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.

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

Do You Know All Your Relatives? Maybe Not.

I recently watched two videos by Off The Great Wall, a YouTube channel that makes videos concerning the Chinese culture and also things about Mandarin and Cantonese. It’s an excellent channel, and I highly recommend that you subscribe to it and watch their videos. But back to the videos I was talking about. These videos talk about the immensely complicated and detailed family tree in Mandarin and Cantonese. You can see the videos at (Mandarin) and at If you’re a Mandarin or Cantonese speaker, see if you can recognize all the words!

So, let’s get down to business. The kinship systems in Mandarin and Cantonese are essentially the Indian kinship systems on steroids, with names for extremely specific members of the family across several generations. I find that this says something about the cultures in question. I have noticed that in countries where specific terms exist for certain members of the family, there often are joint-family households or families living in close proximity. In India, grandparents, and even great-grandparents live in a main house with the children and grandchildren. Even aunts and uncles may live with them. From what I have heard from my Chinese friends, it is similar in China.

There is a great sense of familial togetherness, honor, and respect for the elders in both Chinese and Indian culture. I’m not saying that this is not the case in Western cultures, but in many European countries, families are typically nuclear families, with only parents and children living in the house. Grandparents may live with them, but it is considerably rarer than in India and China. In the US, parents often make a point of children moving out and living on their own with their own families, with a stress on the independence factor. I have a feeling that this has something to do with the kinship terminology.

In Spanish, Portuguese, and other Romance languages, there are few terms that extend beyond great-grandparents, cousins, and uncles and aunts. In Chinese, in contrast, according to the video, relatives can be distinguished by the side of the family they’re on in relation to you, who they’re married to, and their age. In the Chinese culture, there is a great stress on knowing your family very well, and it is considered poor upbringing (from what I have been told) to not know the correct terms or use them incorrectly.

Terms that extend beyond great-grandparents in Romance languages are often technical terms for genealogical purposes, whereas in Mandarin and Cantonese, the equivalent terms are used often, even if the relative in question is no longer living or not present. In Indian languages, there is more emphasis on terminology that concerns in-laws, and people insist on using them correctly. While you certainly would never call your mother-in-law saas to her face, but you would use that word to call her indirectly. With all these things in mind, it would be very easy to say that Western cultures are not as close with their families.

However, there is a counterargument to all of this: Latin American and Southern Italian families. These cultures are well known for their tight-knit extended family households, but Spanish and Italian lack the specificity of the Indian languages and Mandarin and Cantonese. However, this could be a result of societies that are historically agrarian, include village communities, and have tribal divisions, in which all members of the family would participate in daily matters and create the community. These are factors that are common to Latin America, Southern Italy, India, and China, though the American South is a notable exception due to the whole US’ rapid industrialization and technological advancement in 19th and 20th centuries.

So, you have something to think about. Please leave your comments and like the page on Facebook, at https://www.facebook.com/pages/The-World-Speaks/1486154531625005! Like and share/reblog this post if you liked it!

Tradition

I’ve often thought about what it means to speak your mother tongue. When your parents raise you speaking the language of their ancestors, they endow you with centuries of tradition, faith, meaning, and lineage in doing so. Speaking your mother tongue, in addition to the language of where you live, is not something to be taken lightly. It is not something that you should throw away, as I have seen some of my classmates do. And it is this topic that inspired the poem below.

Forever marred are the broken statues of heroes,

Eternally rendered to rubble in mind and body,

And consigned to wither in the casket of human memory.

Their causes are quickly forgotten and shut inside

Dust-collecting archives that are prohibited to be opened

By the repressive force of the passage of time upon us.

Irrevocably disconnected are the children of migrants,

Who speak only in the tongue of their oppressive hosts,

From their perennial lineages stretching through time.

That immortal piece of the soul is forever lost to them,

Shelved in the library of forgotten faith and tradition,

Covered by a thin funeral shroud of empty sorrows.

Shall we forge tradition anew, to fill the empty void,

And try to hide the scars of dissociation and hate,

Only to be forgotten once again in the hearts of the people?

Need we recreate divinity time after time — Replace

The intolerant creator who rejects all but one aspect

And would damn those of contrary opinion?

What is tradition, what is faith, what is lineage,

When it can  so easily be erased and thrust

Into the depths of human experience as folly?

For what reason must we repeatedly remake ourselves

In order to fit the mold of foreign expectations,

And forge a signature onto a contract of oblivion?

So easily is the human experience made and dismantled

That the truth and untruth are not so far apart or separate,

Because time is beyond the power of individual remembrance.

We can only regard truth and untruth in the present

Because memory only persists then — It is replaced

In the future, and itself replaces the past, without remorse.