Wednesday, May 15, 2013




Calligraphy is the art of beautiful, elegant handwriting. It is a fine art of skilled penmanship. In fact, Islamic calligraphy is considered to be Arabic calligraphy. Calligraphy has possibly become the most acclaimed form of Islamic art; the holy Qur'an was revealed in Arabic. Abdul Rasheed Butt aka Rasheed Butt is one name that needs no introduction in the realm of Islamic calligraphy.  

Rasheed Butt started calligraphy in 1961 and since then he has devoted his everything to this art. He has exhibited his work all over the globe and many of his calligraphy masterpieces feature in museums, private collections and many monuments including the Pakistani Senate, Al-Furqan Foundation (UK), Agha Khan medical college and hospital and Mecca Gate, Saudi Arabia.

Butt has been commissioned by the Prime Minister of Pakistan to create inimitable works of Islamic Calligraphy which have been presented to more than twenty heads of state in an official capacity. Rasheed Butt’s versatility in various kinds of ‘khat’ is established in the Muslim world. It is no wonder that the famous Christie’s had put up his work for auction a distinction not given to any living Muslim calligrapher.

Rasheed Butt’s Islamabad residence in sector G-10 gives off a serene vibe and a feeling of deep and satisfying peace. “The life of a calligrapher is without tension. My entire life’s been without stress because I know God provides for me; he provides sustenance for my efforts,” said Butt sitting on a couch having a long puff of cigarette.

Born in 1944 to a Kashmiri family, the artist’s initial foray into calligraphy occurred when he was employed as calligraphy in-charge of a newspaper. It was only later, in 1967 that Butt seriously committed to calligraphy and began learning under Khwaja Mahmood Akhtar and Hafiz Yousuf Sadidi.

Now at 69, there is a spark to his eyes and a youthful exuberance that belies his years. The same vitality can be seen in his work, which impacts and grabs the viewer’s attention with its bold strokes, vibrancy, and masterly illumination. He is living proof that the ancient Islamic art of calligraphy still flourishes.

Having achieved ‘the pride of performance’- one of the coveted award in the country, Rasheed Butt holds an abiding and long-standing art-relationship with the West; the calligraphic appreciation there opened many doors for him. “They love it because it is work they can’t produce,” he explained.

He is the first person in Pakistan who used illuminations in his work. “Illumination, again an art sadly lost in the sands of time, at the hands of chilling complacence and continuing disinterestedness gradually slipping into oblivion,” the white haired Butt maintained.

Dressed in black shalwar kameez, Butt said “He does not sleep a single night without concentrating on ways and means of enhancing his contribution to Islamic calligraphy”.

The calligraphic inscriptions of Rasheed Butt fall into four categories- Qur’anic (The Holy Qur’an falls into Chapters (Suras) and Verses (Ayat), Hadith (The Hadith (Traditions) is the body of sayings attributed to the Prophet (bpuh), Traditional invocations or prayers, and fourthly the Poetry (both Arabic and Persian).

Rasheed Butt has worked to promote the art of Islamic Calligraphy and has many students from around the world. He first taught calligraphy on National Television in 1991-1994 when he hosted his own weekly programme. He is the first to teach khat through the electronic media. He also has been the curator of national and international Calligraphy exhibitions. Butt continues to teach Islamic Calligraphy as a lecturer at the National College of Art and Fatima Jinnah Women’s University in Pakistan.

Many publications including books on history of art and architecture, newspapers feature his work. Towards enhancing Islamic calligraphy in Pakistan, he has had several solo exhibitions in Pakistan and overseas and also participated in several art exhibitions in USA, UK, Iran, China, Iraq, Malaysia, Kuwait, Tunisia and Algeria. He has received many awards and commendation particularly at the national level.

Certain key personalities from Europe also influenced Butt’s work. In 1994 - when he nearly gave up on his art because the Pakistani government’s attitude towards calligraphy had disheartened him - esteemed German Orientalist and Islamic scholar Anne Marie Schimmel, urged him to continue despite the odds.

A year later, in 1995, he was requested by the Birmingham Central Cathedral to exhibit his work at its premises. The exhibition made Butt the first calligrapher to display at a Cathedral in a very progressive fusion of eastern and western culture and religious iconography.

Inside his basement studio, Butt said he preferred working at night and that he focuses on “those Quranic texts and sayings of the Prophet that people aren’t too familiar with”.

He is the first in Pakistan to use illumination (such as intricate floral motifs rendered in gold, blue and red) with calligraphy. He’s also the only calligrapher capable of working gold in qalam (pen). “The conception of the work is what takes the longest time. In execution, I can finish a piece within three to four months (with illumination),” he added. When he can’t work because of a creative bloc, Butt spends time brainstorming and sketching future works.

“In the West, if you look up ‘Islamic Art’ in any art book, the first thing you’ll see is calligraphy,” said Butt, incredulous and amused. “It took me fifty years to get recognition in Pakistan and 96 per cent of my clients are not Muslim.” Although the post-9/11 Muslim world has seen a resurgence of Islamic art and identity, Butt is of the view that much of calligraphy is lost on many circles in Pakistan and that it isn’t considered art anymore.

His gripe with the treatment of calligraphy in Pakistan doesn’t end there. “I was awarded the Pride of Performance in 1989. The only problem is that the government totally forgets the artist after he or she is awarded. There is no follow up.” This lax attitude coupled with the current socio-political climate has Butt convinced that the political movers and shakers in Pakistan have lost their core faith and spirituality - which are essential to the practice and patronage of calligraphy.

Butt admitted that he had once worked out a proposal for teaching calligraphy at madrassas as a means to keep militancy in check. However, like so many genuine initiatives in the country, the proposal was hijacked by the bureaucracy and never manifested.

Butt described his work is serious and sacred - the texts he chooses must be a message to all of mankind, not just Muslims. Butt gave an example of such a message from the Qu’ran and it was translated to “He who helps humanity, his name cannot be removed from this earth”. Rasheed Butt finished his talk by telling his philosophy on the purpose of life - the first purpose is to pray to Almighty and the second is the exploration of the universe!

The writer is a journalist based in Islamabad and writes his independent blog

No comments: