“Bayts” (Verses) of Poetry


This calligraphic fragment is unique in the collections of the Library of Congress, as it uses no ink at all. Instead, the text is executed in a style known as khatt-i nakhani (fingernail calligraphy), in which either a nail or a metal stylus is used to create topographical impressions on a monochromatic (usually white) sheet of paper. Although not very much is known about this inkless calligraphic practice, a number of signed and dated specimens held in international collections (e.g., the New York Public Library, the Bern Historical Museum in Switzerland, and the Golestan Palace in Tehran) prove that khatt-i nakhani thrived during the 19th century in Persia (Iran). At least three albums were made by the calligrapher ʻAli Akbar Darvish in 1849−51 for the Qajar ruler Nasir al-Din Shah (reigned 1848−96), while even the daughter of the ruler Fath ʻAli Shah Qajar (reigned 1797−1834), Fakhr-i Jahan, was a master of the technique, herself having created an album of ten “fingernail” paintings and calligraphies. Possibly linked to the rise of lithography and the printing press, this Qajar practice discards the traditional tools of the reed pen and ink in favor of a more abstract and experimental approach towards calligraphy. This particular example of khatt-i nakhani in nastaʻliq script includes one bayt (verse) of poetry on lines two and four that is related to two tak bayts (single verses) on lines one and three. Although difficult to decipher, the verses describe human vagabondage. Lines two and four read: “(For) a friend has placed a rope around my neck, / He drags me where he wishes.” Lines one and three read: “I have no choice in my travels: / He fashions my home sometimes to be the Kaʻba, and sometimes as a monastery.”

Last updated: September 30, 2016