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Understanding the Art of Indian Calligraphy

India’s cultural diversity and history are the gateway to many art forms. The variety of over 700 languages, 22 dialects spanning the boundaries of India, scripts and calligraphy have been a source of expression and a way to record history artistically. The art of Indian calligraphy evolved from the 3rd century due to gradual changes in the ruling dynasties and the influence of foreign invasions. 

About 13 languages were derived from the Brahmi script, such as Devanagari, Bengali, Gurumukhi, Gujarati, Tamil, Telugu and many more. Several monuments, pillar edicts, coins, paintings and literary resources mark the inscriptions in Indian calligraphy. But, over time, the relevance of local scripts and the art of Indian calligraphy is diminishing. 

Not just the style of lettering but the surface on which it was practised has also undergone a drastic change. Many Indian scripts were engraved on rocks with the help of a sharp chisel and later, on palm leaves using a bamboo stylus. Despite the decline of the art of Indian calligraphy, artists and calligraphers are working hard to revive it and bring back its glory.

Art of Indian Calligraphy – The Inception

A script is a writing system that allows transcription of languages with a set of alphabets or a unique set of symbols. After pictographs, there was an evolution in the writing system which gave rise to different scripts—the 3rd century marked the emergence of Brahmi script, which went on to be used widely.

Even before the discovery of the Brahmi script, researchers argued over the evidence of a writing system prevalent during the Indus Civilization that had abstract calligraphy. An interesting fact of Indian calligraphy is that it was practised from right to left. People held the chisel in their left hand whereas the hammer was in the right. This calligraphy style was reversed when other writing materials emerged.

Art of Indian Calligraphy – The Evidence

Ashoka’s Pillar Edicts – 

Indian Calligraphy
Source: smarthistory. org

Based on a hypotheses, King Ashoka used these pillars to communicate his teachings and key reign developments during his reign. At this time,as they wereit was already an established Indian art form. The art of calligraphy is evident on these pillars in the form of dedicatory inscriptions. Ashokan Brahmi script was practised to communicate his beliefs, his message regarding the Kalinga war and Buddhism.

Indian Calligraphy
Source: wikipedia

Indian calligraphy in Indian Religious Texts – 

Source: ( Birth of Mahavira, Kalpsutra, 15th century)

Painting and creativity thrived largely in western parts of India, which constitutes the Western Indian School of Painting. Due to the emergence of trading business in Gujarat, merchants and traders became patrons of art. The majority of traders belonged to the Jain community, which led to a rise in themes related to Jainism. Amongst the others, the most widely accepted Indian calligraphic representation in Jain painting is the Kalpasutra


The Pala scripts from eastern India are also one of the earliest examples of the art of Indian calligraphy. This period was the last phase of Buddhist art in India. Numerous artworks and manuscripts based on Buddhist themes were illustrated on palm leaves. Unlike the short and very structured scripted paintings of the Jainism School, the Pala School of Painting adopted more free-flowing style. One of the best examples is the Astasahasrika Prajnaparamita (Perfection of Wisdom) scripted in eight thousand lines. 

Indian Calligraphy in Indian Traditional Paintings 

Indian Calligraphy
source : wikipedia

The best example of understanding the art of Indian calligraphy is the textual representation in different traditional art forms of India. The Ragamala paintings are a series of paintings associated with Indian classical music. It is meant to evoke similar feelings and emotions as one does while listening to the Ragas. These Ragamala paintings are known for their vivid colours, typically done in the Jaipur School style.

 Although the source of this the text is unknown, it is prevalent in many Ragamala paintings. The calligraphy is structured with terse lines, and each sheds light on the emotion and feeling of the painting. The calligraphy adds to the beauty of the painting’s composition. The text used is Malvi, a dialect from central India, mostly spoken around Bundelkhand.

Indian Calligraphy: Modern Times


The art of Indian calligraphy has undergone several modifications with modern techniques, materials and resources. It is no longer used as a mere representation of the theme but an art in itself. Artists and calligraphers have personalised Indian calligraphy to create variations and experiment on different surfaces. 

Manjari Varde, a celebrity artist, uses calligraphy in the form of mantras making it the focal point of her paintings. She has created her own version of Indian calligraphy, an unusual font called the AumAkshar. 

Achyut Palav is a renowned Indian calligrapher and founder of the Achyut Palav School of Calligraphy which aims to retain and propagate the essence of Indian calligraphy. His art revolves around the ‘Modi’ script, a special branch of Indian calligraphy practised in the 15th-17th century.  

India’s diversity offers a plethora of art forms and every artist adds their interpretation making art even more unique. The art of Indian calligraphy is rooted strongly in ancient and pre-historic times and even now holds the ethos and beauty through different mediums. Major transformations and experimentation have taken place due to the developments in the tools of calligraphy. From being a form of expression and a way of communication to becoming a part of contemporary Indian art, the trajectory of the art of Indian calligraphy has been noteworthy. 

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By Sayali Parkar

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