Sulaiman Awang’s elegant cursive Jawi calligraphy is on all Malaysian ringgit notes.
“That golden opportunity came to me in 1997. Someone by the name of Haji Mohamad asked me to submit my calligraphy work for the Malaysian currency note.
“I only had to write ‘Bank Negara’ in Jawi. A few weeks later he told me that I got the tender.
“That is one of my sweetest memories. I still keep the paper currency package given by Bank Negara Malaysia. But then, that’s an old story,” said the veteran calligrapher and cartoonist.
Sulaiman was commissioned to write “Bank Negara” in Jawi for the RM2 note, right up to the RM1,000 note, and was paid a lump sum of RM10,000 for the job.
Jawi is Arabic alphabet for writing in the Malay language.
In a recent interview during the launch the House of Cartoon and Comic Malaysia in Taman Botani Perdana, Kuala Lumpur, Sulaiman said being a calligrapher gave him much pride as it was a highly respected profession.
He also felt a sense of responsibility to pass the values, wisdom and the art form to the next generation.
It saddened him to think that interest in Jawi calligraphy was slowly fading, and there was little effort to revive its use.
“The art of Arabic calligraphy dates back a thousand years.
“Sadly, not many people appreciate it these days. There should be efforts to develop Jawi writing as developing the skill itself is challenging.
“Perhaps, there should be collective efforts to introduce workshops on basic Jawi writing, or the art of khat or Jawi calligraphy.
“In fact, we don’t have that many artisans skilled in this Arabic calligraphy, especially among the young,” said the calligraphy expert, who used to draw comics for the magazine entitled Pemburu Maut.
Sulaiman’s skills are much sought after. He was commissioned to design the covers of school textbooks and children’s magazines.
After he retired in 1996, Sulaiman has been spending much of his time at the mosque and doing charity work.
“These days, I find peace devoting my time in prayer, meeting friends and doing charity work at a nearby mosque. I also love to spend time with my family. I also write Arabic calligraphy on tombstones these days,” said Sulaiman.
He spends about two minutes on each tombstone and charges RM10 for each task.
At 75, Sulaiman is still trying to perfect and develop his skills.
“It is not easy to master the art of calligraphy. You have to be patient, meticulous and use the right technique. Arabic calligraphy teachers are rare treasures these days.
“My children know how to write calligraphy, but I’m not sure if they will make it a profession,” said the father of four.
His son, Kamarul Khazim is a cartoonist with a regular column in a daily newspaper while his daughter Intan Azura is an actress.
All his life, Sulaiman has been passionate about Arabic calligraphy.
He started in 1962 and studied at the religious school, Maahad Tahfiz Al-Akhlak Al-Islamiah Masjid Tinggi in Bagan Serai, Perak.
His first job was in Utusan Melayu in 1970 as a khat writer.
He joined Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka later and worked there for 26 years.
Speaking on Arabic calligraphy, Sulaiman said it was an art form, and those who wanted to master it should study all the other various calligraphic styles.
“It takes many years to perfect Arabic calligraphy as it involves the art of strokes, dots as well as ways to handle the ink and pen.
“But some say, your calligraphy writing depends on how well you handle your relationships with people in your life.
“There is truth in that because it is actually a way of life,” said Sulaiman.