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Tughra Calligraphy in Lucknow and Calligrapher Syed Azeem Haider Jafri

By Saiyed Anwer Abbas

Arabic, Persian  and Urdu calligraphy is practiced to present the written word in different styles in the most beautiful form. This art is known as ‘Khattati’ and the calligrapher practicing the skill or art is known as ‘Khattat’.  It is also known as ‘Kitabat’ when writing is done merely for copying manuscripts for a Kitab (book) and the scribe, who does the copying, is called ‘Kaatib’. People who had a good handwriting and took up the profession of writing messages or documents legibly were identified as ‘Khush-nawis’. Their job was known as ‘Khush-nawisi’  (since ‘khush’ means good, and ‘nawisi’ is writing).

There is a large variety of styles in which inscriptions could be written or inscribed in Arabic, Persian, and Urdu. Seven of these styles are usually practiced by Khattats. In the past, when patronizing a Khattati was in vogue, a master Calligrapher, who excelled in all the seven styles, was bestowed the honorific title of ‘Haft Qalam’ (Haft = seven, Qalam = pen). The seven styles are Kufi, Naskh, Sulus (Thuluth), Taliq, Shikasta or Dewani, and Nastaliq.

It should be noted here that the competence of a practicing calligrapher was measured by his competence and skill in accurately reproducing alphabets and words in the exact form that they were originally depicted by the master Calligraphers. This practice was termed as ‘Tahsili’. A Shagird (apprentice) was placed under a practicing Khattat as his ‘Ustad’ (tutor) to learn the art and follow the rigid manner of reproducing words and texts in the ‘Tahsili’, i.e., the conventional form. He was permitted to join the profession and practice independently only when the tutor recommended him as being proficient in the art. In Iran, there is a traditional convention that calligraphers are required to obtain a license from the prescribed authority to practice the art of Khattati as a professional.


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It would be useful to know here that in the practice of Tahsili calligraphy, any variation or modification of the original form of alphabet and the method of joining the alphabets in their shorter forms to form a word in a particular style has been accepted in only a few rare cases when it was insisted upon by repeated demonstration by an established Master calligrapher and accepted by eminent Master calligraphers of the time.

The rigid practice of Khattati in the Tahsili form provided little scope for imagination and innovation. However, later a non-conventional practice of Calligraphy, known as the ‘Ghair Tahsili’, was developed where a calligrapher could use his imagination and artistic inspiration to make an attractive presentation by shortening, stretching, bending, or squeezing the conventional shape of alphabets and words with an intention to confine an inscription within a specific space or design. At times, the presentation could be a device where the real inscription and its mirror image were combined to create a unique and pleasing design. All such designs were known as ‘Tughra’. The calligrapher designing them was referred to as a ‘Tughra Nawis’, while the art of designing Tughra came to be known as ‘Tughra-nawisi’ or ‘Tughrakari’. Initially, Tughras were designed as inscriptions confined within geometrical shapes. They became an artistic and decorative feature as embellishments in the exterior and interior parts of Islamic buildings such as mosque, madarsa, khankhahs,  and mausoleums. Tughra soon came to be accepted in an iconic form because they had the attributes of God, or the names and titles of holy personages inscribed within their design. A large number of Tughra designs were produced (and reproduced) on paper or cloth with inscriptions that had phrases and short prayers like Surah-e-Hamd, Ayat-ul-Kursi, and Nad-e-Ali. They soon became popular among devotees because they were low-priced and portable.

A further development was seen in  the thirteenth century when Tughra came to be specially designed as an official logo and seal of the ruling Ottoman Sultans for their Farmans. An innovation and artistic presentation in Tughra designs was thereafter observed in Iran when Tughra-nawis began exploring their imagination for designing Tughras in the form of recognizable objects. These designs depicted books, lamps, leaf, flowers, bouquets, plants, vases, or an outline of a structure. They were also seen to configure living things in the outline such as a bird or animal. Tughras in this form depicted a pigeon, falcon, peacock, lion, tiger, horse or camel in their design. However, one rarely saw a Tughra depicting a human form. Sheila. S. Blair (Islamic Calligraphy, 2008) has used the term ‘Zoomorophic’ for this form of calligraphic presentation.

The inception of Muslim rule in India also brought calligraphers. They were proficient in the conventional Tahsili form of calligraphy used particularly for copying verses of the Holy Quran (in Arabic) in the Naskh script. However, they also worked as scribes for writing Persian in the Taliq and Shikasta scripts because it was the official language of the court and administration. With the rise of Urdu, Nastaliq, which was a script formed by the combination of Naskh and Taliq, also came in use.

