With every Avestan letter I mastered, I felt like I was securing a piece of Zoroastrian culture’
Perin Pudumjee Coyaji is the only person in the world to have written a book of Kusti prayers in Avestan calligraphy, a rare script as ancient as Zoroaster himself
Centuries after Avestan ceased to be a living language, a pinprick of light has appeared through its darkness. The ancient East Iranian script would perhaps have met the same fate as any other little-known relic of the past, had it not been for 46-year-old Pune resident Perin Pudumjee Coyaji’s unrelenting quest to learn the alphabet in which the Zoroastrian holy book is written.
“Avesta is the name of Zoroastrianism’s oldest recorded scripture. It was created way before writing as a medium of communication even existed. It was first written in Pahlavi — a code script comprising 12 words. The Avestan alphabet was invented only in the 6th century AD, by which time the language had become extinct and only its liturgical form remained.
In India, due to the Zoroastrian migration to Gujarat in the 8th century, the holy book is available to the layman only in the Gujarati script and of course, in Roman for the current generation,” informs Perin. To put it in simple words, to call the script ‘rare’ is an understatement.
A Wadia College alumnus and a former copywriter, Perin left her job at a leading advertising agency at the age of 25 to pursue her childhood passion of calligraphy.
A devoted student of renowned calligraphy artist Achyut Palav, it was around 15 years ago, at a workshop conducted by her guru, that she saw a thesis on the old Modi script of Western India and first wondered if something like an ‘Avestan script’ existed.
“Not a single Parsi I spoke to had any idea. I was told the Avestan liturgies were memorised in the oral tradition by generations of the Iranian priesthood. I later saw, on a trip to Iran, a priest actually reading from an Avestan text.
It had to be fate, that after months of unsuccessfully scouring archives, I was gifted a yellowed, musty, 100-year-old 1891 edition of Practical Grammar of the Avesta Language in a nearly crumbling state — serendipitously by my next-door neighbour,” Perin reminisces.
In the first chapter of the book, she found the Avestan alphabet. “The first thought that ran through my head was that I wanted to show it to a child — make his generation aware of its priceless value,” she says.
Determined to make the script accessible to all, she underwent a painstaking but systematic process to learn the letterform. “I photocopied each letter, enlarged it, cut it out and placed it on a grid to get an idea of the proportions and nuances of its individual form. I would also travel once a week to Mumbai to seek the guidance of my guru.
The inspiration to take all these efforts stemmed from a simple wish to know a little more about where we, as a society, originate from. With every Avestan letter I mastered, I felt like I was securing a piece of the Zoroastrian culture for the next generation,” Perin smiles.
Now that the hard part was over, Perin’s next step was to incorporate into the script the flow of calligraphy and compose a book of daily Kusti prayers in Avestan calligraphy accompanied by its Gujarati and English translations.
Within a couple of years, she achieved this goal as well, for she says, “Once you learn the basic letterform, the thickness and thinness of strokes as well as the subtle use of lines, shades and empty spaces required in calligraphy come naturally.” Her book was released eight years ago.
“Language and art exist not to create cultural divide, but to build bridges. I wanted to introduce the heritage of our community’s archaic script to the world but my purpose was to unite people in their appreciation of a relic born out of an ancient religion. All it takes is love for art combined with respect for another’s faith,” she says.
Today, Perin blends different elements of the Avestan script into her calligraphy art, in essence unifying the two worlds of language and visual art. “I try to maintain the sanctity of the sacred language by sticking to handmade paper and auspicious colours like bronze and silver.
In this era of digitisation, there’s something strikingly beautiful in seeing lines in dark red and gold ink ink elegantly flowing over paper. This work is meditation for me — unless it’s a commissioned piece, I seldom have a fixed idea of what I am setting out to do. I simply go with the flow, quite literally,” Perin says.
December 2013 was a special time for Perin, for her work was displayed at an eminent exhibition on Zoroastrianism held in the Brunei Gallery London. “I feel so privileged to be one of the torchbearers of this script today.
But I will be truly successful in my goal only when I pass on this knowledge to the youth,” says the mother of two twin boys. A book on Ahun, the Avestan version of Om, is her next project. “Using Ahun as a base motif, I want to explore the myriad movements within this single sound and seek greater depths in it.”