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Selections of Arabic, Persian, and Ottoman Calligraphy: Calligraphers of the Persian Tradition

The Library of Congress has a collection of more than 100 single-page calligraphic sheets containing poetic excerpts in Persian.  These sheets appear to have been extracted from albums (muraqqacat) of calligraphies and paintings, fragments of which are maintained in other libraries and art collections such as the Sackler Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.  Unlike the Qur’anic fragments, these sheets do not cover an extremely broad expanse of time and location of production; rather, the signed calligraphies tend to date from the Safavid period (1501-1722) in Iran.

Although a large number of fragments are neither signed nor dated, others bear signatures and/or dates that contribute to our knowledge of some of the master calligraphers of the nastacliq script in Iran.  The script’s putative inventor, Mir cAli Tabrizi (d. ca. 1446), blended naskh with tacliq in order to create a new script more suitable for the writing of Persian poetry, with which it became intimately associated. [i]  Almost all the single page poetic fragments in the Library of Congress are written in nastacliq, thus attesting to the script’s status and popularity during the 15th and 16th centuries.

The only calligrapher of the pre-Safavid period whose name emerges in the collection of Persian poetic fragments is that of Sultan cAli al-Mashhadi (d. 1514), who was active in a number of Turkman (ca. 1378-1502) and Timurid (ca. 1370-1506) courts, including that of the last Timurid ruler, Sultan Husayn Bayqara (r.1470-1506) in Herat.  He transcribed royal manuscripts, designed inscriptions for buildings, and authored a treatise on calligraphy.  One undated fragment signed by Sultan cAli contains the lyric poems (ghazals) of Amir Khusraw Dihlavi written in a small script and in diagonal format (1-84-154.33). Another page signed by Sultan cAli, as well as by his pupil Sultan Beyazid (d. 1578), includes verses composed by the mystical poet Hilali delicately written in black or white ink on beige- or blue-colored paper (1-87-154.158). The latter piece exhibits how a master and his pupil may have worked collaboratively, or how fragments may have been arranged onto a gold-flecked album page at a later date to demonstrate the transmission of the craft from one generation of calligraphers to the next.[ii]

Many more examples of signed calligraphies from the Safavid period exist in the Library of Congress.  Four fragments are signed or attributed to Mir cAli Heravi (d. 1544-45), who practiced calligraphy in Herat until he was taken to Bukhara (modern-day Uzbekistan) in 1528-29.  He typically signed his works with the diminutive epithet al-faqir (the “poor” or “lowly”).  His signature is noticeable in a quatrain of Rumi (1-88-154.65) and another series of poetic verses (1-87-154.159) mounted on album pages either decorated with stenciled designs or white-and-blue marbling.

Shah Mahmud al-Nishapuri (d. 1564-65), a celebrated master of nastacliq active during the reign of Shah Tahmasp (r. 1524-76), also executed a quatrain (rubaci) mounted onto an album page filled with registers of poetic verses (1-87-154.155).  Verses by Amir Khusraw Dihlavi written by Muhammad Husayn, a calligrapher patronized by Shah Ismacil II (r. 1576-77), and dated 1590, are preserved on a similar album page (1-85-154.89).  Shah Mahmud’s colleague Malik Daylami, who joined him in transcribing a lavish copy of the Haft Awrang (Seven Pavilions) of Jami, ca. 1556-65,[iii] also seems to have written at least one page of the Munajat (Supplications) of cAbdallah Ansari (1-87-154.91), which he signed mashq-i Malik (“composition of Malik”).

Shah Tahmasp’s respected “elderly secretary” (Ikhtiyar al-Munshi), Kamal al-Din Husayn (d. 1566-67) was not only a master of nastacliq but also of tacliq and tarassul, both epistolary scripts (scripts used for writing letters).  Two of his compositions eulogizing a ruler—in this case certainly the Safavid monarch—show the dexterity of a mature calligrapher who, although blind in one eye, mastered the challenging “outlined” script in gold (1-87-154.157) and in light blue (1-04-713.19.36).  Kamal al-Din arranges his compositions with unequaled artistic flair and technical finesse.

Shah Muhammad al-Mashhadi, a calligrapher originally from the holy city of Mashhad in northeastern Iran, later migrated to India.  In 1560-61 he transcribed a number of poetic verses on beige paper decorated with plants and animals painted in gold and later mounted onto a decorative album page (1-87-154.161).

Shah Muhammad’s contemporary, the famous and prolific Safavid calligrapher Mir cImad al-Hasani (d. 1615),[iv] is well represented in the collections of the Library of Congress; at least seven fragments bear his name.  One item includes verses in Persian and Chaghatay Turkish (1-84-154.3), and a second item contains verses set on a vertical or longitudinal album page typically described as a safinah (literally, “boat”) shape (1-85-154.77). A third fragment consists of a calligraphic practice sheet (siyah mashq) executed on a pale ground signed by Mir cImad in a playful fashion (1-84-154.43)--in this instance, he signed his name four times as if he were perfecting the contours of his own autograph. At this time, siyah mashq sheets, which include repeated letters or combinations of letters, became respected as collectible works of art mounted onto album pages rather than considered disposable preparatory calligraphic exercises (1-84-154.44 et seq).[v]

Rukn al-Din Mascud al-Tabib, active at the turn of the 17th century, is another noteworthy Safavid calligrapher. Rukn al-Din was a royal physician (tabib) to Shah cAbbas I (r. 1587-1629) in the Safavid capital city of Isfahan.  After losing favor with the monarch, he journeyed to Balkh (modern-day Afghanistan) and eventually settled in India.  One of his two signed works in the Library of Congress includes a eulogy to a king, perhaps Shah cAbbas I, later overpainted and mounted onto a Mughal album page (1-88-154.153). 

