This article “Rendering The Tradition” was first featured in: Asian Geographic magazine, Cultures of Islam Edition. No. 81 Issue 4/2011. Pg 86.
Article written by: Faizal Somadi. • Featured calligraphy masthead design on cover by: Faizal Somadi • Photography by: Jon Ramlan/Hairol Mahsus
When the Holy Quran commands: “Read!”, I recalled the teachings of my late grandfather who taught me about the evolution of scripts through religion, culture and civilization which reflects the importance of communication in delivering knowledge to mankind. From cavemen’s illustrations on the mountain walls, to scripts written on parchments and to the world of pixels that take forms of the digital language. It is a wonder how these systems of communication evolved from the practicality of it to the fine artistry in it.
Doodling, scribbling and drawing are my natural habits as young as two years old. At eight, I adopted my grandfather’s habits of writing a dairy, admiring his handwritings even until he passed away. It was fortunate to receive my first calligraphy lesson when I was only ten in the elementary school. By eleven, apart from drawing, copying school textbooks was my simple hobby. The joy of writing bloomed further as I excel in calligraphy through which I created some monumental pieces for my high school. Despite being comfortable with it, I never want to use it for my art examination subject. Ever since then, it has become a hobby and a habit.
When I joined the School of Design in 1996, I learned typography and design journalism. My design journal accounts were filled with illustrations of not only pictorial subjects, but words and alphabets and text contents that were fully calligraphed. Majoring in Graphic Design, typography was one of the basic fundamentals. The clash of interests between illustration and typography has produced fruitful yet awful mistakes whilst undergoing through the early explorations. The passion that I had doesn’t compose the right mixture. Graphic design, illustration and calligraphy are all different discipline in its own purpose and practice. Then, it was difficult to define the right passage for the right passion.
My first small pilgrimage trip to Saudi Arabia in 1998 probably struck a deeper sense of calligraphy interest subconsciously. The scripts on desert stones and walls, and fine transcriptions of holy verses in the mosques never fail to put me in solemn silence most of the time, as my heart keep admiring in great awe and my mind keep calculating the mechanics of its forms. Studying the scripts, only then did I realize that the transcriptions in the Quran (Mushaf Medina), could never possibly be typewritten or computer generated. It has to be handwritten, calligraphed in strict and consistent discipline that it is too clean and too uniformed to be realized as handwritten. It is a divine craft perfected for the sacred text. In Latin scripts, there is a consistent formation of appearance with only subtle differences throughout the 26 alphabets. But it’s not the same for Arabic scripts, which having made of 28 alphabets, there are up to 4 different forms of combination between any 2 letters or more. Multiplying that, my mind stood still.
Graphic design is a vast plain. Typography and photography, vectors and rasters, colour tones and dots, manual and digital; and all other subjects and components that made it up are endless. Be it used for corporate schemes, or for commercial purposes, or even as fine art forms, it portrays different directions and interpretations. In calligraphy, it started of as a domestic purpose for communication. From simple practical function, it grew into different breeds of practical aesthetics, to suit different cultural needs and becomes a typographical art in its own way. Evolving from symbols, to pictograms, to alphabets, it grew a long way into all aspects of human communication, from literature, to education, to trade, and even as forms ofidentity to mark the signatures of a particular sovereign. Understanding all these, I stood firm in practicing calligraphy.
For 14 years I’ve been practicing Latin calligraphy on my own, and practicing typography is simply part of my graphic design profession. Being a Muslim, there’s a craving to understand a deeper sense of belonging. Studying the Quran through my grandfather’s teachings and wisdom, the evolution of knowledge and languages reflected through tales of mankind develops a kind of addiction in understanding “the anthropology of life”. This deep urge made me decide to learn Arabic calligraphy. Not only to expand and explore my calligraphy skills, but most importantly bringing me closer to my sense of belonging.
“Khat”, the term used to define Arabic calligraphy, has since then becomes a fulfilling, thrilling and exciting experience to me. Before, it has been years of using the English manuscript pens, and now, carving a reed pen of my own, dipping it into the ink and glide it on the paper to create the letters, is like a ritual of entering a gateway into a time journey through the evolution of mankind. Maneuvering the pen, the twists and turns, the flow, the pause, the moment, the continuity of the ink, the tricks and the reliefs, are like rituals in forming the letters. The balancing of holding the pen, the grip, the pressure, the posture and ergonomics, are some physical disciplines to be observed. While the mechanics and mathematical proportions of flow and forms, shapes and sizes, in construction of the letterforms by the nib of the pen, are some important visual disciplines to be strictly abided. So much in comparison to tapping a letter in the keyboard, this is pure craftsmanship.
While learning and practicing khat is the main pillar to this art, it is not all. Apart from understanding 6 to 8 different scripts, the art of illumination which complements calligraphy encompasses subjects like geometry, symmetry and floral designs. This comprise of techniques like plotting, extraction and abstraction. The art of transcribing the Quran is a different calligraphy practice as well. Learning and understanding the history of alphabets and its complementary symbols and functions is another important relevance. Learning and practicing all these are all equally important to give a holistic understanding of the whole art itself. Thence, from here its being understood how the complexities of the art of Arabic calligraphy grew in splendor, which marked its zenith in the art and architecture of the Islamic empire.
One of my intense learning period was my full-time khat training in Malaysia, where we practiced for at least 6 hours a day, for 6 days a week, for 3 months, learning two different scripts. 9 months in all, with illumination practices, histories, theories all packed in 8-hour a day session. Having a graphic design background, it helps me a lot to understand calligraphy better and likewise vice versa.
Going through it for about 6 years ever since my first embarkation into khat in 2002, I still couldn’t get enough of it. I tried and explored different pens made of different wood, bamboo or reed. I used different mediums made of inks, gauche, acrylic and oils to write with. I wrote on different papers, on wood, glass, ceramics, cloths and even created calligraphy on clay, pottery and printmaking. These manual techniques still stood differently from the digital manifestation of modern graphic art. Until one day, I calligraphed some alphabets and have it scanned, I converted and re-trace it into digital vector art by which was manipulated with various digital transformations and interpretations, I began to see wonders emerging from the soul of the tradition. The key is, every letterform must be manually crafted, and scanned, then converted into digital forms before manipulating it into graphic art. Experiencing this, I felt like breathing into a new dimension. It’s the use of traditional method of crafting the letters, and lifting it with the new age and digital platform. The quality and feel poses a different level of artistry control and the physical boundary is endless. Sooner than I realize, I am not only experimenting calligraphy with photography, but also with music and motions, and many other platforms as well.
Having found a new excitement in graphic art is an ongoing thrilling pursuit to further explore khat through graphic design. While it opens up to even more other dimensions of different platforms, I’m still studying and experimenting. The learning is never-ending. Nevertheless, the traditional art of Arabic calligraphy never cease to amaze me on its own. While the development of this tradition has evolved with contemporary or modern styling or approach, by myself or other calligraphers, the traditional discipline of practicing khat is still a continuous journey in pursuit to the mastery of the art. The artistic forms may unfold into multiple mirrors of the future, but the essence will remain rooted like it was born. To understand this is to understand myself, but most importantly, to bring myself deeper into my sense of belonging.
Faizal Somadi/23 March 2011/18 Rabiulakhir 1432