Internationally famous calligrapher Rasheed Butt’s Islamabad residence gives off a serene vibe and a feeling of deep and satisfying peace. “The life of a calligrapher is without tension. My entire life’s been without stress because I know God provides for me; he provides sustenance for my efforts,” said Butt.
Born in 1944 to a Kashmiri family, the artist’s initial foray into calligraphy occurred when he was employed as calligraphy in-charge of a newspaper. It was only later, in 1967 that Butt seriously committed to calligraphy and began learning under Khwaja Mahmood Akhtar and Hafiz Yousuf Sadidi.
Now at 67, there is a spark to his eyes and a youthful exuberance that belies his years. The same vitality can be seen in his work, which impacts and grabs the viewer’s attention with its bold strokes, vibrancy, and masterly illumination. He is living proof that the ancient Islamic art of calligraphy still flourishes.
Rasheed Butt and the West
Butt holds an abiding and long-standing art-relationship with the West; the calligraphic appreciation there opened many doors for him. “They love it because it is work they can’t produce,” he explained.
Certain key personalities from Europe also influenced Butt’s work. In 1994 — when he nearly gave up on his art because the Pakistani government’s attitude towards calligraphy had disheartened him — esteemed German Orientalist and Islamic scholar Anne Marie Schimmel, urged him to continue despite the odds.
A year later, in 1995, he was requested by the Birmingham Central Cathedral to exhibit his work at its premises. The exhibition made Butt the first calligrapher to display at a Cathedral in a very progressive fusion of eastern and western culture and religious iconography.
His style and process
Inside his basement studio, Butt said he preferred working at night and that he focuses on “those Quranic texts and sayings of the Prophet that people aren’t too familiar with”.
He is the first in Pakistan to use illumination (such as intricate floral motifs rendered in gold, blue and red) with calligraphy. He’s also the only calligrapher capable of working gold in qalam (pen). “The conception of the work is what takes the longest time. In execution, I can finish a piece within three to four months (with illumination),” he added.
When he can’t work because of a creative bloc, Butt spends time brainstorming and sketching future works.
On politics and the state of Islamic art in Pakistan
“In the West, if you look up ‘Islamic Art’ in any art book, the first thing you’ll see is calligraphy,” said Butt, incredulous and amused. “It took me fifty years to get recognition in Pakistan and 96 per cent of my clients are not Muslim.” Although the post-9/11 Muslim world has seen a resurgence of Islamic art and identity, Butt is of the view that much of calligraphy is lost on many circles in Pakistan and that it isn’t considered art anymore.
His gripe with the treatment of calligraphy in Pakistan doesn’t end there. “I was awarded the Pride of Performance in 1989. The only problem is that the government totally forgets the artist after he or she is awarded. There is no follow up.” This lax attitude coupled with the current socio-political climate has Butt convinced that the political movers and shakers in Pakistan have lost their core faith and spirituality — which are essential to the practice and patronage of calligraphy.
On the miracles and spiritualism of calligraphy
Since so much of calligraphy involves artistic renderings of holy text, both transcribing and viewing the text is a spiritual, sacred act. “It is music for the eyes,” said Butt. The true miracle of this art form lies in its ability to ‘soften’ an individual, instil wisdom and curb violent or extremist tendencies. Butt admitted that he had once worked out a proposal for teaching calligraphy at madrassas as a means to keep militancy in check. However, like so many genuine initiatives in the country, the proposal was hijacked by the bureaucracy and never manifested.
Published in The Express Tribune, July 11th, 2011.