Monday, July 08, 2013

The Beauty of Hand-Drawn Letters

Thoufeek Zakriya is the only Muslim Hebrew calligrapher in South Asia. The Malayali talks about the art form 

Photo by TP Sooraj  

By Shevlin Sebastian

One day, Thoufeek Zakriya fixed a meeting with his friend, Srinath, at Fort Kochi. Srinath lived in Kannur, 295 kms from Kochi. Since Thoufeek had told Srinath about his interest in calligraphy and Jewish history, he brought his works along, among which was the Birkat Ha Bayit, the Jewish blessing for the home.

The words went like this:

Let no sadness come through this gate.
Let no trouble come to this dwelling.
Let no fear come through this door.
Let no conflict be in this place.
Let this home be filled with the blessing of joy and peace.

When Srinath saw it, he was much impressed. Thereafter, the friends went sightseeing and landed up in Jew Town. While there, the duo saw an old woman sitting outside her house and stitching a kippah (a cap). At the insistence of Srinath, Thoufeek showed the Hebrew calligraphy to her. “When she saw it, she became very excited,” says Thoufeek. “That was Sarah Cohen. She asked me how I had learnt the art. I said I was self-taught.”

Thereafter, Sarah invited Thoufeek and Srinath into her house. She gave them pastries and coffee. “Our friendship began and I would visit her whenever I come to Kochi,” says Thoufeek, who is now a management trainee at a Taj hotel in Bangalore. “She is like a grandmother to me.”

Apart from Hebrew, Toufeek is an expert in calligraphy in Samarian, Syrian, English, Sanskrit, Hindi and Aramic, the language used by Jesus Christ.

The printing of an alphabet has evolved from the calligraphic script,” says Thoufeek. But to do the art well, you need to have an idea of the language. “Since Arabic is the base for all the Semitic languages, it was easy to learn, since I know a little bit of Arabic,” says Thoufeek. The Semitic languages start from right to left. The first alphabet for all the languages is the Aleph.

The Syrian language is one of his favourites. A few years ago, Thoufeek went to the office of a Syrian Christian spice merchant. While there, he saw a picture of a cross placed against a floral background with a Syrian script underneath. “The merchant did not know how to read the language,” says Thoufeek.

Thereafter, Thoufeek, who was intrigued by the Syrian calligraphy, designed a similar one, based on the first verse in the Bible: ‘In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth’.

Incidentally, the equipment to make these eye-catching words is simple: a bamboo reed, to be used as a stylus, a Lamy calligraphic pen, which costs Rs 1500, and Indian ink.

Meanwhile, the reserved but excited Jews of Fort Kochi embraced Thoufeek to their hearts. “One day, Sarah took my parents, sisters and me for a visit to the Jewish synagogue on the festival day of Simchat Torah [a celebration marking the conclusion of the cycle of public readings of the Torah],” says Thoufeek. “This is a rare honour for a Muslim family.”

Along the way, Thoufeek has also gained international attention. “Thoufeek has made many calligraphic representations of the Torah by using the ancient Kufic Arabic script,” says Paul Rockover in an article in the popular Huffington Post. “Such work is a rarity in the calligraphic world, and his innovation has brought Thoufeek accolades from all over the world.” In fact, Thoufeek has been commissioned by Jews from as far away as Ukraine and the United States to create works that combine Arabic calligraphy with Jewish prayers. “Some people saw the different exhibits on my blog, got interested, and contacted me,” says Thoufeek.

Today, Thoufeek is regarded as the only Muslim Hebrew calligrapher in South Asia. “His work reminds us of the shared cultural and religious heritage of Jews and Muslims,” says Dr. Navras Jaat Aafreedi, Assistant Professor, Department of History and Civilisation, at Gautam Buddha University, Noida, who has done extensive research on Indian Jews. “It will help overcome the disputes, conflicts and differences between the two groups.” In fact, while presenting a paper at a conference at the University of Sydney in February, Aafreedi spoke at length on Thoufeek's calligraphy.

The youngster accidentally discovered the art form. When he was a teenager, he brought a pen on which there were symbols in English done in the calligraphic style. “I decided to copy them and that was how my interest in calligraphy began,” he says. Brought up on the island of Mattancherry, near Kochi, he spent hours doing calligraphy. “It has become a passion and an obsession,” says Thoufeek. 

(Sunday Magazine, The New Indian Express, South India and Delhi)