Naskh and Nasta'liq

Bulle Shah's Poetry

Since I had managed to learn the characters and how they joined together, I could manage to read the language fairly accurately, though very slowly. I would look at random websites in Urdu and try and read them, read Urdu poetry typed out in images on Instagram.

It was a hobby and I did it in my spare time, frequently copying out things I read for practice. Once when I mentioned to a friend that I was doing this, and he told me he had a photocopy of a book of Bulley Shah’s poetry. It was in Urdu and had a Hindi translation as well. It was perfect for me since I would also have the Hindi translation to cross check my reading with. When he gave it to me though, even though the letter forms were the same, it was a script I could not read, or could read but with difficulty. When I looked it up I found that it was the difference between Naskh and Nasta’liq. They are entirely different styles from each other. Here, again for a while I was confused, because they are frequently called entirely different scripts.

From all my research what I understood was that they are what I would call different styles from each other, but belong to the blanket Perso-Arabic script. I call it the “blanket Perso-Arabic Script”, because the Perso-Arabic script is used by many languages, with small variations. These variations are usually additions of characters to the existing script for certain sounds particular to the language it is being adapted for. Some examples of such languages are Kurdish, Pashto, Baluchi, Dogri, Koshur (Kashmiri), Punjabi, Sindhi. What was interesting to note for me was also that some of these languages are also written in alternative scripts, such as Punjabi and Sindhi which are alternatively written in Gurmukhi as well. I had learnt urdu in Naskh primarily because that’s what I had seen it written in online. If I had gone to a traditional Madrasa or been taught it in school, it would invariably have been taught to me in Nasta’liq. As I read on I also found some interesting debates about Naskh and Nasta’liq. The first one was an October 2013 article by Ali Eteraz, titled “The Death of the Urdu Script.” Here, he talks about Nasta’liq as the Urdu script, and of how Naskh trumps Nasta’liq on digital media because it is easier to code; which was also the reason I learnt the language in Naskh, traditionally used to write Arabic and not Urdu. I had never before thought of what digital media could do to language; specifically a script.

Another point of note, in Ali Eteraz’s words, “There is one more reason why nastaliq matters. It is, literally, calligraphy become language.” Even now, in Madrasas, children learn Urdu in calligraphy. Because of this calligraphy which has become language, even though Nasta’liq may be called a style, it is known more often as the script that Urdu is written in. This added a whole different dimension to my perspective of Urdu, and another area of fascination: the “Urdu script.”

I have friends who work with typography and type design, a by product of being in a film school within a design school. While I know there is a lot of coding and technical knowledge involved in actually bringing the letterforms to a state of usability, I didn’t quite understand why Nastaliq was so hard to code.

I found in the blog of Microsoft’s Michael S.Kaplan some discussion on how the “Nastaliq club” with mostly Urdu avoids the use of text world (Unicode or any other code), instead exchanging image files for any serious work, the key reason being that there were very few (none?) Nasta’liq fonts available. Subsequently I found his post about the Evolving story of Locale Support for Nastaliq on Windows8. Windows 8 was (one of? I am not sure about this) the first to offer a dedicated Urdu/Nasta’liq font.

This has added a whole different dimension to my perspective of Urdu, and another area of fascination: the Urdu script, its history and evolution to the modern day.