Living with a dying art

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His masterly strokes of the brush put life in words. For Ace Arabic calligrapher Tariq Ahmed Shah, to paint is to feel alive. Aliya Bashir reports

He plays with colours and the delicate fibres of the brush. Lost in the art, he designs in the day what he dreams during the night.

Born in Kolipora locality of Khanyar Srinagar in 1970, Tariq Ahmad Shah, 39, is an Arabic calligrapher. “This art washes away from the soul the dust of everyday life,” Ahmad says amid a smile.

Shah excels in the Misri Khat (Egyptian font), a rarity in Kashmir.

He always loved seclusion. He does not like the pomp and show thus remains lost in the passionate world of art. “Calligraphy is my first love. The only way to feel alive is by painting,” Shah says.

His father, Ghulam Qadir Shah, an Urdu proof reader at the government press, and his school teacher found early that Shah had a gorgeous and attractive handwriting. They both encouraged Shah, a young student unaware of the artist inside him. “My father encouraged me a lot. His consistent efforts towards my writing developed lot of interest in me,” beams Shah. “He taught me to write on a mashiq (wooden slate) and asked me to do it every day when I was in 4th standard.”

At his school, Urdu teacher, Dilbar Makhdoomi was impressed with his writing in a class test. “He hugged and kissed me on my forehead,” says Shah. “He wrote a ‘very good’ on my test copy. This word changed my entire life and I started spending hours to understand the fonts used in Arabic calligraphy.”

In 1988, Adb-ur-Rauf a famous calligrapher of the valley and a friend of his father visited them. His prodding would help Shah develop more interest in the art.

He would get old issues of a local Urdu newspaper and copy the headlines, which were written by the famous calligrapher of Kashmir – Shabir Rizvi.

Later, he joined the newspaper as a calligrapher, where he met Muhammad Abbas another famous calligrapher in Srinagar.

“He got so fascinated by my writings. He suggested me to concentrate on this art completely,” says Ahmed. Abbas saw a spark in Ahmed’s writing and gave him frequent suggestions to hone his skills.

Observing Ahmed’s inclination toward Arabic script, Abbas advised him to concentrate on Nasta’liq (Urdu font used for newspapers). But Ahmed did not listen to him and devoted much of his time in comprehending the art of Misri Khat (Egyptian font).

Without any expertise in the Misri Khat, in 1999 he wrote his first panel which was praised by the people knowing the art.

“For me that piece was a means of self-enlightenment. I had written Ayat-ul-qursi (Quranic verses recited after prayers) on black velvet cloth on a flex-board with at least three coats of golden ink,” avers Ahmed.

From that day he didn’t stop his brush and has designed hundreds of panels which have been highly praised by local people as well as by foreigners. “I am not paid for my labour, but for the ever elusive expression of spirit. Art lovers purchase my panels without caring for the price,” says the self-trained calligrapher.

Ahmed says, “The wall writings of Masjid-e-Nabawi which I saw in a newspaper 17 years back attracted me a lot toward the Misri Khat. I could not resist the pull and forgot about the other fonts.”

In the times of supersonic jets and instant food, he is a man of the mysterious world with his quest of spiritual heritage. So he still remains a link between the classical past and a digital future. “To me, this art is the visible expression of the spiritual world,” says Ahmed.
Ahmed blames negligence of successive regimes for the “slow death of the art”. He is not able to get a sponsor, who can fund his exhibitions.

“Few years ago, SHEHJAAR, (Help Foundation), exhibited my work in Tagore Hall. I was in desperate need to showcase my products,” says Shah.

“During the exhibition, I got lot of customers due to the coverage given by a national channel. My work was appreciated by a lot of calligraphy experts,” he added.

His shop gives the aura of his passion. Calligraphed on glass, is the name of his shop – Tuba, in dynamic colors. “I had dreamed about this name. I was sure that this is the sign from Allah. I kept the name for my shop, which means good news,” he says.

His art demands patience and perseverance, but that also brings in health problems. “I have a disc problem so I am not able to work for hours now,” he says.

Shah works with a private organization to earn a living though he has earned “Rs 1,000 for just 15 minutes work.”

Ahmed strongly believes that computers have profoundly impacted this art, for its speedy service. But, he is still trying to make unique samples which can compete with the computerized designs.

“Many computer experts appreciate my work. They take different designs for carpets, wall hangings and other items to feed in their computers.”

He said despite his failing health and bad financial position he is making all possible efforts to keep the dying art alive.

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