April 29, 2016

“Mufradat” Exercises

This calligraphic fragment creates an illuminated carpet page, which combines mufradat (letter exercises) on three horizontal lines and Persian poetical excerpts written in diagonally between colored triangular corners (called “thumb pieces”). It is the first of two fragments from the same fragmentary album held in the collections of the Library of Congress. Albums of mufradat exercises include al-huruf al-mufradah, or, in the Ottoman tradition, huruf-i muqattaʻa (the single letters) of the Arabic alphabet in sequence, followed by letters in their composite form, called in the Turkish tradition murekkebe (literally “pairs”). Exercise books begin at least by the 17th century in Ottoman and Persian lands. They were used as books of exemplars of calligraphy to introduce students into the practice of husn al-khatt (beautiful handwriting) and bear witness to the chain of transmission of calligraphic knowledge throughout the centuries. This fragment includes double-letter combinations with the letters h, gutteral s, and sh, and subsequent letters of the alphabet arranged in three horizontal registers. Immediately below each horizontal band of composite letters appears a series of Persian verses by several authors. One is identified with the epithet Saʻd al-Haqq wa-al-Din: he may be synonymous with the great Persian poet Saʻdi (died 1292). The lowest horizontal band containing motifs on a dark-blue ground and two gold scalloped roundels is composed of two rectangular panels cut out from another work and pasted onto the sheet. This procedure shows that materials were culled from other sources and “recycled” in other works, such as this poetical letter exercise. In the right margin appears the number 13, which indicates that the folio was probably one of many pages in a now-dispersed album.

Levha (Panel)

This levha (calligraphic panel) reads: “Ya ʻAli, ruhi fadakah” (Oh ʻAli, my spirit is sacrified for you). The letters are arranged artistically to fill the calligraphic panel, making the reading of the phrase quite difficult. Diacritics (vocalization signs) also fill in the composition’s empty spaces. Although meaning is secondary to form, this vocative phrase calling for loyalty to ʻAli underscores the Shiʻi message of the panel. In the left vertical border, the artist, Muhammad Ibrahim, has included his seal and has dated his composition 1134 AH (1721‒22). The right and left vertical borders both are decorated with blue-and-white ebru or abri (marbled) paper, while the whole composition is backed by a thick cardboard covered by pink paper. In the left margin appears the number 205, which suggests that this particular calligraphic fragment was but one of many such specimens formerly included in an album of calligraphies. The square seal impression of Muhammad Ibrahim appears in another calligraphic fragment held in the collections of the Library of Congress, which includes a mirror image of the expression: “ʻAli wali Allah” (ʻAli is the Vice Regent of God). Shiʻi calligraphic panels such as these two works by Muhammad Ibrahim are found in Iran and India, and were either bound into albums or displayed on walls.

Note about the Construction of a “Takiyah-khanah”

This large piece of paper, constructed of a number of separate sheets pasted together, includes four lines of writing in nastaʻliq script. At the top appears the number 786, which in the abjad (letter number) system is equivalent to sum total of the letters appearing in the bismillah (in the name of God). In other words, the number 786 at the top of the page functions as an initial “In praise of God, the Merciful, the Beneficent,” immediately before the text's main contents. The four lines immediately below state that a certain Muhammad ‘Ali ordered the construction of a building intended for the dhikr (commemorations) services and matam (mourning) ceremonies of the martyrdom of Imam Husayn. Such a building is called a takiyah or takiyah-khanah, and is used for the staging of taʻziyah (Shiʻi passion plays) reenacting the events at Karbala in 680. Takiyahs were built by Shiʻi communities in Iran and India during the 19th and 20th centuries. One of the most famous takiyahs was ordered built by Muʼavin al-Mulk in Kermanshah (southwestern Iran) in 1895−96. A lavishly decorated and multipart complex, it was constructed for a variety of religious events and performances linked to Imam Husayn’s martyrdom.

Verses by Amir Khusraw Dihlavi

This calligraphic fragment includes a number of verses written by the poet Amir Khusraw Dihlavi (circa 1253−1325), whose name is noted in the upper-right corner of the central text panel as “li-Amir Khusraw.” The verses describe the permanence of love as a flower bud in perpetual blossom, and read: “This so beautiful, pleasing one in the rose garden / (May God place) a thorn in my eyes if one of them (the flowers) is similar to you / I enter and leave the garden a hundred times / (and) because of my distress I do not know which flower is in bloom / The dust of Kisra became a flower and the bejeweled crown turned to dust / The name of the lover still (remains) on every door and wall.” The text panel is framed by a number of other verses held in registers on a pink or blue ground painted with gold designs and is pasted to a larger sheet of blue paper with deer and flowers painted in gold. The composition is backed with cardboard for strengthening. In the lower-left corner and on the two horizontal lines of text below the central panel the calligrapher, Muhammad Husayn al-Katib (“the writer”), has signed his work with his diminutives and his request for God’s forgiveness of his sins. He also states that he completed the calligraphic panel in the year 998 AH (1590). Muhammad Husayn appears to have been active during the reign of the Safavid Shah ʻAbbas I (reigned 1587–1629).

A Friend's Letter

This calligraphic fragment contains an incomplete letter from a man to his friend written in a fine shikastah-nastaʻliq script typical of 18th-century compositions from Persia (Iran). Framed by cloud bands and placed on a gold background with blue vine motifs, the text is comprised of four lines. Beginning with an invocation to God, Huwa, (He) in the top-right corner, the letter continues: “Because it’s been a very long time / That I haven’t (been able) to write a worthy letter, / Because a friend among friends wants to write to / Kind people to find out how they are doing . . . .”

Beginning of Saʻdi’s "Gulistan"

A didactic work in both prose and verse, the famous Gulistan (The rose garden) was composed in 1258 by the Persian poet and prose writer Shaykh Saʻdi Shirazi (circa 1213–92), a contemporary of the famous poet Jalal al-Din Rumi (1207–73). It contains a number of moralizing stories that bear similarities to the fables of the French writer Jean de La Fontaine (1621–95). In Persian lands, Saʻdi’s maxims were highly valued and manuscripts of his work were widely copied and illustrated. Saʻdi notes that he composed Gulistan to teach the rules of conduct in life both to kings and dervishes. The work, which includes eight chapters, an introduction, and a conclusion, was used as a tool of instruction and commentary. Each chapter narrates a number of stories, maxims and admonitions. This fragment is the first page of the Gulistan’s introduction, initiated at the top by a bismillah (in the name of God) and followed by Saʻdi’s praise of God. He states: “Praise to God of Majesty and Glory. Obedience to him is a cause of approach and gratitude in increase of benefits. Every inhalation of the breath prolongs life and every expiration of it gladdens our nature. Every breath confers two benefits and for every benefit gratitude is due: Whose hand and tongue is capable to fulfill obligations of thanks to Him?” Executed on a white-and-brown ebru or abri (marbled) paper, the text is written in black ta ʻliq. This fluid cursive script is typical of 18th-century Indian compositions. Red strokes serve to separate visually the lines of text, both in the diagonal and the vertical. The text is framed by a salmon border and pasted to a cardboard backing decorated with a light-purple paper.