Farkhondeh Ahmadzadeh - Guided by the Compass of Traditional Arts

  • 27 Jan - 02 Feb, 2018
  • Mariam Khan
  • Interview

Farkhondeh Ahmadzadeh was 16 when she left Khorramshar, a city where she was brought up, which later came to be known as the ‘City of Blood’ by the Iranians. “I still remember when my mother told me that we were leaving the area since we were in the (Iran-Iraq) war zone,” recalls the illuminator who left with a backpack. “She told me to take anything that could fit into that bag and the first thing I remember putting in was my poetry book which I still have.”

An artist, illuminator and calligrapher, Farkhondeh’s work revolves around Persian manuscripts and poetry. She sheds light on the rich culture she grew up in which opened her to this side of the art world. “There is a tradition of mushaeeray in Iran where people sit in a circle and someone recites a shaer/ ghazal with another member following it with a couplet.”

She fervently recalls the evenings when elders would read the works of Hafez, a 14th century Persian poet. “The elders would ask us to think of something and make a wish while reading out verses,” she shares her passion for poetry. “I read Rumi, Nezami Ganjavi, Hafiz, Saadi. Nezami, since his is epic poetry, I am more able to illustrate his work. I love ghazals but they are harder to illustrate while epic poetry adheres itself to illustration,” Farkhondeh talks about the leading poets who left a mark on her life.

The craftsperson hails from a biochemistry background. “I have done so many different things in life. I used to teach A’ level Biology students and then I moved to managing a printing company. It was a fulltime job and then suddenly art came into my life,” she talks about how art transpires and is innate in most of us. “We only need to give it an opportunity to ooze out.”

This Iranian would sit in the British library and go through the enormous collection of poetry manuscripts. “There are thousands of Persian manuscripts in the British library. I would sit there and read one poetry book after another, (mostly) handwritten, 500-600-year-old books.”

Farkhondeh, a traditional art practitioner likes to describe herself as an ‘Islamic manuscript illuminator’. “I think that is my strongest point,” she says. However, when it comes to calligraphy, this soul would not call the craft her strongest. “Sometimes I am ashamed of my calligraphy. It is something that needs constant practising, and anyone who does it is well-aware of the fact.”

As for what she revels in the most, prompt comes the response. “It has to be painting; when I am painting, there are moments when I experience ecstasy. I forget everything and everyone, and I just live in that little, tiny brush that is working on the page and then hours later I return to this world with a backache or a neck ache.”

It was in the post-war years that Farkhondeh sought refuge in calligraphy. “After we moved to Tehran, the first class I took was of calligraphy and in those days I was much better at it than I am now. The war was still ongoing, and I was in a huge city which I wasn’t familiar with; I had these troubling thoughts in my young mind so I sought refuge in calligraphy. I practised it day and night and I was writing poetry with calligraphy too. But it took me years to get better at calligraphy which later led me to illuminating my works too. It was then that I started taking Tehzeeb classes in my 30s,” she makes it known.

Farkhondeh learnt calligraphy from an Iranian master which was a humble experience that left her in total bliss. “Honestly, in all his classes which I attended, I felt like dust. I am so humbled by their knowledge and how they impart it. In my early geometry classes at the Prince’s School of Traditional Arts, I kept crying for I was so overwhelmed by the feeling of blessedness, which was the same feeling I had with my masters in Iran.”

An enthusiast of the traditional arts, is there a difference between the two art forms – contemporary and traditional? “I think in contemporary art, I am nobody to judge it, there is a little bit of ego going on. It’s all about self. Like, this is me; this is my painting. But traditional art is more about the process. What will I gain through the process till I get to the end? In practice, it is hard, but in theory the end result doesn’t matter. I always tell my students that it doesn’t matter what you produce; what matters is what happens to you while you’re producing it. Do you change during the process? Do you gain some feelings? But I don’t think modern art is looking for that. It is looking at the outcome. And near me, that’s the least important thing,” she shares point blank the difference the two worlds of art hold within them.

Having worked on Haft Paykar (seven beauties), a romantic epic poem by Nezami Ganjavi, Farkhondeh experienced a roller coaster of emotions. But she feels it is hard to describe the sentimental ride she went through while working on the poem. “I hope I became a better person but I am no one to judge that. I went through myriads of different emotions. When I was painting Tuesday, which is affected by Mars, I had to be very careful because I could feel the anger, the fire. I could notice red qualities in me. I had to be much more familiar with my emotions and how to deal and recognise them,” she shares. “Haft Paykar, comprises of seven days and then there are seven poetries which accompanies each of them (the seven days of the week),” the artist talks about the project which took her almost three years to complete.

The palette which this artisan uses comprises of natural pigments which ‘are sourced from rocks, earth, metals, plants and insects. I don’t use any synthetic materials. My blues are lapis, greens of malachite, yellows from ochres and reds are vermilion. Blacks are carbon and white from lead. My shell gold is powdered from leaf and bound by gum Arabic’. That one colour which wraps her in euphoria is lapis lazuli. But when it comes to grinding it, that’s the tough part she points out. “Grinding the lapis is really difficult. It takes days to grind one since it has to be soaked first because of the impurities in it. So I don’t grind lapis myself. I do grind malachite though. I try getting enough lapis grinded in one go because it is really difficult. It’s a really hard stone and I don’t have the physical strength to do it so I need a strong man to keep grinding it for me.”

The lady wears an esteemed badge ever since she won the Jerwood Prize for Traditional Arts in 2011. “I wasn’t expecting it for sure and felt honoured having received it,” she shares with glee.

Farkhondeh’s passion for the arts surfaced in her 40s. For all those stumbling upon roadblocks in their path to their passion, she has a dictum: “It’s never too late. I wasn’t young when I started this. I was in my 40s when I embarked on my recent journey. Listen to your heart because it never lies if we listen to it carefully. We need to sit quietly with ourselves, without involving anyone else, and think truly. Not with our head but with our heart, and it definitely will not lie.”

As for a piece from Haft Paykar which is the closest to her is Wednesday. “It’s joyful. It brings joy out of me somehow. The colours remind me of Isfahan and I feel deeply connected to it,” she wraps up our conversation in a community club, mentioning the hub known for its domes, intricate tiles and classic calligraphy.