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The Two Qalams: Islamic Arts of Pen and Brush

July 11, 2009–September 19, 2010

In Arabic, the word qalam originally meant the calligrapher's reed pen. Calligraphers were and are esteemed in Islamic circles because their pens write the sacred words of the Qur'an, the holy book of Islam. The attitude toward painters, however, has not always been so positive since their brushes could depict—thus create—human and animal figures, thereby challenging the sole creative authority of God. Persian poets of the sixteenth century countered this negative perception by describing the painter's brush as a second qalam, equivalent to that of the calligrapher's pen. The two qalams came together in the vibrant bookmaking workshops of the Islamic courts of Persia and India where calligraphers and painters collaborated to produce a wealth of illustrated manuscripts and elaborate albums filled with specimens of beautiful writing and painting.

As seen in the sixteenth- through nineteenth-century album pages on view in the exhibition, the arts of pen and brush often merged with exquisite results. A highlight from this group is a never-before-exhibited Mughal tinted drawing of circa 1600, which, in its subject matter and emphasis upon bold outlines and graceful line effects, shows the influence of both European prints and Islamic calligraphy.

Main Building


Yael Rice, Assistant Curator of Indian and Himalayan Art

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