Learning Persian Calligraphy in London: A Word With the SOAS Tutor

By Tara Biglari

Calligraphy is considered to be one of the most respected disciplines in Iranian culture. Initially created by Ibn Muqlah and his brothers about 1,000 years ago, it has attracted widespread interest across many communities around the world.

The School of Oriental and African Studies in London (SOAS) recently launched a 10-week Persian calligraphy course, each session lasting two hours. The course is aimed at everyone from beginners to advanced learners. Students learn the Nasta’liq script, the principal style in Persian calligraphy.

Kayhan Life spoke to Keramat Fathinia, the course tutor and a PhD student, about the sessions and the broader significance of Persian calligraphy.

Where did you grow up, and what led you to choose this path?

I grew up in Iran, and lived there until the age of 25. I was passionate about music when I was a kid, and when I started learning calligraphy at the age of 15, I kept learning both simultaneously for a while. As it was always practical to find a quiet place for practicing calligraphy, this became a continuous journey for me. I even served as a calligrapher in the army when I was doing the mandatory military service in Iran.

The beauty of Nasta‘liq forms persuaded me to continue the journey on my own by following Ustad Amirkhani’s work. By the time I started my BA at [Shahid] Bahonar University in Kerman at the age of 21, I had reached a strong [enough] level of proficiency to start teaching university students. I continued this throughout university, and managed to exhibit my works for the first time. This led me to pursue an MA and a PhD in art history, with a focus on Persian calligraphy, at SOAS in London.

What drew you to calligraphy, and how long have you been practicing?

I was strongly influenced by my teacher in Iran, who is still one of my best friends: Ustad Chaman. He taught me how to appreciate the art of calligraphy alongside Iranian music and literature, [and view them] as three interconnected fields. I have been practicing for the past 22 years.

Why is calligraphy important, in your opinion?

Persian calligraphy brings back nostalgic memories of childhood for Iranians. If we look back at Iranian history, and see that calligraphy has been always important for the elite classes. Calligraphers used to serve the court either by teaching princes and princesses, or by producing sumptuous manuscripts and albums commissioned by kings. In modern times, calligraphy is also widely used in different industries such as fashion and decoration.

Who are the individuals that typically enrol in this calligraphy course?

We have a slightly different atmosphere in the class from term to term. Individuals typically come from various backgrounds and age ranges. Almost a third of the students are current or previous SOAS students, who have studied Farsi, Arabic, or Turkish and are interested in Persian literature, language, and calligraphy.

The same [ratio] applies to Iranians as compared to non-Iranians. We’ve had a wide range of high-ranking individuals as well, ranging from politicians and academics to prominent figures in the business world.

There are so many individuals interested in learning calligraphy, either as a relaxing hobby, or a serious route to a future profession.

It’s an opportunity for those who wish to enhance their skills and knowledge of calligraphy in English and Persian because of their career requirements. This includes individuals who work for art auction houses, and also art collectors based in London.

Workshop by master calligrapher Keramat Fathinia