The Art of Calligraphy

(Sorry I haven’t posted in a really long time! I’ve been studying for finals and finishing up my freshman year of university, but I’ve produced a lot of good work that I’m somewhat satisfied with. This is part of a larger work that I started as a project for a class that I’m going to expand in the future.)

Calligraphy has fascinated me as an art form because its artistic components and the analysis thereof have always mystified me. It seems like just pretty handwriting, and indeed in the case of Chinese calligraphy, it is often the case that calligraphy is used as an example of good handwriting.

The pedagogy of calligraphy in Chinese is highly focused upon small details. Stroke order, stroke rhythm, the correctness of the stroke, and the structure of the character are essential to the art. Apprentices begin by practicing 永 (yŏng, “eternal”), its eight strokes representing many of the most common ones, as well as its particular structure being good practice for learning proportion and shape. Deviation from the standard of the master or other teachers is seen as unthinkable, and to me, this presents a particularly puzzling issue. Copyright laws that impede the imitation of others’ works also make it difficult to maintain the tradition of following the work of masters. What defines the artistry of Chinese calligraphy? Where is there room for new stylistic choices? These questions are very important to the art of calligraphy, in my mind. Because different strokes represent different ideas, and the ultimate meaning of the components of a character comprise the final artwork’s meaning, it is very difficult to achieve mastery in calligraphy.

The meaning contained in Chinese characters, utterly unitary in their art, is contrasted with Arabic calligraphy. Calligraphy in the Nastaliq script is strongly connected with the expression of ideas and beliefs outlined in the Qur’an, since figurative depiction is forbidden in Islam. Calligraphic representations of verses and words can be difficult to understand, since meaning is distributed along the horizontal and vertical axes. Words and letters overlap one another and where the work begins and ends can be difficult to see, especially in non-singular compositions. Arabic, being a language written more or less phonetically from right to left is not well suited to the styles of Chinese calligraphy, seemingly separated into invisible boxes. Further contrasting with Chinese, Arabic calligraphy is significantly more free-form, with a higher rate of occurrence of curved lines, and other decorative forms added to further illustrate the beauty of the words.

The fundamental differences between Chinese and Arabic calligraphy lie also in the linguistic differences. Chinese calligraphy is composed of glyphs with meaning unto themselves, whereas Arabic is written in multiple symbols strung together for meaning. Each letter, however, does have numerological value, similar to the values assigned to strokes in Chinese, each with a unique classification and mode of formation. The consonantal roots of Arabic make it an interesting step away from the formation of meaning in Chinese. Chinese forms meaning through the construction of a glyph from multiple different strokes, but all of the meaning exists in one place. Words in Arabic are constructed from usually triconsonantal roots, inserting different vowels around the consonants.

For example, the root k-t-b is related to writing, and different insertions of vowels can change the meaning of the resulting word, within the limits of the spoken language, of course. But what this means is that meaning is suddenly abstracted, free from tense, gender, plurality, voice and other grammatical qualities. Only the vowel marks, which are not mandatory and in fact are discouraged, contextualize the root. Only in works concerning the Qur’an and other religious texts are the vowel marks included to ensure the absolute correct pronunciation and reading of the text. Here we see yet another contrast: meaning is inherent in the root in Arabic, whereas in Chinese meaning is derived by the construction of its parts.

This brings us to non-Semitic and non-ideographic scripts, where there is no inherent meaning in strokes and letters. This includes scripts like Latin, Devanagari, or Cyrillic, all three of which have small but present calligraphic traditions. English has used Latin calligraphy for older written documents, such as the Declaration of Independence or the Magna Carta, mostly for representation of heightened qualities of official documentation and aesthetic value. Sanskrit and other Indian languages have used Devanagari for transcriptions of the Vedas and other religious texts, similar to Islamic Arabic calligraphy, but mostly manifest in regional variations which evolve into different scripts in the north of India. Cyrillic languages use calligraphy in their everyday cursive handwriting, similar to the Chinese art of modeling handwriting.

Now, the reason I discuss calligraphy at such length is because of the nature of non-Semitic and non-ideographic scripts restricts the artistic scope of calligraphy in the languages in which they are written. They are purely aesthetic traditions, and there is little artistic meaning ascribed to anything inherent in the letters or the language. What I wish to do is establish a set of parameters for calligraphy in Kannada, a language near and dear to my heart, as my mother tongue. I wish to cultivate an artistic tradition with real meaning in the real world, one with which people can channel their ideas in significant ways. The word, “calligraphy” in Kannada is often translated as ಸುಂದರವದ ಅಕ್ಷರ (sundaravada akṣara), or “beautiful lettering”. This does little justice to the artistic, narrative, and semantic beauties of Arabic and Chinese calligraphy, and therefore I propose a different word: ಸುಬರಹ (subaraha). Composed of the root ಸು- (su-, good) and the word ಬರಹ (baraha “writing”). While simplistic, I wish to ascribe special significance to the “goodness” of the writing. Calligraphy is an artistic medium through which semantic meanings are conveyed through an aesthetic manipulation of its physical form, thereby invoking a more esoteric dimension in the writing. As such will ಸುಬರಹ be defined.

