Kerala has a lesson for us all; Calligraphy; Sufism


I’m just back from Kerala, after attending a literary festival organized in Tirur by the Madhyamam group of publications… Its like returning from a different land altogether. After all, the flying time from Calicut to New Delhi is almost five hours (nah, no direct flight but via Mumbai) and also stands out the fact that the people in Kerala look healthier and happier and there’s less pollution in every sense of the term. Less traces of onslaughts. Communal poisoning is yet to spread its fangs in a widespread way, as its spread out in other parts of the country. Perhaps, the literary giants of Kerala are doing their utmost to keep that poison at bay. In fact, the writers and poets I met at this two-day festival spoke of the diversity and plurality that’s got to be maintained at all possible levels. And as Rajmohan Gandhi, who inaugurated this festival, commented that today there’s worry of even ‘good’ citizens getting fed on misinformation and incorrect facts. Each one of us has to see to it that false information is not spread around by the political mafia.

There is so much to write about what I heard and saw and sensed at this festival but will do so in the next week’s column. For now, focusing on two significant aspects – the inauguration of this festival was done in a unique way: three potted Mangosteen plants were placed on the dais and the chief guest and other guests watered the plants. I’m told this is a unique tradition of Kerala, going back to the days when writers sat under trees, writing the entire day. Also, though the venue was thronged by young college-goers, who’d asked some hitting queries but none of them going overboard…each one of them brimming with confidence but none of the unruly scenes that one gets to see in New Delhi. In fact, this brings me to write that even the levels of pollution in the air seemed well controlled in North Kerala’s Calicut, Tirur and adjoining areas. Why I’m saying this is because when I left New Delhi I was in the grip of cold and cough which seemed all settled those four days I was in Kerala. But the minute I landed here, that is, back to the ‘Gas Chamber’ city called New Delhi, my throat has started misbehaving! Tell me what to do?

Anyway, more on Kerala and the Madhyamam-hosted literary meet in my next week’s column.


Just got the news that Qamar Dagar is being awarded by the President of India, on 8 March, for her calligraphic genius. And this brings me to focus on Qamar and her family, tracing their lineage to the first family of classical singers: the Dagars, masters of Dhrupad.

I recall I’d first heard the two Dagar brothers, Ustad N. Faiyazuddin and Ustad N. Zahiruddin Dagar, in the mid-1980s, at a concert held at the residence of the then envoy of Qatar to India, Dr. Hassan Al-Nimah. Well, there was something magical about their rendering, their music… I wanted to interview them and within the next couple of days landed at their first-floor home at New Delhi’s Nizamuddin. And, as I started interviewing this jugalbandi pair, asking them about the history of the Dhrupad tradition, fragrance of ‘qorma’ coming from the adjoining kitchen, held sway, to a distracting level…

Faiyazuddin Dagar sahib told me that his wife and daughters loved cooking and cooked the traditional way. Later that afternoon, as I met his entire family -wife Mehmooda, son Wasifuddin, four daughters - Nilofar, Musarrat, Safia and Qamar, it seemed apparent it was a close-knit family. Also was apparent that the women were the very backbone of the clan. Being there, providing that much needed clam atmosphere that classical artists require. Mind you, all the Dagar women play the ‘tanpura’. I have heard them playing the tanpura on stage at Dhrupad concerts.

And over the years, the youngest of the sisters, Qamar, took to calligraphy. What took off as a hobby has now emerged much more than a passion. “Years back when I was in school I was introduced to calligraphy by a book by Hassan Masssoudy that my father had brought for us from France…somehow those calligraphy works left such an impact that I took to sketching and drawing, trying to capture those images. Then, our family’s peer sahib, the late Amir Abdullah Khan, was also very encouraging. Since then there has been no looking back... In my calligraphy works I combine alphabets from various scripts - Arabic, Sanskrit, Urdu, Hindi. I use the various mediums for my works, it could be the traditional ‘qalam’ or the modern day pen, and its not just the plain black ink for me but a mix and match of colours together with techniques. And the day I can’t get to do calligraphy I feel restless. For me doing calligraphy is like doing riyaz… a constant and ongoing practise. Till date, I have done over two hundred of calligraphic works. The beauty of calligraphy is that it can be used in varying crafts - right from textiles to pottery to cards and books. Also, it can be used in different mediums - stones, mica, wood, paper, textiles of different hues. Its one of those creative mediums that requires very little expenditure; only two basics are required: ink and a ‘qalam’. Chinese calligraphers use a brush instead.”

Qamar set up the Qalamkaari Creative Calligraphy Trust to help promote calligraphy and bring it back to its lost glory. And with this Trust she has arranged calligraphic exhibitions. “Our aim is to create unity in diversity, respecting both traditional and contemporary forms and supporting those who explore new ways to express themselves in a manner that can change people’s perception of things... After all, what is contemporary today will be a tradition tomorrow…Our first exhibition of calligraphy works by Michele Archambault and myself was held at Jaipur’s Jawahar Kala Kendra. This was followed by another exhibition held at the India International Centre, showcasing the works of 12 international artists representing nine scripts. This was followed by a bigger exhibition, involving 21 artists… And one of our exhibitions also focused on the works of one of the best known calligraphers in this subcontinent - the 85-year-old Delhi-based Mohammad Yasin sahib.”


In fact, in all these 30 long years that I have been interacting with the Dagar family, I’m amazed by their philosophy of life. They are living each single day along the sufi strain of acceptance and flowing along destined turns. During the course of a conversation, Musarrat uttered this rather apt one-liner – “waqt se pehle aur naseeb se zyada nahin melega” (one cannot attain a thing before the set time and only in accordance to one’s destiny.) … Another apt one-liner carries an important philosophy she adheres to: “Money comes and goes but it’s the family bonding which is of utmost importance.”

They follow the basic principle of acceptance of whatever life or destined turns hold out. I’ve never seen these sisters looking upset or angry. The ‘why’ to this tranquillity could perhaps be best explained in these lines of poet Nida Fazli, uttered by Safia:

Kabhi kisi ko mukammal jahaan nahin milta /

Kaheen zameen to kaheen aasman nahin milta.

[the end]

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