Spirit of India

Qamar Dagar, the woman fighting to keep India's calligraphy culture alive

Vivien Jones and Sugam Pokharel, CNNUpdated 2nd April 2020
Delhi (CNN) — India has 22 official languages. But the real beauty isn't just in hearing them spoken -- it's in seeing them rendered in script.
The bustling streets of Delhi's Urdu Bazaar were once lined with calligraphers.
Scribes sat on the steps of the Jama Mosque putting pen to paper. They chatted, they sipped tea and, on some days, visitors came to watch them work.
The minarets of the decorative mosque still tower over the market, but now only a handful of artists remain.
One of them, renowned calligrapher and New Delhi native Qamar Dagar, is fighting to keep the tradition alive in an increasingly digital era.
"India was a hub of Perso-Arabic, Sanskrit, Pali and many ancient calligraphy in different scripts once upon a time, " she says.
Tucked away in Old Delhi, the bookshops of Urdu Bazaar display some of the finest examples of calligraphy, according to Dagar. Many sell religious texts, which are often ornately handwritten to signify the author's dedication to learning.
It's not a coincidence that faith and handwriting are so closely linked.
Qamar's calligraphy India
Qamar Dagar is fighting to preserve the vanishing art of calligraphy in India.
"Calligraphy is a spiritual practice," Dagar explains, "because it allows one to understand oneself through this medium, and to help learn how to discipline yourself."
It is also a form of self-expression.
Dagar uses an abstract style — called pictorial calligraphy — that combines lettering and imagery to reveal her personal understanding of the words depicted.
"It's really a sharing of... my life in a way, of how I look at things, of my emotions. Because art is all about emotions," she says.
But simply promoting her own work isn't enough.
Dagar aims to protect the livelihoods of Delhi's remaining calligraphers as well.
In 2017, Dagar received the Nari Shakti Award -- the highest civilian honor for a woman in India.
In 2017, Dagar received the Nari Shakti Award -- the highest civilian honor for a woman in India.
Courtesy India Ministry of Women and Child Development
She created an organization called the Qalamkaari Creative Calligraphy Trust, which organizes events for artists to share their work with the public. In 2017, she received the Nari Shakti Award, which is the highest civilian honor for a woman in India.
Dagar is also passing on her own knowledge to the next generation.
She holds three-day workshops with young people at schools and leads calligraphy sessions at the Andaz Delhi Hotel to introduce tourists to the medium.
"Now, people are realizing the importance of [calligraphy] and what India can contribute to this field," she says. "There is no dearth of talent here."