The National Museum of Pakistan located in Karachi, houses some classic Persian manuscripts which are a rare cache of medieval calligraphy, art and creativity. My three years at the museum were critical in my study of archaeology as I learned immensely about the palaeographic research process. To be perfectly honest, the old interest was lost somewhere in the deadlines of a working journalist. But at a recent visit to the museum, I found the priceless collection of manuscripts displayed in the gallery quite enticing.
Copies of the epic work of Abu’l Qasim Firdawsi and Sheikh Saadi are few of the outstanding pieces that are larger than reality. The ink has blurred due to ageing of the material while the faint light maintained over the glass boxes has made the old yellowing paper even paler. A visitor to this sombre environment can sense the past era when these great copiers had used colours, ink and pen to recreate the epic works. Beautiful illustrations have enhanced the stories narrated in the volumes of Shahnama, Bustan, Gulistan and Yousuf and Zulaikha.
Rich and rare manuscripts housed in the National Museum are a remarkable stimulus for archival and palaeographic research
Manuscripts including some treatises and calligraphic specimens are a fabulous extravaganza of truly stylish Persian nastaliq which is the source of the present nastaliq font being used in Urdu typing software such as Inpage. Nastaliq is a cursive font style originally devised to write literary and non-Quranic works. The style is thought to be a later development of the naskh and the earlier taliq script used in Iran where letters have short vertical strokes with broad and sweeping horizontal strokes while shapes are deep and hook-shaped. The lines are slightly steeped with the word running, giving the script a hanging appearance.
Written some 1,000 years ago, Firdawsi’s Shahnama is the world’s longest epic prose poem written by a single poet.However, a manuscript written in the poet’s own hand is not known to exist. The copy on display is dated 1029AH (1919 AD). The tag note informs us about 99 mini-paintings while the wide-open page 357 on display has no illustration. Twenty-five lines in four columns are written with black ink. The note was perhaps added to emphasise the segment or to highlight the episode with red rubricated text on one of the pages.
Similarly, Saadi Shirazi’s best known works Bustan (The Orchard which is entirely in verse) and Gulistan (The Rose Garden) were completed in 1257 and 1258. The manuscript was copied by Imam Verdi, a famous scribe of the time. The displayed page has a beautiful illustration depicting a king and his court. The opaque watercolour in green and gold is a superb artwork while the page format has 13 lines in four columns of elegant nastaliq in black ink.
The copy of Gulistan has a certain individuality as it is written in the unique Shikasta script dated back to 1253 AH (1837 AD). In a 23-line format, the piece is full of beautiful artistry with a combination of gold and colourful motifs. Green and gold dominate the inner margins. The outer area has pale mauve borders while the header is exquisitely decorated. A brilliant technique of using colour and geometric design on a gold base is displayed all over the page. Evidently, prose and poems are separated by little geometric columns.
The Quranic verse regarding Yousuf and Zulaikha has been translated in many languages countless times. The most famous version was written by the great Persian poet Jami. The manuscript reminded me of the translation by the Indology scholar Ralph T. H. Griffith describing Zulaikha’s beauty:
A thousand jewels most rich and rare
Studded the band that confined her hair
Not a hand but hers had the art to twist
The bracelet which circled her delicate wrist
Glistering anklets of gold she wore.
What need I say of her jewels more?
Published in Dawn, EOS, January 7th, 2018