Qamar Dagar is a professional contemporary pictorial calligrapher who combines Hindi and Urdu scripts using alphabet characters as art material to express visual interpretations around her thematic concerns. Recipient of Nari Shakti Sammaan by the President of India and the Women’s International award, she has dedicated herself to the preservation of the ancient art of calligraphy in both its traditional and contemporary avatars and its promotion globally as an important visual art. She belongs to the internationally renowned Dagar family of music maestros known for their dedication to Dhrupad. She has held several exhibitions and workshops in the area of calligraphy and worked on calligraphic projects both in India and other parts of the globe, including China, Spain, France and Belgium. Her works are in private collections in various countries including in the private collections of the Prime Minister and former Foreign Minister of Bangladesh, King of Bhutan, and the former Director of NGMA.
1. When did you decide and what prompted you to become an artist? Please give a brief account of your challenges and struggles in your journey as an artist. Any role models?
QD: I always wanted to be a visual artist right from my childhood despite coming from a family of celebrated Dhrupad maestros. I wanted to create designs, to write well. I had a fairly acceptable handwriting but I had never imagined that I would take this route to manifest my feelings and share as I do today!
I was quite unsure at the beginning as I thought that what I want to do may not resonate with people and they may be surprised looking at the images, but I wanted to do things differently. The most important thing for me was to, and even as I write this, is to follow my heart. I respected my instincts because I was not forcing them. It was pure excitement to be able to create a picture of a word that I knew from before but which had a different image. While creating those works, I wanted to be free of any preconceived notion of what it should look like, but every time I looked back I realized that much of it was not good enough. But I couldn’t care less as this was a process for me; pure excitement to tread a path that I’d never been on before. Of course, it was difficult for people to understand but I was very clear in my mind that the process I will follow will be based on how I view it even if people found it different. My family has supported my conviction even though they did not quite understand initially; this is very important for me. As for the challenges, I’ve had no reference point to fall back upon.
I have many role models for various reasons: my parents, Ustad Faiyazuddin Dagar and Begum Mehmooda; my uncle, Ustad Zahiruddin Dagar in my formative years; my spiritual guide, who was also a Sufi and a great calligrapher, Hazrat Amir Abdullah Khan. And, of course, Mr Hassan Massoudy, the great Iraqi calligrapher, whom I consider one of the greatest ever: as it is not about writing well and beautifully but equally about the impact and connect anyone can feel looking at his work despite it being in Arabic language and script – a typical case of the arts transcending all borders. There are others as well: my dear friend, Mohammed Elbaz of Morocco; Madame Laurence Bastit, my friend, philosopher and guide – French by nationality but truly Indian by heart and soul; Michelle Archamboult of New York; Geeta and Pami Singh Nayan Chanda and so many more. I have come to realize that we can and should learn from everyone.
2. What art projects are you working on currently? What is your inspiration or motivation for this?
QD: There are several words that I interpreted before but I want to rewrite them, reinterpret them, I’m happy to have done some interesting projects. I have also worked on music-related calligraphy – it is very important for me to understand and create on paper what is abstract. Here are some details of three projects I worked on.
Kagazkala – Mahatma Gandhi: Gandhi is a big subject and has been worked on variously, but this was probably the first time that an entire calligraphy exhibition was organised to showcase his persona and how a visual artist views him. It is precisely for this reason that I did not want to do regular work that is part of his personality and known the world over. Even if I wanted to interpret the spiritual aspect, his ideology, his passion, commitment, dedication that was unique to him, I absolutely had to do it in my way as I see and understand him. So I chose themes such as Ahimsa, Yog, Swaraj to name a few. Since I do pictorial form, it has to be conveyed likewise; if it is Ahimsa then there is ease, togetherness in spirit and practice. Yog similarly is an attempt to convey his dedication and discipline; one cannot do Yog otherwise.
Kathak: This again was exciting and challenging; it was a learning, like every project is. I love this art form but I realized I knew nothing. Then the terminology and spirit helped me to see things in the right light, so I attempted to create gati (speed). The yati-shape of gati is what I found most fascinating and I still need to understand so much more about it. This is the brightest side of creative arts – there is always room to learn new and interesting things and resonate with them.
