Abhay Sardesai, the editor of Art India, in his editorial on Pakistan for a special issue of the magazine in 2004 wrote “Pakistan has occupied the mind of India for the last fifty odd years”. True that. Over here, on the contrary, calligraphy has occupied the mind of Pakistanis for same period.
This genre has remained popular despite the political changes, social upheavals and shifting trends in art; mainly because, for most people, art should not be devoid of literalness. For them a work of art which can be easily understood and read is preferred if not considered the only ‘valid’ visual expression.
The link between visual and verbal, conveniently concealed as well as conveyed in the art of writing beautifully, existed not only in Muslim societies but in other cultures too. In the illustrious examples of Japan and China, writing and painting have been indistinguishable since both employed similar kind of tool brush and inks.
Calligraphy in Muslim cultures was linked with the idea of prohibition of reproducing living beings in art, even though a huge number of miniature paintings from Arab, Turkish, Persian and Mughal reigns with exquisite representation of human and animals defied this notion. Also many calligraphists composed letters in forms that resembled human faces or shapes of birds and beasts.
However, in the conventional and purist practice of calligraphy, instead of word serving the image, the text was bestowed independence and importance. Hence the script communicated a sense of sublime and refinement through its various styles — flow of line, sequences of spaces and rhythm of repeated letters. In fact, the practice of writing turned into art because of its formal, pictorial and abstract characteristics. The sacred content of the text and the aesthetic features of the writing complemented each other and became a means to experience spirituality.
In the modern times, when the artists moved away from the constraints of pre-existing content in their works, the inherent or obvious meaning was no more a part or concern of their creations. For some the form became the content. In Frank Stella’s words “Painting is what you see on the surface”. In pursuing this sort of art, lines, shapes and forms acquired prime priority, since these were the vehicles to convey the artist’s impulse rather than his ideas.
In Mohammad Ali Talpur’s works, too, this aspect of image making can be seen, especially in his use of calligraphy for its sublime potential. He has been exploring lines of diverse kinds in his works on paper and canvases to create a visual experience that can match a spiritual encounter. In his art, the senses have been invoked to ‘comprehend’ the work. Thus a viewer is mesmerised in front of huge surfaces constructed with thin lines moving in different directions, or small elements like dots and dashes put in such a way that these remind of infinity.
Having seen the success of that body of work, Talpur searched for something new. But new in the domain of art is not new. Often an entity that is familiar and handy turns into new because a creative mind discovers another dimension and possibility into that everyday and common object/idea. In his desire to find something extraordinary, Talpur turned to a practice that has been part of a culture that is primarily based upon oral tradition and for which the word, in written or spoken form, holds a supreme or spiritual significance.
Talpur, like thousands of school-going children in our country, must have learnt calligraphy at the primary level where it was taught with other subjects but never exposed students to the pleasure of making perfect letters on takhti (wooden tablet). But he returned to calligraphy at a later stage and studied it under the guidance of a traditional teacher, long after enjoying prestige and fame as an artist. His exposure to writing of text and gaining control of his tool (reed pen) and grasp of the medium (ink) taught him another aspect of art: of how the usage of a single element and its repetition, like a chant, can have a great effect on the audience. His recent works in his solo exhibition Alif at the gallery Latitude 28, New Delhi (from Oct 12-Nov 10) are based on his experience or exploitation of traditional calligraphy.
In these works, Mohammad Ali Talpur has moved further in his attempt to find a fine balance between written letter and drawn image. One can detect the presence of dot, the echo of the first letter of Urdu/Arabic alphabet and other segments from calligraphy, repeated and composed in such a scheme that these are transformed into mere shapes occurring in innumerable ways, and offering incredible optical encounters.
In that sense some part of the current work is connected to Op Art, because the viewer is entangled with the division of shapes and differentiation of two hues (black and white, suggesting minimalistic vocabulary besides linking his work to conventional calligraphy executed in black on white paper!).
The association with Op Art is most apparent in two canvases, in which some areas seem to extend and recess at the same instance. A viewer is entranced by the strong movement (within a static surface) taking place in front of him. Like mechanical perspective lines, which bring the impression of depth of field, the illusion of expanding space is managed convincingly through the distribution of simple and small shapes in his paintings. In that sense, one feels that the new work is moving towards the direction and sensibility of Op Art more than its relation to the ritual of calligraphy.
Although the exhibition includes one work in which Talpur has created an almost painterly version of a readable Urdu/Arabic script, the rest of works from his solo show confirm his interest, rather his source of inspiration or point of initiation, in visual phenomenon. This act of choice or diversion determines that an artist can use, abuse or refuse the tradition. He can take inspiration from it, but is not bound by it, whether that tradition is of Islamic calligraphy, Mughal miniature, Indian classical music or computer generated art.