Nastaliq Calligraphy

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The intricate forms and long history of this calligraphic style

Students in class practising calligraphy and training their hands to master the curves.

Nastaliq Calligraphy
Nastaliq is a style of Islamic calligraphy formalized in the 14th century by the master calligrapher Mir ‘Ali Tabrizi, though its exact origins are unclear. The name indicates the combination of elements of two predating styles, ‘Naskh’ and ‘Ta’liq’. Although Islamic calligraphy’s early development was exclusively confined to the Arabic language, Nastaliq was the first style to be invented with the Persian language in mind. As one contemporary Afghan calligrapher said: “You cannot bring as much beauty to Farsi text with other (i.e. Arabic) calligraphy fonts.”

The Persian script is the same as Arabic, written from right to left, but with the addition of four extra characters. The general trajectory of the Nastaliq script slopes from top to bottom. This is of particular significance as there is no fixed level or height for any character. The ‘Ta’liq’ element, meaning ‘hanging’ in Arabic, points to this style’s highly cursive nature, where the characters’ strokes literally ‘hang’ from the imagined horizontal line.

Nastaliq calligraphy miniature painting exhibited at the Smithsonian Freer | Sackler Galleries in Washington D.C.

The nature of the Persian and Arabic scripts means that each character usually takes a different shape depending on whether it is at the beginning, middle, or end of a word. The Nastaliq style of writing is even more context-specific, and the shape of a character may be altered depending on the 4th or 5th preceding character of the word.

The thousands of ligatures, or character combinations (the Persian script has 32 characters), all have rules that frame the Nastaliq practice. The arduous task of memorising these rules makes this style particularly difficult for students to master. However, they also provide the calligrapher with ample space for interpretation and creativity.

Nastaliq calligraphy has been employed in many different contexts over the centuries. However, as one of the Persianate world’s primary art forms, Persian poetry has most frequently been written by Nastaliq calligraphers. When one thinks of Nastaliq calligraphy, it is very often within this context, where two ‘bayts’ (lines of poetry, themselves divided into two hemistichs) are written on a panel across four lines, the shapes of the words highlighted by a cloud-like border, surrounded and embellished further by 'tazhib' and miniature floral and vegetal designs. Today, however, it is used in countless media and is an ever-changing craft.

Nowadays, more than a dozen languages around the world use the Nastaliq script, a result of the widespread reach of Persianate culture.

The extreme flexibility, resilience and ubiquity of this style has, from the 15th century to the present-day, made it a unique feature of Afghan society.

Nastaliq calligraphy is regarded by many practitioners as the most beautiful script, so much so that it has informally been given the title of "The Bride of Calligraphy”. The high renown in which it is held is derived in large part from its characteristic curves and the way it flows so effortlessly across the page. For many calligraphers there is an additional, mystical quality. To some degree this is a result of the Persianate poetry, infused with Sufi beliefs, that Nastaliq was often used to convey. But it is also due to the shapes of the characters and ligatures reflecting the curves found in nature.

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