Mother Language Exhibition: This was another interesting experience; I created three works in Hindi, Urdu, Sindhi and Kashmiri scripts – pretty much Perso-Arabic scripts but they are still different belonging to different spoken languages. The theme was "We the people of India". Of course, each of my works is close to my heart, but sometimes it happens that some just fall into place in terms of how one imagined it. What I wrote in Sindhi looks like a flower vase, and I feel a sense of joy and satisfaction when I see that work because I truly believe it and it fell in place; something that mostly does not happen with me. Soon after I finish doing a work, I invariably find something missing or too much or something.
3. Contemporary art has become very diverse and multidisciplinary in the last few decades. Do you welcome this trend? Is this trend part of your art practice?
QD: Contemporary art is indeed diverse and interesting today. Art and its impact and vice versa is not possible without reflecting what is around us. We can choose what we want to do. Philosophically speaking, two people looking out of a window may not see the same things but they exist. What we know as contemporary today will be traditional tomorrow. It is a beautiful and important process from which one derives inspiration and joy. For me, art is all about joyfulness and the result is the creation we manage to bring forth.
Experiment and exploration are the tools required for this process to happen. If people had not experimented, how would we have seen the innumerable marvels? We have to keep inventing and re-inventing. This holds true for everything that is part of our existence but we have the opportunity to do this artistically. It is like a therapy for the doer and the viewer. Everything is in that process.
There should always be food for thought though. All the new things that we know and in fact use today did not exist before, such as email and Whatsapp. I do agree though that there has to be a “connect” with what one imagines, creates and showcases and how others perceive it.
4. Does art have a social purpose or is it more about self-expression?
QD: Art is self-expression with social relevance for sure. How can it be otherwise? It is about who I am, what I see around, and many more things. My calligraphic journey started out of pure curiosity and deep interest in writing, beautifying letters and words.
I am trying to understand my own language, culture and my ability if that exists :) through this medium and not through a reference. This is exciting for me! If I write buzurg, what is the image in my mind and does it have any other relevance or significance? I do feel that our buzurg or elders and old trees like banyan have a lot in common. Rather, they are the same as they share so much in common – roots for one. So I like to pick a word that resonates at a particular time and explore it pictorially. The letters belonging to that word become my art material along with ink and paper and I then have a free field to express what I feel. Another example is the word anjaam (culmination) – it is like a flower in full bloom to me. So it is my very own interpretation, and importantly, reflection. Reflection is important!! There should be a rhythm between what is inside and the output. I do realize though that art is "emotion". Therefore, no matter how much and how clearly I work, I will still not manage to create what is to be absorbed and experienced but it can never be articulated perfectly. It is a process that I do enjoy and am enjoying.
5. Where do you create your art (workplace / studio)? What is your process?
QD: I create my art in my house, my studio, or wherever I get inspiration – the meaning, the sound, the letters, the emotions, anything can inspire.. There is no fixed place. What I do is more important than where I create it – that is my personal space.
6. To what extent will the world of art change in the post-Covid period – both in terms of what is created as also the business of art?
QD: I’m hoping that the post-Covid world will be better than before as people have now got the chance to have a self-dialogue. It was quiet both inwardly and on the outside, for sure, and that would have helped.
Honestly, I feel I am not the right person to talk about business. I do think that one person cannot do both. One creates and the other is good with the commercial aspect. There may be very few who are endowed with both abilities.
7. Tell us about any other interest you may have besides your art practice. Does it get reflected
in your art?
QD: Oh, I’m interested in so many things. Pottery attracts me big time; all art forms actually – they are all so great and inspiring. Lastly, I enjoy the freedom I have to create what I want. I do hear things like there is a system, technique, even discipline, but if they impede creativity, then we will go on repeating, replicating the same thing. Someone else's creation is an inspiration and perhaps a way to go about things. But what about one's individuality, the level of understanding? Do they not count? I’m convinced that every art is a spiritual practice!
(All images and videos are courtesy of the artist, Qamar Dagar)