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Islamic Calligraphy from a Private Collection

 Expert Collecting at Biddington's
Editor's note: This is one in a series of articles showing objects from a private collection of Islamic art. This article covers highlights of the calligraphy collection.

JB: Many of our readers--myself included--approach these calligraphic works with little or no background knowledge. Could you please introduce us to the field of calligraphy?
AR: There are two key facts that will help you appreciate the elevated position of calligraphy in the Islamic world: First, specific depictions of the human form are considered sacrilege in Islam. Second, as you learned when we discussed the amulet portion of my collection, verses of the Holy Koran figure significantly in everyday Islamic life.

JB: So, you're suggesting that these factors focused much creative and artistic energy on the written word?
AR: Indeed. And the calligrapher, because he could both delight the eye and feed the soul, held an honored place in the culture. The value of calligraphy was such that it could be readily converted into currency: calligraphic panels traded for their weight in gold.

JB: Literally?

AR: Yes. The pages would be stacked on one side of the scale with gold on the other. In fact, it still holds true to some extent. I have known of occasions when a calligrapher's family would need money for shopping, and he would simply write a few lines--enough to trade for the day's marketing.

19th century with gold applied border
JB: What period does your calligraphic collection cover?
AR: On the Islamic calendar, most of my collection dates from 1100 AH to 1300 AH--making them approximately 17th through 19th century on the western calendar.

19th century panel in Persian
JB: Are the works all Koranic verses in Arabic?
AR: Let me give you a bit more background: In part of the world where I collected these pieces--present day Afghanistan, Pakistan & northern India--the religious language would be Arabic. My works, again because of the part of the Mideast where they originate, are specifically Shiite (followers of Ali--Mohammed's son-in-law) Muslim.

AR: However, the secular language in this same part of the world was Persian. So, my collection contains religious verses in Arabic and, for instance, love poetry in Persian. And religious text will be written in Arabic but translated into Persian and annotated in Persian.

JB: You've shown me that many of the panels are signed sometimes with an epithet as well as--or instead of--a name.
AR: Yes. For instance, in this piece, perhaps the crown of my collection, the calligrapher has been given the title: Emerald Pen because he is so gifted. He was a teacher of one of the moghul princes. However, you will note that the talent is attributed to the pen rather than to the calligrapher himself.

AR: And many of the pieces are dated as well. However, sometimes fine pieces are not signed. If, for instance, the calligrapher worked in the employ of a specific prince, it would be unseemly to sign his name to pieces produced under the auspices of such a patron.

JB: This particularly beautiful collection of panels mounted in colorful embossed foil papers came from a princely collection. Why is it that you don't know the name of the prince?

AR: You might recall an amulet scroll we looked at where the name had been smudged to erase it. Normally the persons de-acquisitioning this sort of item would be the descendants of the owners. There was considerable embarrassment in selling items with such history. In nearly all cases where the pieces come from great families, the name has been obliterated. This makes researching the works more difficult.

JB: I notice that in some of the panels there is decorative illumination as well as calligraphy. Did the calligraphers illuminate as well as write calligraphy?
AR: No. Illumination and calligraphy are distinct skills and the work would have been done by different persons. In the area where these works were produced, calligraphy is considered much the higher art form. This is quite different from calligraphy produced in Turkey. (You may have seen the current exhibition of Ottoman Calligraphy at the Metropolitan Museum in New York.) In Turkish calligraphy, the focus is on the decoration and the script is secondary and usually of only one calligraphic style: khat e NASKH.

(Editors Note: Some of our readers disagree strongly with this assertion that Turkish calligraphy emphasizes decoration over script.)
JB: Let's talk a bit about calligraphic style. The word for style is: khat?

AR: In my collection you will see two or three predominate calligraphic styles:
khat e TAALIQ,


and khat e NASKH
naskh panel

and one or two khat e SHIKAST.

AR: Of course, the inventiveness and variety within a style of script is endlessly fascinating. In the khat e NASKH piece, the calligrapher has undertaken an exercise in continuity. The only breaks occur with the letter "A" which by definition, must be separate.
panel with continuous calligraphy

AR: Or the rhythm of this khat e NAASTALIQ piece, where the calligrapher praises his love's features in words repeatedly using the letter "N".

JB: Some of the calligraphy appears to be written on special paper?

AR: Yes, the paper is called "abri" and was invented in Turkey. Some calligraphers incorporated it as another element in their design. .
princely orange abri panel

Editor's Note: One of our readers points out that the Turks were responsible for actively marketing the marbled abri paper, but that it may have had its origins much earlier in papers produced in Eastern Asia.

JB: Your collection is extensive.

AR: Yes. There are more than 100 pieces of calligraphic panels.

JB: Our next installment will feature some of the books, notebooks and documents from your wonderful collection.

Tall Case Clocks with Joel Lynn
Quilts & Textiles as Social History with Bryce Reveley
Islamic Amulet Collector Speaks
Islamic Calligraphy Collector Speaks
Islamic Illuminated Books Collector Speaks

Characteristics of Islamic Calligraphy and Process
Los Angeles County Museum Islamic Art Collection

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