Rukn al-Din’s move to India, like that of Shah Muhammad al-Mashhadi’s, helped solidify the Indo-Persian nastacliq school.  A selection of 18th-century fragments calligraphed in nastacliq and shikastah serve as a testament to the development of this school over several centuries.  Fragments include twenty-two signed epistolary (insha’) compositions (1-84-154.49 R et seq), as well as calligraphic items signed by cAbdallah Lahuri (1-04-713.15.1) and Munshi Ram (1-04-713.19.54).

Nastacliq continued to be practiced in the Indian subcontinent while calligraphers active in Iran during the 18th and 19th centuries investigated further graphic aspects of script styles and techniques.  As noted previously, one experiment included the revival of naskh (especially within a Qur’anic context); another explored the artistic potential of combining a variety of scripts in a genuine spectacle of calligraphic bravura.  For example, the calligrapher Husayn Zarrin Qalam (The “Golden Pen”) explored the gulzar (literally, “full of flowers”) script in a panel dated 1797-98 (1-85-154.95).  The panel includes plants, animals, and human beings inserted into the calligraphed letters, thus proving itself more inventive than al-Bukhari’s calligraphic panel of Indian provenance (1-2004-713.15.8a). 

descriptive record icon enlarge image icon Verses of Chagatay Turkish and Persian poetry copied by Mir 'Imad.
A safinah (longitudinal ) composition by 'Imad al-Hasani al-Katib
descriptive record icon enlarge image icon A safinah (longitudinal ) composition by 'Imad al-Hasani al-Katib.
Gulzar panel by Husayn Zarrin Qalam
descriptive record icon enlarge image icon Gulzar panel by Husayn Zarrin Qalam
A saying of the scholar and mystic Abdallah Ansari
descriptive record icon enlarge image icon A saying of the scholar and mystic Abdallah Ansari.
A panel displaying various formsA panel displaying various forms of the Arabic script
descriptive record icon enlarge image icon A panel displaying various forms of the Arabic script.

[i] On the new chancery scripts of tacliq and nastacliq, see Soucek (1979), 18-23.  For a discussion of the appearance of a nastacliq­-like script before the time of Mir cAli Tabrizi, see Francis Richard, “Autour de la naissance du nestaliq en Perse: les écritures de chancellerie et le foissonnement des styles durant les années 1350-1400,” Manuscripta Orientalia 9/3 (September 2003): 8-14

[ii] Master-pupil relationships are often key components to the formal arranging of fragments onto album leaves so as to highlight the transmission of calligraphic knowledge or a calligrapher’s response to his teacher’s work. On this subject, see David Roxburgh, The Persian Album, 1400-1600: From Dispersal to Collection (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2005); and idem, “Our Works Point to Us:” Album Making, Collecting, and Art (1427-1565) under the Timurids and Safavids,” Ph.D. dissertation, University of Pennsylvania, 1996.

[iii] Malik Daylami worked with Shah Mahmud al-Nishapuri and three other calligraphers in the cities of Mashhad, Qazvin, and Herat to complete the manuscript commissioned by the Safavid Governor Ibrahim Mirza (Marianna S. Simpson, Sultan Ibrahim Mirza’s Haft Awrang: a Princely Manuscript from Sixteenth-Century Iran [New Haven: Yale University Press, 1997]); idem, “The Making of Manuscripts and the Workings of the Kitab-khana in Safavid Iran,” in The Artist’s Workshop, Studies in the History of Art 38, ed. Peter Lukehart (Hanover: University Press of New England, 1993), 104-21; and idem, “The Production and Patronage of the Haft Awrang by Jami in the Freer Gallery of Art,” Ars Orientalis 13 (1982): 93-119.

[iv] On Mir cImad al-Hasani’s life and works, see Muhammad cAli Karimzada Tabrizi, Ahval va Aser-i Mir cImad al-Hasani al-Sayfi al-Qazvini (London: M. A. Karimzada Tabrizi, 2000); and The St. Petersburg Muraqqac: Album of Indian and Persian Miniatures from the 16th through the 18th Century and Specimens of Persian Calligraphy by cImad al-Hasani, 2 vols. (Milan: Leonardo Arte, 1996).

[v] Maryam Ekhtiar, “Practice Makes Perfect: the Art of Calligraphy Exercises (Siyah Mashq) in Iran, 16th-19th Centuries,” Muqarnas, forthcoming (2006). Also see Carl Ernst, “The Spirit of Islamic Calligraphy: Baba Shah Isfahani’s Adab al-Mashq,” Journal of the American Oriental Society 112 (1992): 279-86.

Selections of Arabic, Persian, and Ottoman Calligraphy >> Calligraphers of the Persian Tradition