Arrival of Tughra and Tughra-nawisi in Lucknow

Lucknow became the capital of Awadh (Oudh) when the third Nawab, Asaf-ud-Daulah shifted his capital from Faizabad to Lucknow in 1775. During the Nawabi rule, Lucknow developed as one of the important centres of Calligraphy in the country and, probably, the sole promoter of Zoomorophic Tughra and Tughra-nawisi in the country. The reason for this was that the local calligraphers were highly impressed by calligraphic designs in the non-conventional (Ghair Tahsili) decorative form of Tughra that came to Faizabad and Lucknow from Iran and Iraq, usually bearing representations of Shia faith. They were brought by Haj pilgrims and traders and were displayed with pride in the Imambaras during Muharram. With a demand for similar Tughra decoration in Lucknow, Tughra-nawisi found a firm ground to flourish and local calligraphers began copying foreign Tughras, and those with an artistic imagination started producing innovative designs.

Tughra on religious structures in Lucknow

Like other places, in Lucknow, too, calligraphers were required to demonstrate their calligraphic excellence in the Tahsili form to present verses from the Quran in larger size as inscriptions on religious buildings. Lucknow saw a Tughra inscribed on a religious building for the first time when an imambara was built by Mir Zain-ul- Abidin Khan during Nawab Asaf-ud -Daulah’s rule. The Imambara was decorated with Tughra in the Ghair Tahsili form with attributes of Allah, the titles of the Prophet and the name of his daughter, Fatima, along with  the names of  twelve Imams. The Tughras were placed in such a manner that they could be visible and appreciated by the people who assembled in the hall of the Imambara for Majlis.

Surprisingly, Tughra decoration did not find favour with members of the ruling dynasty in Awadh, who originally belonged to Iran, where Tughra-nawisi had been highly developed and from where Calligraphers of repute came to India. An example is the famous Amanat Khan, the designer calligrapher of the Taj Mahal who came from Iran.  Among the rulers of Awadh, it was the third King of Awadh, Mohammed Ali Shah (1837-1842), who appears to have insisted on decorating his Imambara with Tughra designs in the first instance. Probably it was the influence of his wife Malka Jahan, who was herself an excellent scribe that he chose to  deploy extensively Tughra decoration of different forms on the exteriors of Hussainabad. Malka Jahan had been tutored by a female scribe, Zaina Begum, the wife of a well known Khush-nawis of the time, named Mohammad Ali. Unfortunately, an Imambara that she was building did not go beyond the foundation stage. Had her own imambara been completed, it would have presented some of the best specimens of Tughra-nawisi.

Tughra-nawisi flourished in Lucknow for quite some time. A collection of Calligraphic specimens presented by Munshi Devi Prasad ‘Sahar’ in Azrang-e-Chin, published in 1875, has a good number of Tughras in the Ghair-Tahsili form. In 1914, a journal on Indian Art, published in London, mentions Tughra designed in Lucknow. We also find illustrations of glass panels with Tughra designs painted in various colours and those etched on mirrors with designs produced in the city. Specimens exist as logos and monograms specially designed by the Tughra-nawis for their patrons, mostly nobles and officials of the court and other wealthy patrons. Tughra designs made in the form of pigeon and horse, embroidered with white thread on a contrasting background of red, green or blue muslin or silk, are also seen in some Imambaras of Lucknow. Examples of artistic use of Tughra designs with the phrase, Bismillah,  cast in metal fixed for display on wood or hung on wall surface was also quite popular and available in Lucknow until two decades ago. They are rarely seen in the market now.

Sadly, the state of tugra-nawisi in Lucknow is very discouraging today. Computers have replaced scribes and calligraphers to a large extent, reducing Khushnawis, Katib, and Khattat to a state of unemployment. Though Arabic is still in demand for religious purposes, Persian finds few scholars now. Urdu, which is popular in speech and poetry, has few patrons who can read it in the Nastaliq script. Alarmingly, the number of scribes, calligraphers, and Tughra-nawis in Lucknow can be counted on fingers alone.

