I had a wonderful project this week for my friend Daniel’s (belated) birthday. His wife Zohra commissioned me to create an exact copy of a 17th century Mughal calligramme of a lion done by Shah Mahmud Nisapuri. The piece is part of the Aga Khan collection, and is a traditional Shia dua lauding Ali ibn Abi Talib. It reads:
ناد عليا مظهر العجائب تجده عونا لك فى النوائب كل هم وغم سينجلى بولايتك يا على يا على يا على
“Call Ali who is the manifestation of marvels; You will find Him your helper in calamities. Every anxiety and grief will come to an end Through your friendship, O Ali! O Ali! O Ali”
From the AKDN site:
While this calligramme in the form of a lion may have been executed in India in the seventeenth century, its inventor is one of the leading calligraphers of the first half of the sixteenth century, Shah Mahmud Nishapuri. Whereas the letters forming the calligramme from the Safavid era are cut out from a sheet of paper, this Indian re-interpretation is drawn in black ink and supplemented with numerous diacritical marks that do not appear in the original. The calligramme stands out against a fully gilded background, its uniformity broken up by sprays of coloured flowers. The image is framed by two borders, picking up on the colours of the background and the flowers: small touches of blue, red and gold for the foliage and flowers of the first, a fine white pattern on a blue background for the second. The use of multiple floral sprays depicted in a relatively naturalistic manner around the calligramme is characteristic of the floral style that developed in India from the reign of Shah Jahan onwards, and allows us to date this calligramme to seventeenth-century India. The calligramme is a prayer in Arabic which refers to the first Imam and is encountered in many forms in the Iranian and Indian traditions. The lion here refers to one of the epithets of ‘Ali, who is frequently described as the “lion of God” (asad Allah). The text starts at the lion’s ear, reading from right to left and switching between the letters that form the outline of the body and those placed inside it. The first word, Nadi, starts beneath the ear and ends in the ear itself (the dhal is the ear); ‘aliyyan, that starts with the letter ‘ayn (“eye” in Arabic) is located appropriately alongside the animal’s eye. The first word of the phrase mazhar al-‘aja’ib is placed below, ‘awnan, the second forms the forehead, muzzle and two lips of the part-open mouth. The verb tajidahu forms the lower jaw, the alif of the adverb ‘awnan starts at the first forepaw but ends much higher to the left, in the long line that traces the collar and ends beneath the ear. The phrase laka fi al-nawa’ib follows a similar straddling movement from the front leg to the inner body. Kullu hamm wa ghamm sayanjali outlines the second front leg and the belly while bi-wilayatika is written inside the hindquarters. This prayer, one which is commonly copied, can end in various ways after sayanjali, but the triple repetition of Ya ‘Ali seems to be a constant feature. Here this repetition is formed by reading the three particles ya – one rising from the back leg and the two others together forming the outline of the hindquarters and the back – in conjunction with the three ‘Ali: the first visible between the two back legs, the second forming the tail, the third located above bi-wilayatika. All that remains are the two words that form the two back legs. The first can be read as qat‘an (absolutely) or qata’an (by cutting out), which may refer here to the practice of cut-out writing. The second can be read as katib (scribe) or katiban (by writing). Here it is tempting to read qata’an and katiban, two terms that refer to the activity of writing on the one hand and of cut-out calligraphy on the other.
Here is the original I was to recreate:
And here is what I came up with:
What I found interesting, as a side note, is that the calligraphy used in the piece has become largely subsumed, updated, or rendered obsolete in the centuries after this piece, such that when I was doing it, I would knowingly do things now considered ‘wrong.’ Pen angles, thicknesses of lines, transitions, and letterforms were all slightly out of whack, by 20th (or late 19th) century standards.