(Calligraphy Artist Narayana Bhattathiri -pic source net)
Ask me to define ‘calligraphy,’ I would say it is the art of eternity or rather the art that captures eternity in a visual form. ‘Calligraphy’ means ‘beautiful writing’; a thing of beauty is a joy forever, says John Keats the British poet. ‘Forever’ has got a special meaning to this poetic utterance which could be easily connected to the art of calligraphy. In Malayalam, a letter, an alphabetic notation, is called ‘Aksharam’ which means something that endures. ‘Ksharam’ indicates the mortality of anything. The one that refuses to die and decay is Aksharam, the letter. Once written, it is etched forever in the memory of the human beings. Written words have got more impact and credibility than the spoken word. It was a transference of credibility from the spoken to written for the former had been the initial way of communication amongst the human beings. When the letters were found out, they were not really letters but stamps that ‘stamped’ a meaning through a pictorial intonation. That’s why noted calligrapher Narayana Bhattathiri says that as a calligrapher he does not write a ‘picture’ but visualize a sound, an action embedded in that sound. And Bhattathiri’s works have proved him right.
(work by Bhattathiri)
There is a perennial itch for the writer who attempts an article on Bhattathiri to qualify him as ‘Malayali’ calligrapher. Then the question surges forward: Is calligraphy, the art form limited by its linguistic base? The answer is negative. The linguistic base of calligraphy, Bhattathiri could easily say, is just a starting point. Once the word or words are written beautifully, they lose their connotative values and assume visual values. That’s why we could enjoy Arabic or Persian or Urdu or Chinese calligraphy. Had we been reading what was written in them, we wouldn’t have reached anywhere. It is as futile as looking for a definite meaning in abstract paintings or patterns. True that abstract paintings and patters could contain certain esoteric values then so is the case with calligraphy. According to Bhattathiri, calligraphy could evoke something beyond its visual quality; it could take the viewer to a different rhythm, a different feel and a different journey though it is purely virtual and mostly undefinable. The sheer abstraction is what makes Bhattathiri going with his passion; an artist who does not attempt other visual expression and found a niche in the world of visual art through pure calligraphy.
Bhattathiri gets up at three o clock early in the morning. And definitely there is a question, when does he go to bed? At 9.30 or 10.00 at night says Bhattathiri and the lazy ones could feel some relief. Bhattathiri’s early sojourn into the waking day is not for anything else but to draw a couple of calligraphy and post in his facebook page. It has become a ritual, a beautiful ritual which cannot be set aside for the sake of some good early morning dreams (which might come true if you persist to see them, they say). And what does Bhattathiri write? He likes poems. As creative person who spent his formative years in the Fine Arts College in early 1980s, Bhattathiri got acquainted with the modernist poets and the anarchic creative personalities who often were expressing themselves either through poems or through films. Theatre movement, political struggles and visual arts were also the pick of the days. Bhattathiri got hooked to poems and films and when he started doing calligraphy poems came to him like water to fishes. He seems to have a special liking for the poems of Balachandran Chullikkadu, a poet who had influenced many a youth through his poems loaded with existential angst and sense of alienation and the dejection for the failed revolutions. In most of his works we could see him doing Chullikkadu’s lines into calligraphic expressions.
With a special fascination for writing something beautifully in note books, black boards and stray pieces of papers, Bhattathiri started his unchartered creative journey and it was the Fine Arts College in Trivandrum that helped him anchor himself in the art of calligraphy. It may be partially true because he did learn a few techniques to do abstract art because that was what strongly recommended by the teachers of the college in those days for they had hailed from the illustrious Madras School of Art where the doyen of the so called Neo-Tantric Art Movement had perfected his modern art through a genre or a series of paintings called ‘Words and Symbols’ in which he had predominantly used palm leaf scripts and old scriptures done elsewhere. Panicker too was not intending to make sense out of the words though he liked the pictorial value of letters that could turn into intentional as well as unintentional symbols that could make a narrative sense of for many a viewer/reader. Bhattathiri excelled in such paintings and he was still writing as a personal labor of love and then it happened.
