Somewhere in our homes, a cosy corner in the living room or a neat place in the study is often made, even without ourselves noticing it, into a place for prayer. It need not be spacious; a small area can be transformed spiritually with some careful planning. To add mysticism to this ‘prayer zone’, one often sees the use of calligraphy art — the Kalimas, inscriptions of “Allah” and “Muhammad (PBUH)” — on the wall. It can even be a simple yet powerful image of the Holy Ka’bah.
When it comes to Islamic Calligraphy in the Bangladeshi perspective, the most significant work has been done on the Kalima Tayeba and the Al-Muqatta’at by the veteran artist Murtaja Baseer.
This week Star Lifestyle captures the essence of the spirituality of the work done by Baseer.
The human mind is often overwhelmed by the spirituality of Islam. We see countless people — devout, non-practising or non-Muslims even, finding themselves humbled by the whole experience of worship and devotion that is Islam.
The ‘Kalima’ is only a start to that divine experience.
The 24 letters of ‘Kalima Tayeba’ sum up the very essence of Islam that has over a billion followers the world over. To negate the existence of any God other than Allah is the first declaration; that Muhammad (PBUH) is his Messenger, the second. Together they make up a doctrine that is more powerful than the mightiest of human beliefs.
However, the ‘Kalima’ is not only a matter of the heart. We see the sacred words inscribed in mosques in esoteric scripts; in homes we find them on wall mats, and in works of calligraphy. This is how the sacred ‘Kalima’ is conceptualised in forms that we humans can comprehend.
In 2002, when the exhibition of “Kalima Tayeba — Recent paintings by Murtaja Baseer” was held at the Bangladesh Shilpakala Academy, Dhaka sceptics doubted the intention. M Harunur Rashid, in his introduction to the exhibition catalogue, stated: “Murtaja’s latest works are bound to give rise to controversy.” And it did.
A closer study of the life of the veteran artist, however, reveals a life wrapped in the adoration of the divine. His father, the noted linguist Dr Muhammad Shahidullah was a devout Muslim and instilled the concepts of mysticism in the minds of young Baseer.
In the West, one finds periods of history when art found itself absorbed in religiosity. In Bangladesh art also shares a bond with religion but not in Islamic forms. Calligraphy is considered a product of Arabia, Persia and the Ottoman; not one of our own.
What Baseer set off to achieve was not essentially calligraphy as we know it. Through treating the words of the ‘Kalima’ with strokes of warm and cool colours, shifting the essence of the testimony from the Creator to his Messenger (PBUH) and back, he concocted a unique chemistry.
The negation (first 12 letters), when emphasised refers to the direct bond between the Creator and his creations — humankind. This is indeed the ideal relationship. A severely personal experience, a one-on-one that often makes our hairs stand on end. Through astute use of colours, Baseer often highlights the second part of the Kalima, causing the words “Muhammad” to shine in blissful glory. Simply because love for Allah cannot exist without a parallel affection for his beloved Messenger (PBUH); it is a love for Allah’s apostle like no other.
Inspired by the response of the ‘Kalima Tayeba’ Series, Murtaja Baseer undertook ambitious plans in working on the allegorical verses of the Qur’an, a matter which he later shelved because of various circumstances, but when the opportunity came to create 12 special calligraphies on “Al-Muqatta’at”, he once again basked in the spirituality of the abbreviated, magical words found in the beginning of 29 chapters of the Qur’an.
Surah Fatiha is in reality a prayer from humans to Allah; taught by the Lord himself for us to recite and seek help. From the beginning of al-Baqara, the Qur’an is revealed as a reply from Allah. And his reply starts with the three esoteric letters: Alif Lam Mim.
Ha Meem, Ta Ha, Alif Lam Mim Sad, Ya Sin, etc. are Al-Muqatta’at or the abbreviated letters. The meanings of these cryptic codes are not known to man, but instinctive humans have conjured logic upon logic to make meaning, to try to understand the selection of the letters. The meanings are profound, but whether within cognition is a good question to start off with.
An accomplished historian and a scholar of numismatics, Baseer was greatly drawn to the Kalima coins of the Bengal sultans and stylistic inscriptions. However, his work on calligraphy predates that of his research on coins. It was probably in the late seventies that he first worked on a series of Islamic paintings.
Religion does not reveal its inner intricacies, the sealed sweetness of its nectar to the casual spirit. This is probably truer for Islam than any other code of human belief. It is only upon a closer examination that one gets drawn to the magic of Islam.
The ‘Kalima Tayeba’ series or ‘the Muqatta’at’ may seem abstract at first, but as the viewer takes a closer look, the essence of the work and its inherent meaning become prominent and shines.
“The Kalima Tayeba Recent Paintings of Murtaja Baseer”. Exhibition Catalogue.
“Calligraphy by Murtaja Baseer”. Exhibition Catalogue.
The Message of the Quran. Muhammad Asad.