Stories in khat

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Acclaimed Islamic calligrapher Abdul Baki Abu Bakar tells Syida Lizta Amirul Ihsan about the art form and why it should be nurtured for posterity

IT is quite a drive to get to Diwani Kraf, located in a quiet stretch of shophouses in Taman Kemuning Utama in Shah Alam. Aside from the corner lot eatery, all other shophouses on the block are closed that Friday morning.

The area looks new and some of the shophouses are not yet tenanted. But on the first floor of one of those units, Islamic calligraphy is flourishing.

The carpeted, soundless office is a quiet little haven where Diwani Kraf (diwanikraf.com) managing director Abdul Baki Abu Bakar hones his calligraphic skills, buries himself in important projects or teaches the young what he could not learn as a child.

His office smells faintly of air freshener but it is the breathtaking work on two walls that is a source of peace for those privileged to enter the place.

Verses of the Holy Qur’an have been printed or painted on canvas or on laser-cut wood veneer in fluid, melodious curves that reflect the beauty of the messages.

Abdul Baki, 39, may not be a name familiar to everyone but in the local arena of khat or Islamic calligraphy, few can rival his talent and tenacity in learning and promoting this branch of Islamic art. His works are on some of the country’s important documents and monuments.

He had hand written, for example, the Proclamation of Enthronement and Installation for three Yang di-Pertuan Agong, including the current King, Tuanku Abdul Halim Mu’azam Shah, for his installation last year.
Abdul Baki had handwritten in Jawi the invitations for the nine state sovereigns for the momentous occasion.

His khat work graces the new Istana Negara in Jalan Duta and Istana Alam Shah in Klang.

Other works include that displayed at Grand Hyatt Kuala Lumpur and at Ar-Rahmah mosque in Baltimore in the United States. They also adorn corporate logos and numerous mosques, surau and schools in the country.

And yet when asked about his achievements, he merely smiles, saying that he is grateful that his talents and interest “can come together so well that not one day goes by that I don’t like what I do.”

LONG JOURNEY

Dressed in white shirt and black pants, Abdul Baki tells how he, the only one in his family who is artistically-inclined, started learning khat.

“I was in primary school in Alor Setar, Kedah when I joined a khat class and realised I liked Arabic calligraphy. I thought of it as a hobby at first, until one Ustaz told me I wrote well and beautifully,”

“So I started to learn more. I began doing signboards for the school and road names, a form of practice for me. By the time I reached secondary school, I was already transcribing books by Islamic scholars,”

“Those books were to be reprinted, but someone had to transcribe it first. But those were thin volumes,” he says.

In 1996, he came to the city to learn more about khat from Mohd Yusuf Abu Bakar, president and founder of Persatuan Seni Khat Kebangsaan.

His talent grew by leaps and bounds under Mohd Yusuf’s tutelage and in his 20s, Abdul Baki was one of the first calligraphers under Restu Foundation when the organisationprinted the country’s first Qur’an, a project completed in 2000.

“I had no formal education in khat. What I had was the talent, skill and interest in this field.

“This is not an easy subject if you don’t have enough patience to practice and learn. It’s not just about writing. Khat is very precise and mathematical. The curves of the letters and size of each letter have to adhere to the age-old techniques passed down thousands of years from calligraphers,” he said.

DIFFERENT TYPES

There are different types of khat, he tells me, and each one has its own specific technique. “The hardest to do is Thuluth, it is simple but difficult and is often used for titles or as decoration.”

Then there is the Diwani khat, an artistic, soft and fluid way of writing that makes it difficult to read. “During the Ottoman Empire, this technique was developed to conceal secrets. Having them written down in such a way ensured that few people knew what was written, keeping government secrets intact,” he says.

Kufi, the square writing that looked modern, he says, was the earliest one invented and perhaps the easiest to learn.

“You can do it on graph paper and upload in on the computer. There’s not much fluidity to it,” he says.

Then there’s the Riq’ah, a swift and fast technique and Farisi, mainly used in Iran, Pakistan and India.

A NEW INDUSTRY

The khat industry here is developing rapidly. Online stores are offering khat services, not only of Qur’an verses but also of names, signs and corporate logos. Technology has allowed this ancient craft to grow, Abdul Baki tells me.
“It still starts with a calligrapher producing the work, but after that it can be transferred on to any material — as wood carving, on canvas, sandblasted on tiles, even on wall paper.

“The industry is growing very rapidly compared to when I came to the city 17 years ago,” he says.

His customers aren’t only Muslims looking for decorative items for their offices or homes. Food manufacturers who have received halal certification for their products go to him to have the ingredients list written in Jawi or in Arabic.

“Khat is a skill and I believe if you learn it, it can open a lot of opportunities. If you are a woodcarver and are knowledgeable in khat, imagine the craft you can create,”

TEACHING THE YOUNG

Abdul Baki loves to teach the young, perhaps because when he was growing up, there were not enough teachers to teach this branch of art. “Now there are many locals who can teach the basics of Islamic calligraphy. But for me, I still have to occasionally go to Turkey and the Middle East to learn advanced khat,”

“Sometimes here, I teach teachers who are asked to teach khat but they themselves are not exposed to it. And they are just given a video to learn from. You can’t learn to do calligraphy by watching a video,” he says.
“I wish the government could put in place, a proper training system for khat teachers so that they can teach students better,”

He travels everywhere with his writing kit, wooden tools and the inks. He does calligraphy with Roman alphabets too, although he says that needs a different set of tools since Roman alphabets slant to the right.
“When I don’t have anything to do, I write. At least I can improve myself,”

Next to his desk is a palette of paints. He is also an abstract painter. “I think I’m an artist first and foremost but I am most comfortable with khat,”

Later that day, he tells me, he is meeting his young student Amin, a 13-year-old whom Abdul Baki says has great talent in khat. He teaches the teenager weekly. He is proud of the boy, who has bagged award after award in khat competitions in the country.

“He’s talented and diligent. That boy can go far,” he says. I think, in many ways, Amin reminds Abdul Baki of himself.


photos by Amirudin Sahib

A couple’s name written in the shape of doves.

Writer’s name, written in Diwani khat.


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