The dancing letters

“If your writing is dancing, it is good. Feel it! My teacher told me and I kept staring at my writings for 7 days trying to understand whether they are dancing…” – started his story Atho’illah, a calligrapher from Jombang, East Java.

While we were walking through the narrow streets of a small village and approaching a very simple house hidden from bustling roads, we were contemplating what we knew about the Calligrapher – great artist, who has studied with the best calligraphy teachers in the world, and whose students have been winning international competitions, in other words – a famous man. Yet – “Do not call me master, I am just learning” – Atho’illah told us inviting to get comfortable in his living room. The modest setting of his home revealed that person we are about to know is not running after a word of fame. Instead – humbleness transcends everything surrounding this man.

Atho’Illah has started learning calligraphy 17 years ago and he says there is still a lot to learn. Calligraphy is not only an art that requires a high sense of esthetic and talent but to learn it also means to master mathematics, geometry, sociology, sufism, history, jurisprudence and other subjects. It is not only acquiring knowledge but also a spiritual journey and a constant introspection, a continuous research in getting closer to God. So Atho’Illah keeps wandering for perfection:

“In my first year in university I ignored every other lesson, but calligraphy. So much I enjoyed it! But everything I was learning seemed not to be enough, so I started to seek for my first teacher. Even though Indonesia is the biggest muslim country, it is rare that people are concerned with calligraphy. I wanted to learn from the best teacher! There were some advertising their services, but I wanted the best! I was looking for a man who wrote Qur’an verses for the famous Istiqlal mosque in Jakarta” – Atho’Illah was describing his journey into the world of calligraphy. Indeed, to become a calligrapher one has to study under a master calligrapher, who first must be willing to accept one as a student: “After some time, I turned to another master calligrapher and begged him to teach me just like children begging their parents for food. He refused to teach me for three months. For three long months I was patient and finally he said yes! Maybe he was testing how strong I want to master my skills or my patience, because learning calligraphy you need to be very patient”.

The dancing letters

After taking lessons with his first calligraphy teacher, Atho’Illah did not stop seeking for perfection, in fact, he says he is not satisfied and he wants pure calligraphy. He wants the best teacher in the world! Atho’Illah did not hesitate to contact some of the most famous calligraphers from Egypt and Turkey and is continuously taking lessons from them.

While talking to Atho’Illah we look at some of his works hanging on the wall of his house and we try to understand what is the meaning of the beautifully arranged writing in black ink. Islamic Calligraphy is an artistic practice of handwriting and bookmaking spread in the countries sharing common Islamic cultural heritage. This art form is based on the arabic script, which was used by prophet’s Muhammad companions to write down the Qur’An, holy book of muslims. Calligraphy has developed as writers were copying the holy book, and since figurative art is not allowed in religious context (mosques, qur’an), handwriting was developed as highly artistic elegant art. But for Atho’illah calligraphy is more than just writing of holy text from Qur’an. It is the whole philosophy! He explained to us that every verse has “ruh” – the soul. And the task of calligrapher is to find the perfect “body” for the soul in the form of calligraphic writing. “There is this verse in Qur’an… every time I lift my hand to write it down – I can’t… There is something that does not let me do it. I think I am not good enough and I do not deserve to write down this verse.”

Atho'Illah explaining us the "secrets" of calligraphy

“So what are the qualities that a good writer must have?” – we wondered.

“First of all, to be a good calligrapher you need to pay attention to every little detail, how you walk, how you put your feet on the ground, because calligraphy is attention to details. Then its years and years of practice, and of course – faith. To be a good artist you need to get a close relationship with the owner, so when you make somebody’s portrait, to make it good you need to know the person. In calligraphy, you need to be in close relationship to Allah, as you are writing down His message” – explains Atho’illah.

In calligraphy every move of the hand is precise and mathematically accurate

“So, can non-Muslim people practice Islamic calligraphy and be good at it?”

“Even though the importance of faith is important, this does not mean that non-believer cannot learn calligraphy,”- assures us Atho’Illah, as he eagerly agrees to teach Eugenija.

When asked what he answers to those who claim that art is haram (forbidden) according to Qur’An, he exclaimed with a surprise: “But Allah is a Great Artist Himself!” Atho’Illah continued with a story of how he discovered God in the bus: “Allah is beautiful and he loves beauty. When I ride a bus, I watch people that come in. I look at their noses and judge them: they are not according to my standard and I think that some of them are not so beautiful. But then I look closer… Each nose is different, each nose has a standard, and each nose is perfect, beautiful. So, I am amused by this variety of noses, how God is great to create so many different noses that suit perfectly people’s faces. So I found God in the bus!”

We eagerly continue to explore wisdom of Atho’illah and our next question is about the controversial Danish cartoons portraying prophet Muhammad with the bomb in his turban. “Does not art have limits?” – we wondered.

“Art is unlimited!” – to our surprise,stated the Calligrapher, – “But everything is according to the purpose of art. Drawing a naked body for the purpose of learning medicine is not a pornography. We can use art as a way to reach purpose…”. So what was the purpose of those cartoons? We wish to know more, but Atho’illah is a skillful teacher, that gives us hint for the answer and leaves space for reflection.

Our time with the Calligrapher was flying fast, we were sitting in amusement hungry for each new story… But it is time for us to say good bye. We hesitantly pack our things and very reluctant raise to go. We hope to visit Atho’illah again. His words has sunk deeply into our hearts and months later we still remember our talks and what was said and how, as if we were totally immersed in captivating stories of The Calligrapher, amazing personality that you meet probably once in a lifetime. Atho’illah is not simply an artist, he is an infinite source of wisdom and spirituality that are inseparable from the art of calligraphy.

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