One of the great delights of this project is being sent a script I’ve been trying to track down for years. One of the greater delights is being sent a script I didn’t even know existed.
A month or so ago I got an email from Tazim Kassam, who teaches at Syracuse University. He wrote, “I work on pre-modern (12-18th C) devotional literature in the Indian subcontinent. It was an oral tradition and initially put to writing in a secret script called Khojki. The poetry belongs to Satpanthi Khojas, now known as Ismaili Muslims, and the secret script was developed to hide their identity from Muslims who persecuted them for their open-minded approach to the Indic religious worldview. The manuscripts were then transcribed into Gujerati, and now there are no khojki versions of these poems, known as ginans. [You can look at my book, Songs of Wisdom and Circles of Dance (SUNY: 1995) to get an introduction.] There are very few Ismailis who can read this script now, and most likely it will eventually be forgotten.”
A secret and endangered script? How could I resist?
Tazim sent me a sixteenth-century hymn by Pir (that is, spiritual master) Shams,and after some discussion I decided to carve just one verse, which (in Tazim’s translation) reads,
“Maker of water and earth, the roots of Creation,
O ‘Ali! Indeed, yours alone is the [final] command!”
I asked him whether he thought it would work better with black lettering on a light wood or gold lettering on a darker wood. “Gold lettering on darker wood,” he replied. “The poetry is considered divinely-inspired so I think the gold will be a fine choice. I hope I get a sliver of it?”
Again, how could I resist? So I carved two copies, one for him and one for the Alphabets.
One last observation: I’m trying to get away from slavishly copying some Unicode font (not that I don’t admire the Unicode gang and the vital work they’re doing), so I carve the khojki by examining the pen-strokes. The pen won’t behave the same way on the page as the gouge does on the wood, but I’m hoping to capture the same approach or attack, hoping to get into the writer’s mind: this way, then around with this flourish, using a gouge of the right width so I make almost no corrections, I’m almost writing.
When the whole thing is finished I discover a tiny section where the gold paint hasn’t quite run up the the lip of the cut, and for an instant I think of going through all the stages necessary to fix it—and with black paint on light wood I might have to do that. But in the end there’s no denying—this is a script, not a print, and nobody’s writing is perfect. Small mistakes are what will give it that sense of spontaneity and life.
August 9, 2012