Sunday, June 23, 2013

Brushes on Stone: The Mongolian Calligraphy Movement

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D.Ganbaatar works on a piece of calligraphy at his office in the University
By Dashiell Young-Saver
D.Ganbaatar’s office is painted in ink.
Calligraphic texts and accolades cover each wall, and a work table littered with current projects and scraps sits in the adjacent room. His desk, mostly taken up by a computer and printer, is somewhat messy, buried under papers where words are both printed and written. One feature stands out – a large, three-paneled inscription that spans about nine square feet, hanging near the entrance. The ink’s bold movements are as traditional as the message – Air, Nomadic Peoples, and Earth. It’s all his work – the work of an artist and teacher.

M.Buyan’s office is clean. It contains a medium-sized conference table, a desk, a cabinet to the left, a covered radiator on the same side, and white walls. His accolades do not hang from the walls – they rest in the cabinet. Even though M.Buyan warned that it was a little messy, the room had little clutter, and the lines of the furniture maintained a nice modernity. For the manager of a banking branch in the central district of Ulaanbaatar, it is a nice office.

Each room has a certain individual purity about them. Yet, a few features manage to connect the two. Hanging on the wall across from M.Buyan’s desk is a painting of horses, formed by straight but bold and thick brush strokes. And right behind M.Buyan’s head is a vertical piece of Mongolian calligraphy. The two pieces face one another from opposite ends of the room.
Both men graduated from the Choi. Luvsangjab University of Language and Civilization in 2000, studying traditional script, calligraphy, and foreign languages. Since then, D.Ganbaatar has gone on to become one of the most renowned calligraphers and traditional language teachers in the nation. During the last international Delphic cultural games in 2009, he earned a gold medal in the calligraphy competition, competing against many countries from multiple regions around the world. And in February, the National Art Gallery honored his work in Mongolian traditional culture by purchasing and displaying one of his calligraphic pieces.
He formed the NGO “Bichig Soyol,” which aims to promote the teaching and use of traditional Mongolian script since its ban was lifted after the end of the socialist era in 1990.
M.Buyan credits the sharp look of bankers as part of the reason for going into finance. He serves on the administrative board of the NGO, with D.Ganbaatar as its Director. But, although he “serves,” M.Buyan does not “sit” on the panel anymore. The banking job has prevented him from coming to many meetings and investing a lot of his time in the NGO. For D.Ganbaatar, traditional script and calligraphy has become a career. For M.Buyan, and many others, it necessarily is a hobby – a tradition that still survives and grows among the more rapid expansion of the city’s economy.
In the past 10 years, calligraphy and traditional script have regained popularity, but more as an art form than a language. “Calligraphy is getting popular among the young,” said D.Ganbaatar. “It’s changing into an art, as people now are more commonly giving each other gifts of calligraphy.”
But, in addition to its rise as an artistic form, the script alphabet is being taught on top of the commonly used Cyrillic in secondary schools, and some government documents such as birth certificates and official letters have made the script their standard. For those who practice the craft, it is a hopeful and unlikely revival of language far older than the country that holds it.
A tradition written in stone
The reason M.Buyan was first interested in Mongolian script is simple.
“Many books have writing in Mongolian script and we couldn’t read them,” he explained.
Before 1940, when socialists in conjunction with the USSR instituted a ban on the traditional script, all Mongolian books and documents were written using a vertical script alphabet. Although the script has changed and its form shifted, it is believed to be at least over 1,000 years old. And, according to the first ever catalog of Mongolian calligraphy – which was first printed as recently as 2007 – it can trace part of its origins to a stone inscription ordered by Chinggis Khaan, which describes a piece of land from around 1225.
The NGO’s members said that the Cyrillic alphabet creates spelling and grammar inconsistencies in the Mongolian language that the traditional script avoids. With its vertical structure, the script is also faster to write and, according to enthusiasts, allows for a deeper connection with primary, historical texts.
Although schools now teach script literacy, D.Ganbaatar believes that more needs to be done to improve and eliminate inconsistencies in the teaching.
“The goal is to improve how it is taught and create an understanding at a deeper level,” he said. “And we need to spread this knowledge to all regions – not just in the cities (where this type of education is more widespread and accessible), but in the countryside as well.”
Bichig Soyol currently hosts an annual calligraphy exhibition, which raises awareness and encourages participation in using the traditional writing. It hopes to later expand its exhibitions internationally. In addition, the organization provides free training for secondary school teachers who teach traditional script and calligraphy.
“The scripts are vastly important to our culture, so we are working very hard to introduce them to everyone,” D.Ganbaatar added.
But beyond the practical uses, enthusiasts say that the style of writing in calligraphy carries significance beyond the words they signify, which is an important virtue in a language known for its poetic faculties.
“At the time of writing, both a deep joy and the form of the work express the moment of the mind’s inspired thrill, which joins together the scribe’s brush and ink,” wrote G.Mend-Oyo, a Mongolian poet and literary scholar, in a historical work on calligraphy. He mimics the powerful and poetic style of Mongolian traditional literature throughout the work. “It is in the nature of a cultural monument such as this that it be an unrepeatable artistic creation.”
With its new popularity among the young, some calligraphic interpretations of traditional script have been adapted to the modern Mongolian style. Contemporary work includes color and detailed paintings or drawings beside or incorporated into the script. But even the most contemporary interpretations maintain the vertical structure of the language, fluid strokes, and the signature red-stamp of the artist.
The revival of the language is a continuing project, and leaders are hopeful that, one day, script will replace the Cyrillic texts. But for now, historians, artists, and enthusiasts like G.Mend-Oyo are comforted by the permanence of the language throughout the nation’s cultural fluctuations:
“The spoken word flies about. The written word remains. May the virtue of books increase.”
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