At the beginning of December 2013, I was invited to attend an open house at Equinox Studios in the Georgetown neighborhood of Seattle, where the artists in residence had flung open the doors of their studios and invited inquisitive visitors to experience the creative spaces where inspiration meets the workbench. In addition to the industrial performances of an artist swinging a wrecking ball into massive, ornate glass sculptures and the iron-wrights who lit up the night with pyrotechnic displays emanating from giant, intricate lattices and delicate cut-metal trees, there was in one corner of a garage a more silent performance that caught my ears.
As I made my way to that garage, I spotted sandstone blocks stacked into short towers on the ground and people hunched over tables. I curiously peered over the shoulder of a couple working away at one of these blocks, diligently carving the logo of the Seattle Seahawks into the white sand. Beyond the tables was a cordoned-off area where metal workers were feeding wood into a raging furnace. I watched as a pair of workers dressed in protective suits reached into its blazing mouth with a heavy metal yoke and extracted a crucible of molten metal. Another worker collected finished blocks from the hands of eager carvers and placed them into rows on a metal rack resting upon a bed of black sand. At her signal, the bearers of the crucible inched over to the rack and steadily poured the molten steel into each block. I moved along the perimeter and watched another worker crack the blocks that had cooled in order to release the newly embossed metal tiles.
I was engrossed by this process of sandstone etchings being formed into pictographs on steel and nearly forgot about the rest of the open house. Some of my companions wandered onto the other installations as I grabbed a sandstone block, wriggled my way into the empty space at a table next to the couple, who were putting the final striations on their Seahawks design. I pondered what significant text I should want wrought in steel. Luckily, my friend curtailed that process when she exclaimed "Write my last name in Hindi!". I gladly obliged. Calligraphy I've done, but etched text? Never.
For the next 45 minutes I stood there, hunched over my block, sketching her name in pencil, then lightly tracing it with a carving tool, then going over the grooves repeatedly until the depths reached a quarter of an inch. Then the devil of details arrived and he sat on my shoulder as I tried to coax the stone to yield curves that resemble those of inked letter-forms. When I finished, I brushed off my shoulder and handed the finished block to my friend, who ran her finger over the grooved of the etched imprint of her name in reverse. Thumbs up. She passed it onto the metal worker, who sprayed it with a graphite coat and set it on the rack. We watched as the two crucible bearers arrived with a fresh trove of molten steel and poured it onto the carving. I would have to wait until tomorrow to see how it all turned out... it turned out nicely.
The experience at Equinox loomed in my mind. What would I have etched into that block? My friend saved me from writer's, um, block with her intervening request. But, what text was worthy enough for me to see wrought in steel? A few days later it struck me as I was researching variant letter-forms used in Khojki manuscripts while listening to Raageshwari Loomba's rendition of the Ismaili ginan "Aaye Rahim Raheman" by Imam Begam:
My friend, for whom I had made the tile with her name, contacted Alair Wells, a talented sculptress and metal artist, whose studio Tinder Heart Metals is housed at Equinox. I described my idea to Alair and she was excited to help. First, we would have to make the sandstone block. We produced a wooden cast for the block by using four 2" x 4"s and affixing it to a plywood board. Then Alair cut an 8" x 10" block from a pine board and we fixed that to the plywood. We poured Washington grade 7 white silica into the cast to measure the quality of sand we would need. Then after we placed the weighed silica into a bucket, Alair and my friend mixed a catalyst and bonding agent into it, mixed vigorously for minutes, and then poured the preparation into the block. I went to pick up pizza from Stellar. We gorged on a Georgetowner while we waited for the 25 lb. sandstone block to harden.
Shown above is the block and the tools with which I was going to perform the etching. For this project, I chose three implements consisting of a ⅜" nib, a ⅛" nib, and a needle point:
The first phase of the etching of the upper portion of the block is shown below. The grooves are shallow. I would eventually deepen the routes:
Below is the first run of the etching:
I used the broad nib for the text of the upper portion. It's width produced very pleasant stroke width and modulation that resembled the style of Khojki I wanted to emulate.
Etching the tail of a vowel sign:
For the bottom portion, I used the medium nib.
I used the needle point to take care of the small details, like the dots and the terminals of letters:
Working on the details:
I was concerned about the size of the dots. I feared that if I spaced them too closely, then the molten metal might just obliterate the sandstone in between and I'd end up with a blob instead of three dots:
Here's the before picture of the silica block:
and the after picture:
And a close up of the text:
When I was reading a folio from a printed Khojki book earlier in December, I began to wonder if I could reproduce the letter-forms that Laljibhai Devraj had cut in Germany in 1903 for the first ever Khojki metal types, which he used at his Khoja Sindhi Printing Press in Bombay. At first I thought it might be nice to do an etching of "Aaye Rahim Rahman", the ginan which inspired me to think about a Khojki etching in the first place, but that seemed a bit ambitious. After all, I had only done one etching. So, I thought of the next best thing I would want to etch in Khojki...
As I developed my proposal for encoding Khojki in Unicode in 2009, I was contacted by Irfan Gowani, who was enthusiastic about the future encoding. We spoke intermittently, but I did not meet Irfan until I returned to Seattle in 2013. During the past year Irfan and his wife Shelina have become wonderful friends of mine. They are inspirational, creative, and lovely people. And they are damned good cooks. One evening, a few days before Christmas, as I left their home after dinner Shelina handed me two jars of homemade quince and fig jam, sourced from the fruit of their own trees. Apart from the kababs they feed me, this was yet another testament of their giving nature. It got me to thinking: what in the world could I offer them as an expression of my friendship?
What else could more uniquely express my gratitude for their presence in my life more than an 8" x 10" x ¾" metal plaque weighing 17 lb, which bears the names of their family embossed in Khojki by my own hands? I have yet to present it to them. But, I have a feeling that whenever they'll need to move it, they'll surely remember me!
Merry Christmas and Happy New Year, Irfan and Shelina!
āye rahem rahemān, ab to rahem karoge,
āye rahem rahemān, ab to rahem karoge.
ejī tana mana dhana guru ne arpaṇa kīje
to gināne gināne ginān, ab to rahem karoge.
ejī dāna sakhāvat har dam kīje,
to dāne dāne dān, ab to rahem karoge.
ejī saba ghaṭ ekaja rahemān kīse,
to śāne śāne śān, ab to rahem karoge.
ejī kahet īmām begam merā pīr hasan shāh,
īmāne īmāne īmān, ab to rahem karoge.