Write of Passage

Literacy or saaksharta (the ability to read the written word)... is one of the greater liberating experiences for any human being," write authors Jaya Jaitly and Subrata Bhowmick in a new book. The truism, you could argue, has reformed literacy missions especially in nations where literacy is not a universal privilege. If saaksharta is the primal link in the intimate relationship the literate share with the written word, it also indicates the loss with which an illiterate views the written language.

Crafting Indian Scripts (Dastkaari Haat Samiti, Rs 3,000), a coffee-table book with fascinating photographs, works around this premise. Part of a very significant project by Akshara (an exhibition was held in Delhi in September), it links literacy issues with calligraphy, design and the traditional crafts. Or what Jaitly, chairperson of Dastkaari Haat Samiti, calls "using a philosophic idea as a tool of design, communication and knowledge."

What began as an inspiration in 2006, formally took shape in 2008 at Kalakshetra in Chennai, going on to become the "first draft" in 2010 when the Samiti guided 20 craftspersons to embellish their work with letters, scripts and calligraphy. Last year, a calligraphy workshop organised with two teachers trained 20 craftspeople — all national awardees. The participants had varying literacy levels, explains Jaitly. Some had studied up to class IV, others could only manage a signature and some were completely illiterate. The project was ambitious: to enable craftspeople to appreciate literacy through their own scripts; to urge the use of calligraphy in design for neo-literates and importantly to evolve a new "design language" from India's regional scripts — to provide craftspeople with a new design repertoire.

The book's introduction followed by a brief history of Indian scripts is a tad academic but the photographs selected from diverse considerations and different points of time lift these pieces. If a new, twenty rupee note asks for attention to what's inscribed on it, there is an ancient dastarkhan (table cloth spread on the floor to lay food) in Persian script, gutka manuscripts in Sanskrit, an Islamic yantra on a copper plate from Kashmir, a scroll janampatri (horoscope) on cloth (from the late 18th Century), poems and doodles by Rabindranath Tagore and even a Tibetan prayer stone plaque.

Yet the most significant reason to engage with this book is its visual and anecdotal exploration of the work of the 58 craftspeople. "The final project incorporated scripts in 14 languages and 21 different handskills, covering 16 states of India," say the authors. A colourful and nostalgic sea of personal and sociological stories unravels through the crafts of the East, West, North and South of India. Old, forgotten songs, folklore, customs and traditions, rural rites of food, religion and celebration open up through the written word.

For instance, embroidery done in Devanagiri — a Bihar project — showcases rituals of the Madhushravani puja, with a Maithili festival song embroidered on cloth. Another project from Gujarat taught illiterate craftswomen to create their own signatures, also an exercise to underline personal identity. These have been arranged in a wall hanging which is a cluster of embroidered calligraphy signatures. There are many such riveting aspects — on fabric, saris, leather products, papier-mache, brass, copper, woodcarving, intricate carpets, block printing, finely woven shawls, Kangra paintings and Kavda pieces. From Urdu to the Talim script, Kannada, Telugu to even Sindhi and Persian—these scripts pull us into a new dialogue where the letters speak, so to say, louder than words.

The book includes chapters on the written word in film posters, advertisements and calligraphy in open spaces. One of the big attractions is a chapter on the only existing handwritten Urdu daily newspaper — The Musalman — edited and published in Chennai by third generation publisher Syed Arifullah. When you finally set the book aside, a Roland Barthes saying quoted by the authors in an earlier chapter returns to make sense. "... to see the letter, as the ancient calligraphers did, as an enigmatic projection of our own bodies."

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