Syed Azeem Haider Jafri

Syed Azeem Haider Jafri, 42, is a Tughra-nawis, who depends on full time employment as a Muezzin of a non-descript mosque in a Shia locality. His duty at the mosque is callingSaiyed Anver Abbas Calligraphy AHJafri WS 27.12.04 022 the azaan, five times a day. He has  taken over from his father, who was the previous muezzin of the mosque. Under the guidance of his father, he has learnt Arabic for reading the Quran, and has also learnt the meaning of the Suras and Ayats of Quran. He can also perform Qirat in the traditional manner of recitation of the Quran with voice modulation and, as such, is  recognised as a Qari. Most of his early schooling took place in a Shia madarsa, where he  learnt reading and writing Urdu which is his mother tongue and Hindi, which is the official language of the State. He later went to a Shia School for formal education but dropped out in the tenth standard  when he failed to clear the Board examination. His father could not afford to let him repeat class. He was then attached to a Khushnawis to work as his helper in painting signboards and banners in Urdu. By sheer chance, he came in contact with a calligrapher, Asif Mirza, who took him under his wings and he learnt the nuances of Calligraphic inscriptions. Since Jafri was skilled in both Arabic and Urdu, he was assigned the job of writing handbills and posters for Majlis that contained matter in both languages and making templates for their printing by the lithographic process. He appeared to be fascinated with iconic Tughras designed in Arabic, which were given to him for copying by clients of his Ustad. Very soon, using his own skill and imagination, Jafri began designing Tughras on his own. This launched him as a Tughra-nawis, but Tughra-nawisi alone did not prove to be lucrative. People in Lucknow had little interest in new designs made locally as established designs made in Iran, Iraq, and other places were now available in print. The only difference that he found  was that he was in demand for inscribing short prayers and Quranic inscriptions on religious buildings and gravestones. This enhanced his earnings to some extent.

I saw Jafri’s work  accidently when I visited an exhibition where an artist was fraudulently displaying Jafri’s work without crediting him. The lack of Urdu readers in the exhibition ensured that none found anything amiss. I traced this amazing Tughra-nawis through contacts in the old city. Thereafter, Jafri was assigned to restore and produce Tughras in a Lucknow Imambara in November 2007. He completed it in less than a month’s time.  The local Press and Media lauded his work and overnight Syed Azeem Haider Jafri became famous as a Master Calligrapher.  Subsequently, several fairs and  exhibitions provided him a chance to display his art in Lucknow. The State Academy of Fine Arts organised a state-wide workshop of  Calligraphy at Lucknow for the first time and included Jafri as a participant. Later, he was also noticed by Fox History & Travel Channel, which featured him as a Master Calligrapher and interviewed him in their programme on Lucknow. He has recently got an opportunity to visit Iran and Iraq and observe calligraphy and Tughra specimens in both the countries.

Despite the name and fame he has earned, Master Calligrapher Syed Azeem Haider Jafri  is sure that Tughra-nawisi alone cannot pay him enough to provide for his family. Tughra-nawisi is not a vocation that he would like any of his children to follow.


Saiyed Anver Abbas is an independent writer, research scholar, and historian. While he is based in Lucknow, his quest often keeps him on the move across India, and outside. He has written more than 200 articles on Lucknow in newspapers and journals in English, Hindi and Urdu which include a weekly  series ‘A Time in History’ having 120 articles on the history and monuments of Lucknow for Hindustan Times. He is the author of three books in English on Lucknow, viz.Incredible Lucknow, Lost Monuments of Lucknow and Wailing Beauty- the Perishing art of Nawabi Lucknow and two books in Hindi viz. Marsia aur Lucknow ki Marsiagoi and Lucknow ki lupt hoti kalayen. He is also the author of ‘Destination Uttar Pradesh’, a booklet for tourists published by Bennet Coleman (Times of India).  

9 Comments Post a comment
  1. Michael #

    Loved your article. In the late 1990s I brought home from Delhi two original works (well, the person who sold them to me said they were her own work and the raised ink would suggest they are indeed original) to Ireland, a dove and fish. I knew nothing about them but was taken by their beauty. I am now researching them and was luck enough to find your fantastic piece. Thanks for sharing. Michael

    January 13, 2015
    • Saiyed Anwer Abbas #

      Thanks Michael, Sorry for the belated reply, Thanks for the appreciation, Any help that you need from me for this subject which is amongst my favourite,

      February 14, 2015
  2. nitika #

    I am at present researching on the art of Tughra and came upon this article. Is there a way I can get in touch with you Saiyed? Thanks. Nitika.

    May 26, 2015
  3. Hi Nitika, this is his email id: You might like to get in touch with him directly. Best.

    May 28, 2015
  4. Haider #

    Where can i come in lucknow to watch the calligraphy?

    September 22, 2017
  5. Mohd Hadi #

    Sir ,myself Mohd Hadi I wants to become a calligrapher so what i hv to do sir plz suggest me.
    6392970963 is my no.

    December 26, 2018
  6. Assalam alaikum….sir mai bot koshish kar rhi hu apse contact krne ka….mujhr calligrapghy sikhni hai…….mai lucknow bot oata ki abtak mujr koi v calligrapghist ni mila

    May 26, 2019
  7. Assalamualaikum sir, I’m Aisha Fatima student of grade 5th ,from Lucknow .M found of Arabic calligraphy n I really want to lean it. And I would appreciate u if u plz help me to achieve my goal .
    Sir how can I contact you ?

    September 19, 2020

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