Making Words Dance:
A Calligrapher's Testimony
by Hassan Massoudy
Printed originally in The UNESCO Courier, December, 1990
Kufic, one of the great traditional styles of Arabic script, is formal, angular and dignified. But when it is traced on vellum in translucent sepia ink, it acquires a mysterious sensuousness, while losing none of its majesty.
Over the ages, Arab-Muslim calligraphy gained in subtlety and beauty from its encounters with many different cultures. Although the underlying geometry did not disappear, curved script finally prevailed and the letters became distended, arched or rounded. Some letters branched out so much that they transformed the walls on which they were inscribed into gardens of delight through which the eye was led along a voluptuous path between down-strokes and upstrokes. Other letters were adorned with decorative motifs that counterbalanced empty surfaces. Where strict geometry prevailed, colours such as the warm blue or turquoise of ancient ceramics that still enchant us today were used to soften excessive rigour. The quest for beauty was centered entirely on the word, because figurative imagery was disallowed.
Working on wood, leather and bone, and later on parchment, stone, glazed brick and other surfaces, generations of calligraphers enriched their art and transmitted their skills orally to apprentices who respected the old traditions.
How do things stand today? Aesthetic values are not immutable. Just as attitudes to time and distance have changed beyond measure - think of the abyss that separates the cities and caravans of Antiquity from our age of interplanetary exploration - so the scope of creativity has expanded. Sign and image have been reunited, but in an anarchic proliferation which must be mastered, just as techniques for using the new, synthetic colours must be learned.
In these conditions, how can modern calligraphers express themselves and remain faithful to the lights of inner truth and profound experience that guide them, and without forgetting the tradition they have inherited ? How can they renew their art without betraying it? It seems to me that they must do two things. The first concerns the content of the phrases they wish to transcribe. The second concerns their choice of instruments. Content and form are inseparable.
Traditionally the Arab calligrapher bas always worked with a calamus, a trimmed reed pen no thicker than a finger. For large-scale inscriptions such as those intended for the decoration of panels or walls, the outline of the letters must first be traced and then filled in with colour, using a brush. If broader instruments are used, either on their own or with the calamus, the ancient signs can be given a new lease of life.
I make my own calligrapher's tools from wood, cardboard and other materials. I also use brushes. The signs I trace with these instruments are still recognisable for what they are, but their appearance is profoundly modified. As a Chinese calligrapher once put it : When the idea is at the tip of the brush, there's no need to look any further.
Calligraphy is an art form governed by strict rules, and the time it takes to transcribe a line onto an empty page is no exception. Traditionally calligraphers had neither the freedom nor the technical means to dawdle or to hurry. Today I write ten times faster than I once did. My hand moves rapidly across the page, tracing simultaneously the outline of the words and the shape of the composition. Not only my hand but also my whole body is engaged in this act that unlocks a treasure house of patiently acquired skills. To write quickly a calligrapher must have absolute control over movement and breathing alike.
Colours are prepared just before one starts to write. Pigments and binding agents are blended with varying degrees of thickness. Colour should be elegant, flow with perfect ease and illuminate the act of writing. Its translucence reflects a smooth, sensual world that radiates calm and serenity. To achieve such control, the substances from which the colour is made must be tamed.
When the relation between form and colour is harmonious, calligraphy is a joy to behold. As for the act of composition, it is a mirror of my feeling as I write. Form, whether extroverted or introverted, is always linked to a moment of experience from which it derives intensity. I believe that beauty can originate from this match between what I write and what I am.
At the heart of the composition throbs an autonomous world, a field of energy subjected to the rhythm that I impose on the movement of the letters. Sometimes the strokes are traced upward, as if they are about to take flight ; at other moments they settle demurely, as if at test.
If the form is as it should be, if the strokes flow confidently, then the artist is content. Calligraphy becomes a language of the body, explaining what surges inexplicably from deep within the writer-childhood memories or more recent experiences. These dream-images are marshalled into shape, they unfold as the leaves unfurl when the seed becomes a tree. The calligrapher must guide and direct these sparks of life. The image of sap rising from branch to branch comes to mind, and that of a group of dancers obeying a choreographer's command I should like to be the choreographer of my letters and make them dance across the white page. I translate what I feel into gestures, and suddenly my reverie is visible. But how much patient groundwork bas to be done! How much concentration is needed to capture this impulse in full flight!
I elongate some letters and compress others ; I soften verticals and flatten curves. When my letters take flight, I fly with them too. When they come back to earth, so do I. Sometimes chance lends a hand, helping me delve more deeply into my intuitions. In calligraphy, beauty is not always necessarily triumphant or voluptuous. It can also result from conflict or drama. For balance to be restored, the calligrapher must work with great precision. Then beauty becomes a help in troubled times. In creative moments, everything is illuminated, everything becomes calligraphy : nature, humanity, even the industrial world.
Form derives its energy from the place accorded to it in space. Words, in Arabic, are written horizontally - but I give them verticality and, at the summit of the constructions that result, I draw the letters together to enhance the monumental quality of the composition.
In the past calligraphers wished only to reveal the sublime, and even the slightest hint of inner conflict was excluded from their work. Today I can express whatever I wish, but with a liberty that is mature, a desire that is tempered by a grain of wisdom. The apprenticeship is long, and the exercise is perilous. But in the end calligraphy always rewards the patient and devoted practitioner.
The artist to whom calligraphy yields its secrets experiences a sense of exaltation comparable to that felt by dancers who whirl until they are exhausted. All the storms that trouble the heart are transformed into simple and pure gestures. Vaster than the language in which it is written, the calligrapher's work resembles the natural sculptures that stand out against the desert sky and lead the eye towards infinity.