiful way which is different from the normal style of writing. It is a creative or an expressive form of writing. Each dynasty that used Brahmi introduced a new calligraphic styling of letters giving us a vast variety of artistic Brahmi.
We can trace the evolution of the script by its characteristics modifications that occurred during every period of its change. The royal pillar edicts, the coins, and the manuscripts of those eras stand witness to the development and expanse of this art.
As time progressed, along with Brahmi, the other Indian scripts that were derived from this mother script had their own calligraphic renditions; today’s most popular and commonly understood “Nagari” or “Devanagari” included.
Indian calligraphy took off to a new turn from the late 4th century CE when Indian traders, colonists, military adventurers, Buddhist monks and missionaries brought the Indic script to Central Asia and South East Asia. Different concepts and ideas were being created throughout.
With the coming of the Islamic invasions and the Sultanate rule in the early 11th century CE, Indian calligraphy incorporated in itself a unique blend of Persian influence. Although a number of different calligraphic traditions pre-existed in India, and Indic scripts were fundamentally different from scripts used in Arabic and Persian traditions, the Arabic and Persian calligraphy came to predominantly decorate this rich art in India.
Calligraphy now came to be used as an instrument of beautification and ornamentation of the monuments, the best example being the calligraphy on the facade of the world famous Taj Mahal! The art of writing moved from being just a medium of communication to an art that formed an integral part of Islamic architecture in India, though its purpose remained the same: the expression of religious, royal or social sentiments.
The Islamic calligraphy styles can be seen right from the 1st Delhi Sultanate of the Mamluk dynasty, with the famous monuments of Qutub Minar and Quwwatul Islam Mosque sporting various Persian styles of calligraphy like “Kufic”. Indo- Islamic architecture, royal stationery, royal orders (farmans), seals, wall hangings (waslis), fabrics, books (in manuscript form) etc. were evidently influenced by this art. The other area which is highly influenced by the art of Islamic calligraphy is the medieval coinage.
One of these beautiful calligraphies is “Tughra”. Taghara means bird in Arabic and the word for the calligraphic style of Tughra is derived from this very word. Tughra is a form of calligraphy in which the names of Allah, Quranic verses, King’s name, the emblem of government etc. are written in bird or animal form or in a beautiful geometric arrangement. The best example of Tughra calligraphy can be seen on the coins of Mughals, Bengal Sultanate, coins of Mir Usman Ali Khan of Hyderabad, Gujarat sultanate and Jaunpur Sultanate and others. Yet another form of Islamic calligraphy is “Nastaliq” which can be seen on the complex of Bakhtiyar Kaki. The notable achievements of the Mughals included some of their fine manuscripts, which were usually autobiographies and chronicles of the noble class.
This art survived the colonial times as well and evolved incorporating new styles and patterns. What majorly changed during this modern era were the materials and the mediums used. Rough handmade paper, wooden sticks or quills and a naturally pigmented ink paved a way to polished paper, stylised pens and artificial inks. The European Renaissance and the resultant Industrial revolution gave rise to a lot of modern mechanisms and slowly the “human touch” disappeared in the rapid clicking of the keyboards.
In the modern world, the basic writing instruments and requirements have changed. Calligraphy is now limited only to painting and to a gifted few who still can “write” in a beautiful legible handwriting. In this virtual world, the way we communicate and keep records no longer needs an artistic ability. Hopefully, we will be able to sustain this art for our future generations…
 While writings in Sanskrit appear only in the 1st – 4th centuries CE, the earlier writings were in Prakrit and Pali languages and in Brahmi or Kharoshthi scripts.
 The Brahmi script was probably the oldest and the most widely used script in Ancient India. Later, the Brahmi script evolved into many other scripts, which, in turn, gave rise to nearly all the scripts, from Tamil to Bengali, which are used today.
Image and Data assistance: Lubna Rafiq
© 2018 Ashwini Nawathe, Kaleidoscope of My Life
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