The basic components of ಸುಬರಹ shall be enumerated as follows:

  1. The choice of word(s) – The semantic and narrative choices of the artist; It goes without saying that the language of the word must be in Kannada, and if derived from Sanskrit or another language, it must be appropriately altered.
  2. The manipulation of the letters:
    1. The length of strokes – The expanse of meaning of the syllable or root
    2. The proportion of diacritics and components of each letter relative to the base form of the letter – The interpretive expanse of the work (narrative) or the ornamentation of the work (aesthetic)
    3. Shapes contained (depicted or not) and perceived in the letters – Associative elements meant to narrow the focus
  1. The thickness of the instrument – The levity of meaning, precision of interpretation, or intended intensity
  2. Color of the medium – Associative meanings through color
  3. Canvas or setting – Contextualizes meanings of the work as appropriate

The artist may ascribe a poem, subtitle, or other form of description to the work. The original, printed version of the work’s content should be included somewhere in the work for clarity of comprehension, along with the artist’s signature (their real name or pseudonym, whichever is preferred). While none of these rules are set in stone, they should be regarded as the core elements of the Kannada calligrapher’s repertoire. It falls to the artist to indicate special stylistic choices that are heterodox or unexpected. Below are a few example works for you to examine and understand, given this new set of criteria.

Abhirāma Ilindra – A friend’s name
Mahāmitra Arasa – Another friend’s name
H̱ūni – Murder/Death
Ēṣiyāda Paraṃpare Tingaḷu – Asian Heritage Month
Qānuna – Law
Ṛtā – Order/Harmony/”The Way” (error: should be ṛtaṃ)

Tips For Learning A New Script

When it comes to learning another language, you sometimes encounter languages with a different script from the one you usually use. This is especially the case with Eastern languages. The Nastaliq script is highly artistic in its aesthetics, and is written from right to left, instead of left to right like most scripts. Cyrillic is the script for many Slavic languages, primarily Russian, Serbian, etc, and is deceptively similar to the Latin script. And then you have the scripts of Asia, which can be complicated like Mandarin Chinese and Cantonese, mixed up like Japanese, or like Hindi, which uses diacritics. While it can seem daunting to memorize three different writing systems for Japanese, or having to recognize the vowel sounds from context for Arabic and Hebrew, there is a way to learn!

1. Practice. I cannot stress this enough. You are not going to learn a script as quickly if you simply use flashcards. Despite being in a time where computers and typing are the primary form of written communication and letters are dying out, writing the characters of a writing system with a pen or pencil helps internalize the characters in your mind. Your brain learns to recognize the patterns you write down. Get a notebook or use several pieces of paper, and practice the characters. It’s usually best to practice them in groups of five, especially for Indian language scripts, and Japanese, whose spoken, “alphabets,” are recited as such. After you finish a page, go to the next one, and write out every single character that you’ve learned so far, in order. Then continue to the next set of five, when you can write all the ones you have learned with little to no difficulty.

2. Flashcards. This is more of an aid for reading. It is important to realize that even though I said you should write the characters in order, characters do not appear that way in written language. You need to train yourself to recognize characters in different instances, and out of order. After a while, you should be able to write a character without thinking too long if someone asks you to.

3. Read. Find a grammar school primer or simple children’s story books, and try to read it slowly. If you have trouble, keep a chart of the characters next to you, and transcribe the letters to your own script. This helps you to recognize characters in different positions in words.

4. Write. This comes into play more when you actually start learning the language itself. Write all words in the target language in its script, to force yourself to practice writing them, and also reading them when you review your notes. I got into the habit of writing my Spanish notes in Spanish this year. While not exactly the same situation, it works on the same principle. By putting everything you can into the target language, you model immersion to an extent, and force yourself to work with the language.

5. Recall. This is probably the hardest part of learning the script, because it doesn’t involve a tangible activity. You should only attempt to do this when you have a good grasp for most of the characters, though you can try to do this as you go along. Recall entails recalling the image of the characters in question in your mind, and writing them in the air, if you need some help. This is especially helpful for ideographic languages, such as Mandarin Chinese and Cantonese.

Good luck with learning those scripts!