The objectives of the Akshara project are: To enable craftspeople to appreciate a new facet of being literate by exploring their own scripts and cultural stories through their traditional craft skills. To use calligraphy in design to encourage non-literates to embrace literacy and explore the idea of crafting the written word. To develop a series of artistic works, in a variety of materials, embellished with regional scripts, through a collaborative process between experienced designers/guides and expert craftspersons. To demonstrate how the marvels of a computer and the principles of graphic design can combine with indigenous alphabets to highlight their many dimensions. To promote appreciation and interest in the diverse regional scripts of India.
Shabir’s skill with the pen did not match up to that of his needle. However, he agreed to learn to write and embroider some of the names of over 100 different motifs on a cream-coloured pashmina shawl. He added the local names by subtly surrounding the motifs with them to look like part of the design. His brother Ghulam Mohammad ably assisted him in his work.
Since pens had to be put to paper, kalamdans or pen boxes were the first among many artifacts that used papier-mâché as the base material. A large variety of kalamdans became a part of the collection of scribes. Consequently, the fine artists of Kashmir, trained by highly skilled Persian artists, found themselves in great demand. The need to write, however, was never quite linked to the lives of the artists who made the kalamdans. The Akshara project inspired Maqbool Jan of Srinagar to make a variety of kalamdans in which he chose to write inside the boxes about the history of papier-mâché and the use of the kalamdan. He decorated the outer part of the boxes with flowers, leaves and birds, but has tentatively added some script among his compositions.
Public response to this message of non-violence was excellent. The artistic stones fetched a good price as paperweights and an alternative to papier-mâché Easter eggs used as tabletop decorations.
A platter with a stand was designed in papier-mâché. The front-page news item in the local daily Rising Kashmir about the artist and his creative contribution to peace and non-violence was the inspiration for his decoration. This is the first time that newspaper, normally used only to cover the raw papier-mâché mould during its making, has been converted into the final art form itself. That the artist should tell his own story on his work is another pioneering step.
Nazir painstakingly replicated the page of the newspaper as art, embellishing it with a few flower motifs.
The stones of his story are painted with words and motifs. The words on them are names of flowers, the word “Kashmir” and emotive words such as “beauty” and “peace”. These can be found on the underside of the platter as well.
The intricate designs and inlay patterns on the surfaces of the Taj Mahal have inspired hundreds of artisans over centuries. Semi-precious stones and many varieties of marble are used to cast a rich glow on surfaces of tables, boxes, platters and even chessboards. The dramatic and graphic use of a single letter “k” in Devanagari and Urdu, demonstrates how letters when graphically presented can transform Agra marble work into contemporary objects of simple beauty. The designs of inlaid calligraphy on the lids of the two stone boxes have been inspired by the workmanship on the Taj Mahal. The Devanagari letter is inlaid with a hard black stone locally called “belgium” on translucent white alabaster, which is a soft stone. The black box is made of ‘”paleva”, a popular soft stone used widely in Agra. The inlaid Urdu letter is in mother-of-pearl
For many months Majid and Altaf drew designs on paper, worked out the talim (instruction sheet) to weave the shawl on the kani loom, and came up with single and multi-coloured experiments in calligraphy and calligrams (called as such when letters are artistically placed within a shape, such as of a horse, bird, or deer).
Blockmaker and calligrapher Mohammad Ayub is proud of his skills. He makes geometric patterns, birds and other elegant forms with any words you may suggest to him. Calligraphy was always in his blood. Mohammad Ayub chose Kabir, the poet, weaver and social reformer from Banaras to inspire him. Familiar words of one of his favourite hymns kahate Kabir, suno bhai sadho / mai sadho were carved into a wooden block, accompanied by a series of tiny letters. Waris, a young zari and zardozi embroiderer who uses his skills with the needle, uses a wide range of threads and sequins to embroider these words and letters after printing impressions of the blocks on shades of velvet to create cushions with an antique look.
Hakim Ghulam Mohammad has reproduced the shape of the traditional slate in wood and given them a coat of blackboard paint. Decorating them delicately with silver alphabets in Urdu and the vibrant flowers of a Kashmir summer, they become objects of artistic value as well.
The serving tray is designed specifically with the aromatic kahwa tea of Kashmir in mind. Saffron, cardamom, cinnamon, green tea leaves, and almonds go into the brew. Botanical impressions of these ingredients have been painted in the fine papier-mâché style and the name of each ingredient is painted in Urdu to identify it.
This clock says in different floral patterns, waqt kisi ka intazar nahin karts, a translation of the well-known saying “time waits for no one”.
