Akshara: Indian calligraphy redefined at the Hanager Arts Centre

Ati Metwaly, Thursday 18 Apr 2013

This remarkable exhibition, running from 15 to 21 April at Cairo's Hanager Arts Centre, showcases various facets of Indian calligraphy as applied to arts and crafts

A handwritten and hand-bound book for children. At the back, fragment of a wall hanging tapestry by Sanawar Chitrakar with usage of Kalighat style in painting. Both items come from Bengali region and carry Bengali font, used predominantly in Bangladesh, Tripura and West Bengal. Exhibition 'Akshara – Calligraphy in Arts', part of India by the Nile festival running between 13 April and 13 May. (Photo: Ati Metwaly)

Akshara is an Indian word for 'letter.' In Sanskrit, the Indian classical language, akshara means 'indestructible,' or that which cannot be destroyed. Keeping this in mind, we see that the meaning behind the word 'letter' (akshara) is linked to the concept of language becoming indestructible once it materialises through writing. It is the 'letter' that gives the language permanence and eternity.

'Akshara, Calligraphy in Arts,' an exhibition held between 15 and 21 April at the Hanager Arts Centre in Cairo, is a part of India on the Nile, the first festival dedicated to bringing the many facets of Indian arts to Egyptian audiences.

The exhibition is a cornucopia of activities held by the Dastkan Haat Samiti, an NGO based in Delhi and operating nationwide, bringing craftspeople together – producers and individuals – and creating for them a platform to present and market their products.

Founded in 1985 by Jaya Jaitly, the organisation has launched over 70 crafts bazaars in various regions of India, which not only empower local artisans but also contribute to the general socio-economical improvement of the regions where artists reside and create.

The NGO assists the artists with a dynamic promotion of their skills, while providing them with advice on artistic and logistical elements of the field they represent. Supported by the government of India, UNESCO, and major Indian corporations, the Dastkan Haat Samiti gives profits from the activities it initiates and executes back to the creators.

The crafts exhibition held at Cairo's Hanager Arts Centre is a fraction of The Indian Arts Journey by The Dastkan Haat Samiti, in which the NGO collects arts and crafts from dozens of artists, from different regions in India. As such, 'Akshara, Calligraphy in Arts' celebrates the script by fusing the art of calligraphy with handicrafts.

A carved wooden elephant statuette by Mahavir Prasad Bondwai carries scripts of Devanagari (or Nagari), a writing system known across all of India and Nepal, known for the horizontal line that runs along the top of the letters.

Nagari is also used in numerous other works, including a highlight of the exhibition: a wooden book cover. Coming from an Indian Northern State called Uttar Pradesh, artist Arshad Kafeel inlaid in wood words of an Indian poet, an episode from the country's profound history.

The script forms an extremely rare and exotic palindrome, as the phrase does not only read the same backwards as it does forwards, but the same palindromic effect is also achieved vertically and horizontally.

Book cover, wood work by Arshad Kafeel. Region: Uttar Pradesh, North of India. Script: Devanagiri (Nagiri). Palindromic text reads: Sakarananarakasa-kayasadadasayaka, rasahava vahasara, nadavadadavadana (Photo: Ati Metwaly)

A Bengali water-painted script joined in Kalighat style with rounded figures and other forms decorates a wall hanging done by Sanawar Chitrakar. Being a writing system used primarily in Bangladesh, Tripura and West Bengal, at first sight the Bengali font resembles Nagari script, except that it is less rigid and less blocky.

Bengali also decorates another terracotta work, a four-sided lamp, decorated by carved alphabet letters by artist Rajesh Roy from  the West Bengali region.

Alphabets in Tamil, a script form used mainly by Tamil people in India and Sri Lanka, returns in several exhibited items. Coming from the western region of India, Maharashtra, artist Masaba Gupta presents his work in screen printing and weaving, filled with strong bright colours.

Meanwhile, in a hand-painted Kalamkari (cotton fabric), artist Jonnalagadda Nirangans interweaves Telugu scripts (a language predominantly spoken in Andhra Pradesh, located in South India, one of the 28 states of the country) within a tree overlooking two peacocks representing lovers.

The exhibition also includes calligraphy in Urdu script, being a modification of the Persian alphabet, which in turn is derived from Arabic scripture. Urdu decorates carpets, works in paper and wood, among several other items from regions such as Uttar Pradesh, Jammu and Kashmir (North and Northwest India).

LEFT: Carpet, weaved by Mohammed Abdul Kalam and Afsar Ali. Region: Uttar Pradesh, North of India. Script: Urdu. RIGHT: Figurines, terracotta work by Lakshmi Kutty. Region: Kerala, Southwest of India. Script: Malayalam. (Photo: Ati Metwaly)

Urdu, Bengali, Devanagari, Tamil, Telugu, Kannada, Malayalam (known as 'round writing') scripts... Scripts painted over paper and textiles, calligraphy carved or inlaid in wood, clay; works on metal, pottery, stone... the Hanager Arts Centre exhibition hall breathes with inspiring pieces of the creative minds of India captured in a museum-quality art.

But the exhibition is not limited to creating a pure documentation of 'indestructible' letters. Neither is it merely a display of a palpable testimony to the large amount of the languages of India, versifying culturally the nation across 22 official languages and many more regional spinoffs.

'Akshara, Calligraphy in Arts' is also an inspiring display of art and concepts, as it keeps translating itself in a multitude of forms.

Topped with projections and video work, the exhibition confronts the viewer with a multitude of perceptions of 'letter' (akshara), freeing the scripts from traditional notions of a tangibility.

We find projections of akshara flowing freely on canvases, an artwork by professional calligrapher Rajeev Kumar and a projection titled Aksharakaram, showing a classical dance movement where dancers, Navtej Johar and Justin McCarthy, join transcript with movement – a dance with an imaginary calligraphy.

From language to scripture and then from 'letters' to movement... The video installation shows how language and calligraphy can be redefined through new artistic approaches, inciting in the viewer reflections on fascinating crossroads between art, language and incessantly evolving transcendent notions...

Leaving the 'Akshara, Calligraphy in Arts' exhibition hall to the noise of Cairo, one can't help but contemplate the values that old civilizations can bring and reinvent, while infusing the modern fast-paced life with a fresh and vibrant spirit.

'Akshara' is definitely an exhibition not to be missed, and one of the most interesting displays held by the Hanager Arts Centre in recent months.

Akshara exhibition's organizers develop profound links with Egyptian artists. One of the demonstrations of this procedure is through the canvas produced jointly by an Indian and Egyptian calligraphers. Other efforts aim at creating close contact with the Egyptian calligraphers as well as artisans. Let us not forget that sharing skills and experiences remains one of the core objectives of the festival 'India by the Nile'.

View of a side of the exhibition hall at Hanager Arts Centre. On the wall art work by a professional calligrapher Rajeev Kumar, with projections of scripture in motion. (Photo: Ati Metwaly)

Exhibition Programme:

15-21 April, 12-9pm
Hanager Arts Centre, Cairo Opera House grounds, Zamalek, Cairo

Check the festival's complete programme here

Short link: