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Urdu Can Belong to Anyone – Qamar Dagar

In conversation with Urdu Calligrapher, Qamar Dagar, we uncovered her deep and long relationship with Urdu, her attempts to give it a modern make-over and why she feels the language is more than just religious.

By Sreshtha Chatterjee on 15 August, 2017

  • Resized Lowres Al Wasio The All Embracing

l Wasio (The All Embracing)

Design Fabric (DF): How did you come to choose Calligraphy as your way of life? And how did you decide to specialise in Urdu Calligraphy?

Qamar Dagar (QD): In my school days, I was appreciated for my handwriting. I tried writing as neatly as I could. I would spend hours finishing projects. Writing, re-writing until I was happy with the result. Hindi and Urdu are my chosen languages of expression because I love them for what they are.

I am interested in visuals. So I see the script first as just abstract forms, and then as a communication tool. We have given these forms names so that we can recognise them and use them as a language and script. My curious mind always drew me to the utter beauty of these forms and how I could write them differently, decorate them and so on.

DF: Urdu is often considered holy and religious - ‘the language of the Gods’ - that people attach a lot of seriousness to and often even get intimidated by. What kind of a language do you think Urdu really is?

QD: Urdu is not a religious language, but a socio-cultural-political language, that was developed in the Indian sub-continent.

Arabic, Persian and Urdu are often confused with each other because they share very similar scripts. But they are three very different languages, spoken in Middle- Eastern countries, Iran and the Indian sub-continent respectively. Urdu has the maximum letters, 58 to be precise, and was inspired by Sanskrit/Hindi grammar and vocabulary.

Unfortunately, the cliché about Urdu/Persian/Arabic is that they are religious languages. While it is true that the Holy Quran is written in classical Arabic; modern Arabic and Persian are functional languages of the people of the Middle East and North Africa like Hindi, Urdu and English are to us.

  • Resized Lowreskshan


Today, Urdu is spoken by a large number of people across continents primarily because Hindi/Urdu speakers have travelled far and wide.

It is just the right kind of language for writing poetry. Some of the most beautiful poetry in the world has been written in Urdu, and continues to be popular amongst elders and youth alike. It doesn’t belong to one particular community or few regions. It is truly universal as it evokes universal human emotions, common to all - like love, philosophy, spirituality and such.

DF: Urdu is a language that deserves to be celebrated, not feared. One that needs to be understood, not revered. In that regard, could you share a little about the history of the language?

QD: Urdu is a elegant and rhythmic language, and certainly deserves to be celebrated. When we speak, read or write it, we celebrate our unique Ganga-Jamuna or syncretic culture. There are innumerable influences that make it unique. Simple Urdu is understood and spoken by most Hindi/Hindustani speakers. Film music has also played a big role in popularising Urdu / Hindustani.

According to studies, it is the fourth most spoken language in its various avatars according to the regions it is spoken in. It draws vocabulary and inspiration based on the common local culture of a particular region. Broadly, it could be categorised in Dakhni (southern) and Khari Boli (North).

  • Resized Lowres Asbaab Providence

DUA (Verse from the Holy Koran)

Urdu/Hindustani is the functional language spoken at home, the grammar is the same as Hindi but vocabulary is pretty much influenced by Persian, Arabic, Sanskrit and even English.

DF: You are contemporising Urdu fearlessly through your calligraphy. Could you share a little more about your process?

QD: I am using two scripts that are very different from each other in their physical forms but share a common culture. This to me, is the exciting part! It is the reflection of the language I know or at least am trying to understand. My works may look like an illegible abstract painting from afar, but a closer look reveals the legible letters that have been used. And I want it to be this way. There should be food for thought.

The legible and illegible are very much part of artworks. When I share my thoughts through this medium, I am sharing my personal views and understanding, it is not a copy of the calligraphy I have seen. Art is a self expression and should have the capacity to transcend barriers and borders.

DF: You are making pathbreaking work by taking Urdu Calligraphy leaps and bounds ahead of its time. In all its ‘mathematics’, you are giving the language an aesthetically contemporary makeover. Why did you find the need to do this?

QD: Urdu belongs to one and all, and anyone is free to play around with the shapes that are letters. I see it as art material for calligraphy. Aesthetics are important ingredients in any art, in music it is the musical notes, in dance it is the mudras, in poetry it is words, and in Urdu, it is strokes.

When there is a strong desire to create, everything else pales into insignificance. It is that moment when one just loses sense of time and space and becomes part and witness of the process. A blank paper or canvas transforms into precious artwork.

What we know as tradition today was contemporary yesterday; likewise what is contemporary today will be tradition tomorrow.

  • Resized Lowres Dha The Fourth Musical Note
  • Resized Lowres Dua Verse From The Holy Koran 2

(L-R) DHA (The fourth musical note) and ASBAAB (Providence)

DF: Given that Urdu was born to ancient history, way back into the sands of time, how easy or hard has the attempt to contemporise the language been? To break rules and make rules or have no rules at all?

QD: If the calligraphers of Yore had not explored and innovated outside the rules of a particular style, we would not have so many beautiful styles as we do today. For example, Nasta’liq is extensively used today, but it came into existence just after Kufic. It would never have seen the light of day if calligraphers had not innovated and challenged themselves.

Yes, I am fearless. I want to create work that are reflections of the images I have seen and trying to understand personally. Augmenting, shortening, broadening, spiraling, intensifying strokes or fading etc are all part of the process that one doesn’t need to decide in advance, it just happens.

  • Resized Lowres Barkat Abundance

BARKAT (Abundance)

DF: What is your take on where Urdu Calligraphy currently stands? And what is your prediction of its future?

QD: Not just Urdu but all the scripts of India would benefit if there is encouragement to pursue calligraphy. I, of course, want to take it forward as much as I can. I have, in fact, formed the Qalamkaari Creative Calligraphy Trust. We intend to work for this very cause. And the best way to do that is to showcase works of the greats of the past, while encouraging the contemporary artists. Their artworks are the mirror of their times. And mutual respect is an absolute must.

From a traditional artist to modern contemporary, the rooh (soul) of the artist is the same. It needs the same ingredients to sustain itself. For the modernist to be cynical of the traditional and the traditional artists to dismiss the new as not good enough may not help this art form to sustain. Mutual respect cannot and shall never go out of fashion! This is my desire and prayer!

Design Log is a weekly design document logging every relevant art and design occurrence in India.

Image source: Qamar Dagar

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