A call from the then famous Kala Kaumudi weekly, a place for creative people led by the illustrious editor S.Jayachandran Nair, came for Bhattathiri. The weekly was a meeting point of all the stalwarts in Kerala’s creative field and the comparatively young lot of them were showing the signs of going beyond the normative journalism and had been adequately fueled by the editor himself. Getting a chance to be between the two covers of Kala Kaumudi for any good or bad reason was a thing of pride. There was a famous column for literary criticism titled ‘Sahity Varafalam’ (means ‘Weekly Horoscope of Literature) written by a much revered and feared literary critic, Prof.M.Krishnan Nair. He minced no words in shattering the morale of the writers if they were not up to him mark, a parameter set by himself by reading and commenting the world class literature. Writers waited even for his condemnatory comments and that was a way to be featured in Kala Kaumudi!
The call was to start doing some calligraphy titles for the literary pieces that came for publishing in the Kala Kaumudi weekly. Bhattathiri grabbed the chance and started working on the titles and graphics only to learn that it was easier said than done. The incentive was getting featured as a creative team member in the famous magazine but the negative side was the deadlines and the last moment arrivals of the literary works. Bhattathiri confesses that the titles that had taken to the heights of fame and adulation in fact were written in short notice even without knowing the content of the piece. The title was given and he had to make out the sense of the writing through that single title. And most of the times his intuition worked! And it did vibe well with the imagination of the readers as well as the writers. Bhattathiri, along with Namboothiri in the department of illustration became two Titans to be tipped into the pages of history. Sooner than later more opportunities came for Bhattathiri from the lucrative field of movies. But Bhattathiri did not choose the invitations randomly; he kept his class and statndard apart and high. So he worked with the doyens of art house movies and could make certain titles remembered forever for the sheer sense of calligraphy.
Bhattathiri gets a lot of invitations to exhibit in group shows but he is reluctant to be a part of all kinds of shows. In 1992, one of his friends and a researcher on cartoons, Sundar helped him to put up his calligraphy works, the works that were already famous and etched in the minds of the people as magazine titles, and it got a good traction among the art loving public. Bhattathiri remembers how school children telling him about certain letters in Malayalam made complete sense to them when they saw them in calligraphy than in normal writing. Also they suggested that some of the letters could have been left half way so that they could imagine the rest. His facebook posts have not earned him domestic friends but also friends from overseas who have helped him to travel and show abroad. In South Korea, Bhattathiri’s works have a permanent space in a calligraphy museum. Besides, in China his calligraphic works have been made permanent through transferring them on granite slab; a rare recognition after none other than the handwriting of Rabindranath Tagore that also has found its way there.
(Narayana Bhattathiri giving a workshop on calligraphy to the young enthusiasts)
A workaholic and introvert (a deadly combination commonly seen in many a creative person) Bhattathiri is ready to shed that demeanor if he is invited for giving calligraphy workshops. He says that he could see new ways of writing among the new people that could inspire him to do different works. A calligrapher is expected to create his own ‘font’ especially in the days of digital writing. Bhattathiri says that he is averse to make his own calligraphy because as a language Malayalam has more intricate letter types than English, though he has helped in styling certain Malayalam fonts. He also points out the fact that whenever calligraphy is taught it is always in English, especially in the fine arts colleges. In schools there is hardly any initiative to teach calligraphy. Malayalam calligraphy is as beautiful as the Arabic or Persian or Chinese Calligraphy, yes, when it is seen done by Bhattathiri, who has recently exhibited his series on the cult novel, ‘the Legend of Khasakk’ (Khasakkinte Ithihasam) by late O.V.Vijayan on the occasion of the it’s fiftieth anniversary. There may be many calligraphers in Kerala but Bhattathiri is the pioneer in the field and someone who has earned it a respectable position amongst other creative activities.