On one of Hyatt’s FIND experiences, Sumeet Keswani stumbles upon a world where words mean much more than the sum of their letters.
When I arrive at the designated venue, a single line of WhatsApp text as my guide, there is no sign of an art studio. Just decrepit, whitewashed apartment buildings in a narrow by-lane of Khirki Extension that house quiet residences. The locals are unaware of any artist living among them. Overhearing my polite enquiries to her befuddled neighbours, an unassuming Qamar Dagar leans out of one of the apartments and ushers me into her first-floor flat. I am visiting Dagar as part of Hyatt Group’s FIND experiences, which allow guests of Andaz Delhi and Grand Hyatt Kochi Bolgatty to immerse themselves in the art and culture of the respective destinations. While the Kochi property features an ‘Interactive Toddy Tapping Experience’, my ‘Calligraphy Lesson’ with Dagar is the one offered to guests of Andaz Delhi.
In retrospect, I don’t blame the locals for being oblivious to Dagar’s art studio in their midst. The flat looks no different from any others around it—at least from the outside. If I hadn’t been chauffered there with the sole purpose of discovering a unique art form, I’d have passed by the ivory-coloured building imagining a huddle of families deep in the throes of the weekend stupor that only Delhi winters can conjure. Enter the inconspicuous residence, however, and you’re splashed with a riot of colours. Most of the furniture has been replaced by art; what’s left is either covered by a sheath of dust for its lack of use (Dagar doesn’t live here) or serves the all-important function of holding up stacks of framed paintings. The walls, after all, have long been saturated. Dagar notices my wide eyes and sheepishly apologises for the mess. And for being out of breath from climbing the stairs. She apologises a lot.
“It’s absolutely okay,” I say with practised poise, as I suppress my glee.
What Dagar does not realise is that this is exactly how I pictured a passionate artist’s workplace—the masterpieces on proud display and whimsical works-in-progress filling every nook and cranny. Calling Dagar a ‘pictorial calligrapher’ would be both, accurate and reductive. Wielding letters from Hindi (Devanagari) and Urdu—“scripts that run in opposite directions and converge naturally”—Dagar paints visual interpretations of words. Thus, the letters of parwaaz (flight) morph into a bird in flight; ya huu (only you—an invocation of Allah in Sufi meditation) becomes a whirling dervish; buzurg (elderly) becomes a big, old banyan tree; and so on. The paintings themselves look like minimalist art—subjects painted with the minimum number of strokes needed; I wouldn’t have spotted the letters in them had Dagar not pointed them out. When she does, I find myself retrieving my jaw from the colour-spattered floor.
What made Dagar take to this unique art form? Born to a family of classical Dhrupad devotees, Dagar grew up in a home which was visited every day by poets, dancers, painters, and other artists. She was always good at visual arts, designing posters in the Latin script in her early years. But it was watching her spiritual guru, Hazrat Amir Abdullah Khan, practise calligraphy in a meditative trance that got Dagar interested in what she calls “the art of beautiful writing.” To encourage her interest, her father—one of the famed Dagar brothers—gifted her a book by Hassan Massoudy, a master calligrapher from Iraq now based in Paris and considered one of the greatest in his genre. Soon, Dagar realised the alphabets she knew from her kindergarten days were her friends and could be interpreted in a variety of ways. Her first pictorial word was khushi (joy), split into individual letters that were painted in varying scales to form a dancing woman. Today, 15 years on, she has a lifetime of artworks that span private collections, solo exhibitions, and commercially ordered greeting cards, posters, brochures, and calendars. What lends everyday letters to such myriad interpretations? “Alphabets are abstract. It is we who have given them names,” Dagar says. “It’s exciting that I can look at them differently.”
I’m curious about her creative process, so I ask her to demonstrate.
“Okay, what do you think of when you hear the word anjaam?” she asks, a grin playing on the edge of her mouth.
It’s a Hindi word that roughly means ‘conclusion’ or ‘result’. But in Qamar Dagar’s mind, the letters of the word anjaam form repetitive patterns to constitute a full bloom. The ‘culmination’ of a flower’s life. Similarly, sundar takes the form of a peacock—a hanging on the wall that I can now decipher. It isn’t all one-dimensional visual projection though. With a family background in music and performing arts and a graduate degree in sociology, Dagar has a multitude of sources to tap into for her interpretations. And this collision of worlds is as evident in her work as the fusion of two otherwise divisive scripts—Dagar has painted a set of seven paintings, one for each musical note. The artist says she closes her eyes and tries to imagine the form and colour of each note according to its sound. Her paintings then are visual perceptions of music. A synaesthesia of the arts.
The respect that Dagar holds for the written word is palpable in the way she makes each stroke on paper. But at one point, she stops drawing. We’re seated on a bare table that occupies the centre stage in the living room, and the next part of the FIND experience terrifies me. Dagar says it’s time for me to wield the traditional kalam (pen) and practise my first calligraphic strokes. It isn’t just the skill of the master in front of me, it’s my inability to write anywhere close to ‘beautifully’ that mortifies me. Even with the convenience of a pen, I was often reprimanded for “bad handwriting” in school, so the primitive kalam made of sarkanda (reed)—a slender-leaved plant of the grass family—feels unwieldy in my hand. The kalam needs to be dipped in colour; its natural material ensures more retention, I’m informed. Even so, the colour lasts for just one stroke. (An alphabet like ‘A’ has three strokes.) Then, it must be dipped again.
Since Devanagari is familiar territory and since the day is all about unlearning and thinking anew, I begin with the first and simplest of Urdu alphabets, the alif. A single stroke, awkwardly right to left, with tiny flourishes at both ends—the most elemental form of the alphabet—takes me ample practise, and yet the effortless grace and elegance of Dagar’s alif rendition is lost on me. Rows and rows of strokes later, I get something that looks acceptable to the guru.
“Is it this hard for everyone? Or am I exceptionally bad?” I finally ask, looking up from what looks like a child’s endless doodle.
“You’re doing fine for your first day. If you were to train properly for this, it’d take you three years under a rigorous master to get just the alif right.”
But it’s just one stroke! Dagar senses my bewilderment and explains that every letter holds a universe within itself for the calligrapher. “Each stroke is akin to a lifetime. When we start, we have a profusion of ink but no idea what to do with it. As life progresses, we have more clarity but less ink.” When I first met Dagar two hours ago, I told her I was a poet; she said she appreciated poems but couldn’t write them. I think she was wrong. Qamar Dagar is a visual poet, with the most delightful metaphors birthing at the tip of her kalam every day. As for me, the path from alif to anjaam may mean a lifetime of awkward strokes