“I didn’t study calligraphy formally, it began as a hobby” but one look at the Salim’s Instagram (@qalamaurkagaz) tells me that he takes his work seriously. After finishing a bachelor’s degree in engineering, Salim taught himself how to produce those elegant and exotic strokes of ink on paper. He specializes in what is known as Arabic calligraphy, which is one of the three major schools of calligraphy, the others being the Western school and the Oriental school.
When I ask how he came to specialize in Arabic calligraphy, he says, “I’ve always been making art, but it was my spirituality that bought me closer to calligraphy.” He tells me that Arabic calligraphy is quite different from the other schools, chiefly because the practitioners of this school learn calligraphy with the intention of writing verses from the Koran. As of now Salim has been printing verses from the Holy book for almost three years.
Salim tells me that before he was a calligrapher, he also dabbled in photography. He tells me that the shift from capturing moments to making elegant flourishes of the qalam began when his spiritual compass stopped spinning and pointed in the direction of Islam. “For most of my life I was an agnostic. But deep down I knew that there was a God, but I had decided not to follow him.” Then three years ago he had begun to study about the life of the prophet Muhammad, who championed the Islamic faith. The study of the Prophet’s life made him find his spiritual orientation. “The more I read about his life, I began to wonder, if this is how he guided us to be, then where did we go wrong?”Until then he wasn’t sure about making a career out of calligraphy. The shift from photography took a year, but in the end Salim realized that his future lay in qalams and the sleek strokes they made.
During his spiritual reorientation he also studied Arabic. “You don’t write Arabic, you calligraph it” he says. He tells me that all the scripts in Arabic are calligraphic scripts, which fuelled his desire to study Arabic Calligraphy. Also unlike the other schools, Arabic calligraphy isn’t done with a normal pen but with a ‘qalam’, fashioned out of bamboo reeds.
Salim tells me with much regret that a lot of Arabic calligraphers in India have a closed approach towards calligraphy. “They don’t have any accounts in any forums and they don’t reach out to people, so naturally people don’t know about the wonderful work they are doing” He tells me that all of the leading names in Indian Arabic calligraphy are unfamiliar among budding calligraphers despite being in the field for over a decade. Salim felt this acutely when he was learning Calligraphy. “When I was starting to learn, I looked for Arabic calligraphers online for a long time, and I couldn’t find anyone!” When asked about his influences, Salim mentions Mahmoud Mostafa (@callimoud), an Arabic Calligrapher based in Egypt, Mohammad Sevki Effendi, Wissam Shawkat (@wissamshawkat) and Abbas Al-Baghdadi (@baghdadiabbas) from Iraq.
Salim wants to rectify this situation by reaching out to as many people as possible and enlightening them about Arabic calligraphy. He also tells me that the situation is better now, as there are a fair amount of resources that the budding calligrapher can make use of and learn.
In his workshops Salim provides a comprehensive experience beginning with writing the letters in their basic forms, the proper way to hold a Qalam, along with basic angles and strokes. He makes it a point to tell everyone that “calligraphy isn’t just about writing letters, it’s about making precise strokes and combining them to create letters” Salim tells me that his workshops have enthusiastic crowds in places like Mangalore and Calicut, he also tells me that he makes it a point to go there once every seven or eight months. “The interest in south India is phenomenal, especially Kerala.” He says that in almost every part of Kerala there is someone interested in Arabic calligraphy. He is however dismayed at the situation in Mumbai, where until now he has not conducted a single workshop, in spite of the fact that he is based there. Even the workshop that he is set to conduct in Mumbai does not have many Mumbaikars in attendance, but people from other states, especially Gujarat.
Salim is eager to pass on his knowledge of the craft to other artists “The number of students doesn’t matter as long as someone is learning”
If practicing and teaching calligraphy weren’t enough, Salim also sells supplies like Qalams, papers and ink. “When I started practicing calligraphy I realized that there were very few sources to obtain materials from, and when I started uploading content, people kept asking me as to where they could get supplies, so I began selling supplies online” Salim tells me that among the three major schools, Arabic calligraphy is practiced only by a small group of calligraphers and he wants to make things a bit easier for the next wave of artists by doing whatever he can.
So is there anything else that the next wave should keep in mind when they dip their qalams in ink? “Art is not an easy field to be in. Don’t draw or write to make money, any money you earn is from art merely a runoff of your efforts.” He also stresses upon possessing patience, “Everyone wants to start writing like a pro without investing any time or work, there are no shortcuts in art” he says.
Though Salim confesses that he has only been in the field for three years, it is obvious from his efforts that it’s only a matter of time before other calligraphers start citing Salim Khan as one of their influences.