Another clock says waqt waqt par hi phool khilte hain, meaning "flowers will only bloom at their appointed hour”.
Naresh Kumar, a bookbinder and stationery-maker, does all his work by hand. He has bound tabletop accessories in printed cloth with motifs of Kannada letters decoratively arranged within a leaf shape. Knowledge has always been ranked highly in Indian culture with the teacher or sage taking precedence over the king. In rural areas those who cannot read look forward to sharing the news of a daily newspaper at a group reading and the literate often pass a newspaper around from one to the other so that as many as possible are well-informed about important events.
Another challenge was in trying to create a shawl in the colours of the pigeons that sat on the windowsill outside the room in which they kept the loom. Shawkat tried to capture an image of a pigeon on his mobile phone but the pigeons kept flying away. He was told there were many pigeons at the Maqdoom Sahib mosque situated near the Kohimaran Fort at Hariparbat in Srinagar. There, the caretaker told him that among the large flock of pigeons one had just died after a scuffle with another pigeon. Shawkat gently carried the dead pigeon in a piece of cloth to the dye-master and asked him to dye the yarn for his shawl in its colours. The dye-master examined the pigeon carefully. He then dyed the yarn in a range of grays perfectly replicating the pigeon’s body, with an added salmon-pink shade – the colour of a pigeon’s feet. Embroidery in shades of gray and salmon-pink has been added to the “talim” kani border.
The words are of a love poem in which the lover asks when he will see his loved one who is more important to him than life, and asks his god to fulfill all his desires by allowing him just a glimpse of her: dekhoonga kab use / jo mujhe zindagi se bhi badkar hain / yeh khuda mere dil ke saare armaan poore honge / agar ek nazar use dekhoon.
Manzoor chose a prayer to Allah, embossing the words ya khuda mujh par bhi karam farma / uth kar bazm-e-jahan ka aur hai andaaz hai / mashrek was maghrib mein tera hi daur ka aagaaz hain. The supplicant asks his god to direct his pity towards him and give him the care and attention he has given people everywhere.
He researched words, songs, poems, phrases, and finally inspired his cousin Shaad Abasi to compose a poem about Kabir for this experiment. Abasi’s poem emerged on the end pieces of stoles woven in Urdu in silk. It says kaaf se kargha bane / kaaf se bane kapaas / kaaf se kapda bane / kapde bane libaas / kaaf se karigar bane / kaaf se bane Kabir.
“Kaaf” is the Urdu letter for the consonant “k”. The Abasi poem plays on this aspect. The word for loom (kargha), cotton (kapaas), cloth (kappa) which turns into clothing, craftsperson (karigar) and Kabir (the poet) all begin with the same letter and are deeply interconnected in this woven work. The many shades of life are reflected in the cream, gold and black of the stoles woven by Shahid Junaid. The white and black lines conjure up the colours on a notebook in which words have been written.
The Devanagari script laid out in an aesthetic manner across the length of the cream silk stoles has two lines of Kabir’s most well-known poem das Kabir jatanse odhi, jyon ke tyon dhar dini. The poem jhini re jhini chadariya expresses life as experienced by the human body with the cloth as a metaphor of life. In these lines Kabir says he wore the shawl without soiling it.
The master weaver, naqaash (pattern-maker), and a dozen others who worked on creating new calligraphy for the famed brocades of Varanasi were fascinated with the idea of making patterns out of words. They researched from the 15th century poet Kabir’s works. The brilliant colour known among weavers as “rani pink” carries the Urdu script. The design on the larger end motif is an interweaving of the words kargha (loom), kapda (cloth), kaagaz (paper) and qalam (pen) to form an elegant stylized bird. The interconnected words are obvious and become a leitmotif of Akshara that is about literacy and, therefore, pen and paper, connecting with the weaver, hence the loom and cloth. The smaller matching motif, scattered on the body of the stole, is the word resham, “silk”. Happily, it is also the name of the master-weaver’s establishment.
Weaver Munna Pahalwan has reproduced an old sari that was commissioned by an unknown person for someone in an aristocratic family many decades ago. The tiny coin pattern has the words bai sahib kunwar bai sahibas a form of respectful address. In mulberry silk with the coin-shaped motifs in muga silk, the sari displays the fineness of the woven script even within a tiny area.
Image: Jaya Jaitly, Charu Verma, Kabambari Mishra, Sunil Kumar and the artisans featured.
Text: Jaya Jaitly
Video and Film Editing: Anupa Dasgupta