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Sacred strokes

This unique exhibition is a transformative journey where Quranic restoration and calligraphy converge

By Luluwa Lokhandwala |
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PUBLISHED February 04, 2024

Showcasing the works of Saad Mehmood, a multidisciplinary artist and calligrapher from Lahore, Repair Appear is a solo exhibition recently held at Sanat Initiative. It is a collection of 28 works from the artist on the theme of Quranic restoration and calligraphy.

The origins of this series are particularly interesting. Saad recalls that one day when he reached the mosque late for congregation prayers, he was forced to find a place in the store room to pray. There he found heaps and heaps of old pages from the Quran, some readable, others meant to be disposed of with due respect and correct protocol. This journey began somewhere in 2018 and started years of collection attempts of the copies of Quran that have been disposed of.

Since Saad hails from Lahore, he has visited many mosques, ulemas and madrassas in an attempt to rescue old manuscripts for restoration. He has dived in the nalas and nadis of Lahore, and even the Ravi to find pages that have been “cooled off.”

There are many different schools of thought when it comes to the right ethics of disposing of the Quran. Some believe in burying them, others in burning them into ash and others say that old Quran must be cooled off in natural bodies of water so that the pages melt away.

Saad has been on a quest to collect all the pages that he can. He says, that this mission of his has become so popular among the caretakers of mosques and madrassas that often he will get calls from them to collect these pages from them.

Repair Appear exhibition can be seen as divided into three categories. The first part of the series is a restoration of Quranic pages that have minimal damage. The artist has used gold and ink to bring them to life once again. He has fixed tears and missing parts with exquisite gold gilding. After that, he masterfully completed the missing words with his calligraphic prowess. Saad has been practising calligraphy for about a decade and is versed in all the basic forms of Arabic scripts: Kufic, Diwani, Nastaliq, Naskh, and Thulth. He has been writing the Quran and donating it since he started learning calligraphy. He explained that writing the Quran is a very calculated task, where the lines, rows and words have specific calculations that need to be followed according to the traditions.

These artworks bring the pages a new life through the gold gilding and handwritten words. It is quite poetic if one thinks about it. It is but a small act of love of the artist in service of his own beliefs. He is using his art to play a part in honouring the Quran and the part that it plays in our lives. While the form changes from a book to a wall hanging, it is a unique way of paying homage to the Quran and to playing a humble role in it. It is how Allah says, He has created the Book and He shall protect it. In this promise, the artist plays his part.

Some pages can be seen with burned edges, indicating that these pages survived from the piles of Qurans that were meant to be burnt, while in others, there are traces of water damage. It seems in a way that these pages were meant to survive to take these beautiful forms.

In the second part of the collection, the artist has taken the tiny pieces that have been torn off or burned away from the original page so that they cannot be put together. Through these pages he created collages on the background of gold and silver leaf, putting them all together as individual collections. This is another way of restoration that is more abstract. There are no complete sentences, but as one looks at the bits scattered on the canvas, you know immediately where these must come from.

The last collection is a fascinating one. It is part of Saad Mehmood’s own Mashq (calligraphic practice). It brings an interesting spin on looking at the Quran in the context of current Muslim practices. Three of his works titled “Zer Zabar Paish” isolate the diacritics, also called airaab in Urdu. These suffixes have a long history. They were introduced after the Quran was revealed and Islam has spread through non-Arab lands. These helped the locals, who did not know Arabic, to recite the Quran in the proper manner.

In South Asia, Arabic is not a language that is understood by most Muslims, but almost all Muslims are able to read it because they need to do that it to recite the Quran.

“Zer Zabar Paish” not only shows the perfection of Saad’s strokes but also brings to light how unfortunately tied up we are in the diacritics of the Quran within Muslim education. It has become almost performative in many ways, where if you are reciting the Holy Book and praying five times a day, you are a good Muslim. But rarely do we look at the real teachings of the Book and Islam. This performativeness has brought in an unfortunate deterioration in Muslim Thought. The doors of Islamic philosophy and thoughts have been almost closed because of the dogmatic interpretations that are plaguing our society in the name of religion.

The piece that ties into this discourse is called “Bulleh Shah.” The work is visualised in a similar way to the “Zer Zabar Paish” series, but instead of the diacritics (airaab), it instead isolates the nuqtas (dots) of the Arabic script.

The text used to base the nuqtas on is a poem by the infamous Sufi Saint of Punjab Bulleh Shah, called “Ik Nukte Vich Gal Mukdi Eh.” Bulleh Shah explores the themes of spirituality, religion, universality, knowledge, mysticism, and love within these verses. The Nukta is brought in again and again as a point of university within all that exists in the world. Bulleh Shah says there is One Truth to everything, and no matter what, if you follow what is righteous, it all ends up at one nuqta, one point, one God. He says the way to find this path of righteousness is to follow your master, your murshid.