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The Magic of Gurmukhi:
The Calligraphy of Kamaljeet Kaur

DEEPSHIKHA BHARDWAJ

 

 

 






“Always carry an extra set of clothes and slippers with you,” says Kamaljeet Kaur, as I enter her Dugri Road home.

Soaked and shivering from the assault of rains in Delhi and the air-conditioning of the Shatabdi Express to Ludhiana, a hot cup of tea and a warm-hearted welcome from the calligraphy artist are a godsend.

Every corner of this rented apartment is a reflection of Kamaljeet’s love for art. From the Mool Mantar on the wall, to the lamps on the floor, carefully placed and marked by Gurmukhi calligraphy, and a calligraphic silk stole resting on a lounge -- nothing is untouched by art, not even the kitchen containers and toothbrush holder.

The only child of Meerut-based arms and ammunition dealer Harbans Singh Kohli, Kaur had an interest in art from childhood. She would cut captions from newspapers, magazines and advertisements and paste them in her diary -- fascinated by the fonts, but oblivious to the technique.

“A friend visiting the Delhi trade fair gifted me a set of eight nibs in class XII,” recalls Kamaljeet.

She began practising calligraphy after finding a fountain pen to match the nibs, which she still has wrapped safely in cotton.

“I practised all the time, studied various fonts and angles, and thought how I could use those.”

The depth of Kaur’s passion for her artwork is apparent as we move to her studio.

“Please remove your shoes before entering. This room is my temple, my world,” Kamaljeet says.

The room exudes creativity and positivity. The Mool Mantar -- the opening and seminal composition in the Guru Granth Sahib -- in abstract form, and the Paintee Akhar -- the 35 letters of the Gurmukhi alphabet -- are framed on facing walls. Brushes, nibs, colours and pens lie stacked in wooden racks.

Kamaljeet married Ludhiana-based businessman Kanwardeep Singh Kandhari in 1994, three years after completing a postgraduation in clothing and textiles from Government Home Science College, Chandigarh, Punjab. In between, she also taught at a fashion institute in Meerut.

In Ludhiana, Kamaljeet lectured at the now-shut IEC School of Art and Fashion and penned The Fashion Illustration, a yet-to-be published book.

Two years into the job, she quit as she was expecting a child. Her daughter Sehej is now 15.

“I painted landscapes and flowers in mixed technique to pass time when I was expecting her,” Kamaljeet says. “Things took a professional turn when a friend requested I accept Rs.1,000 for a painting she gifted at someone’s house warming.”

It was an afternoon in 2004 that Kamaljeet saw a picture of a calligraphed Mool Mantar on the cover of a magazine.

“I calligraphed it and felt eternal peace. It was then I started to take calligraphy seriously and thought I should learn the Punjabi language.”

Kamaljeet’s father always wanted her to learn Gurmukhi, but she could never connect with the language. To make her realize the importance of knowing one’s mother tongue, he stopped writing to her in English when she was doing her postgraduation in Chandigarh.

“One day, I suddenly received a letter from my father in Gurmukhi. I called him up and begged that he write in English, for I can’t read Gurmukhi. ‘Then you must learn,’ he said,” recalls Kamaljeet.

Well-versed in Hindi and English, she chose Gurmukhi for calligraphy “to leave a mark in Sikh art history”. With the Internet as her only source, she did her research, took lessons online and studied techniques.

Her art reached another level when she became associated with a well-known brand in Delhi. “I was associated with it for 10 years, designing 20 T-shirts a day and at times improvising each at least five times.”

The brand got her work recognition, but when “those people began selling designs like vegetables”, Kamaljeet decided to move on. And as her work gained more recognition via Facebook, orders poured in from around the world. One order she clearly recalls working on is the Navakar, the most significant chant in Jainism.

“I listened to it for a week, day and night, before putting it to the canvas. I should understand it, it’s important; they see their god in my work,” says Kamaljeet, who bathes and performs the ardaas (the Sikh prayer) before starting on any piece.

She also recites every verse as she calligraphs it.

“It exudes immense energy and power,” she says.

As we move to her computer to take a look at some of her work and I begin looking for my trusty point-and-shoot camera, Kamaljeet smiles and reveals another side to her.

“I’ll send you the pictures. I am a professional photographer,” she tells me, while explaining how one of her hobbies became a profession.

It was at the wedding of her landlord’s daughter; she was nearly asked to leave when she placed her tripod next to that of a professional photographer so she that could shoot a few pictures of the bride.

“I decided at that very moment to learn more about photography and take it up as a profession,” says Kamaljeet, who then learnt the ropes from a local photographer. She seldom goes for a shoot these days, “only to take a break from my calligraphy work”.

“All these pieces are my babies I hate to part with,” Kamaljeet says about her artwork being readied to be shipped. “Gurbani has found a new place in people’s homes. It has reached their drawing rooms.”

Her pieces range between Rs.10,000 and Rs.125,000.

To revive the dying art of calligraphy and find a connection with the youth, Kamaljeet blends traditional with the contemporary.

“Calligraphy on stoles, lamps, mugs, musical instruments, cushion covers, tattoos, visiting cards and wedding cards goes down well with youngsters and also connects them with Gurmukhi and the art,” she says.

Despite taking her Punjabi/Gurmukhi to the global stage and winning the Bhaskar Woman of the Year Award in 2011, she is yet to be recognized by the Punjab government, Kamaljeet rues. But dreams are what she thrives on -- be it just planning out one of her days or her new house.

A folder on her computer reads “my home” -- a collection of over 1,000 pictures of interiors and exteriors from the Internet. On the upper floor of her apartment is what she calls her space -- a quiet room that houses a sofa, a double bed and a few books, among which is Rhonda Byrne’s The Secret.

“I am a staunch believer of this. Whatever I have thought of has come true; all my wishes have been granted. This book has immense power,” says Kamaljeet, who has participated in 10 exhibitions (two of which were solo) and has held several workshops. She is planning one by the end of this year in Ludhiana.

“I thank the Almighty for choosing me. All this is a dream,” Kamaljeet Kaur says as she gets to work on the specifications of a client while Shikra -- a Punjabi poem by poet Shiv Kumar Batalvi and sung by Jagjit Singh -- plays in the background.


[Courtesy: The Wall Street Journal. Edited for sikhchic.com]
September 26, 2014
 

Conversation about this article

1: Navi (Pennsylvania, USA), September 26, 2014, 10:40 PM.

Your art work is both beautiful as well as meaningful. It seems you approach your creative work like one would a prayer. Indeed you are blessed ... bringing Gurmukhi and Gurbani in calligraphy art form to the homes and living rooms of many! Keep it up.

2: Kamaljeet Kaur (Ludhiana, Punjab), December 11, 2014, 3:45 AM.

Thank you, Navi, for your kind words of appreciation.

3: Val Dosanjh (Livermore, California, USA), March 11, 2015, 2:49 PM.

I like your work. I too am interested in calligraphy and collage and larger artwork. Do you have a website?

4: Kamaljeet Kaur (Ludhiana, Punjab), April 15, 2015, 7:39 PM.

Val Dosanjh, thank you! You can follow at www.facebook.com/calligraphybykamaljeet and my website www.kamaljeetkaur.com

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