New Delhi, India – Self-taught calligraphy artist Anil Kumar Chowhan has written Quranic verses in Arabic on the walls of more than 200 mosques around India in a career spanning 30 years.
Based in Hyderabad, the 50-year-old’s passion for calligraphy was ignited while painting signboards for shops around the southern Indian city in Urdu to earn a modest living.
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“I belonged to a very poor Hindu family and had to give up my studies after class 10th to support my family. I was good at drawing, so I thought why not leverage this skill to take up signboard painting as a career,” he says.
Chowhan says he has also painted 30 temples with images of Hindu gods and goddesses, as well as countless dargahs (mausoleums) and monasteries.
“While for over a 100 mosques, I was paid a hadiya [remuneration], I worked for free for the other 100. I felt a spiritual connect to the places which prevented me from demanding compensation,” says the artist who earns about $350 a month through his freelance assignments across the country.
Chowhan says he did not attend any formal or Islamic school to learn the Arabic script or the Urdu language.
“It was during my painting assignments that I learned to read and write Urdu. Soon people started acknowledging my talent and gave me opportunities to beautify landmark architectures around the city with the verses of the Quran,” he says.
In Hyderabad, 30 years back, says the calligrapher, it was important to write signboards in Urdu as the majority of the city’s population and shopkeepers were Muslim. So he had no choice but to become acquainted with the language.
But slowly, while writing in Urdu without understanding it, he says he fell in love with the script.
“Over time, I started recognising the words and alphabets and slowly and organically developed an interest in it. In my spare time, I started writing the Urdu script, copying words from textbooks which further helped my craft,” he says.
Chowhan says he bagged his first big assignment in the 1990s when he was asked to beautify Hyderabad’s iconic Noor Mosque with the verses of the Quran.
“I was over the moon. Bagging that big assignment was proof that not only was my talent recognised, but that I had also received the stamp of approval from the city’s elite which would open doors for me. And it did.”
But life was not without its share of challenges. Some locals opposed Chowhan’s work because he was a Hindu.
Determined to pursue his career, however, he secured a “fatwa” (decree) from Jamia Nizamia University in Hyderabad to continue as an artist. The university management, already impressed with the artist’s work, had hung his piece de resistance – a six feet-by-four feet (183cmx122cm) canvas of Surah Yasin, an important chapter from the Quran – in the main gallery.
Today, the same locals who raised objections at his work call him a “spiritual soul” and bow with respect in front of him.
“I believe art has no religion. God, Allah, Jesus: they are all one. And we’re God’s children. Today, most of my friends are Muslims. We eat together, hang out together, participate in mehfils [gatherings] and enrich each other’s lives,” says Chowhan, who also dabbles in Urdu poetry and is often invited to the city’s gatherings to recite his couplets.
Chowhan is also planning to organise an exhibition of his Quranic paintings.
Has he encouraged his two children – a boy and a girl, both in their 20s – to take up his profession?
“I am not the type of person who forces my decision on my family. Nobody forced me to take up this art either; it was an inner calling. Similarly, I have left my kids’ career choices to them. Both are graduates and have good jobs in private companies. They are very happy,” he says.
However, Chowhan is happy that his younger brother assists him in his work and they often pair up to do assignments together. They also travel to neighbouring Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh and Maharashtra states for work.
Chowhan admits he is not “rich” but has enough to take care of his and his family’s needs. There are lean days of course, and then there are spells when he is working 16 hours a day to catch up with deadlines.
“During the holy month of Ramzan, I am the busiest, moving quickly from one mosque to another to give out Allah’s message of peace through my art. But it doesn’t feel like work. I love doing such assignments.”
The calligrapher believes art should not be restricted by community or religion.
“Mosques, temples, monasteries, I have embellished them all. All these places give out the same message, of love, peace and the oneness of mankind. Religion is a unifying force, not a divisive one,” he says.
“If we follow god’s teachings, we can all live harmoniously and the world will be the richer for it.”