An Indian-born artist, now living in the U.S., overcomes a birth defect to achieve success as a producer of multicultural greeting cards.
If I am strong and patient," says artist Salma Arastu, "God will guide me. God has guided me in all things." It sounds like a simple affirmation of faith, but a rather complicated story lies behind it. A converted Muslim transplanted from India to the United States, Arastu shows her work in galleries across the country. She is a painter and spends most of her time painting, but for several months of each year she is also a busy entrepreneur, designing and marketing an unusual line of greeting cards for which she receives orders from around the globe.
Her story started, however, in northwestern India. The youngest of ten siblings, Arastu was born in the northwestern Indian town of Ajmer, a pilgrimage destination popular with Indian Hindus and Muslims alike. Her father, a doctor, died when she was ten. "My family was Hindu," says Arastu, "and I was very spiritual. I got it from my mother, who was herself very spiritual. She always said that as a child I would read the Bhagavad Gita and other spiritual works.
"I think it was because of my hand. I was born without fingers on my left hand, but my mother made sure I was strong before I even understood I had a deformity. She always told me there must be a reason for it and to love God. I was often shy and self-conscious about it, and of course children teased and tormented me about it. But my mother made me know that God had created me for a special reason, and I accepted myself as I am."
Even as a child, Arastu was drawn to the "energy of the flowing line" and loved to doodle. She attended art school and received a graduate degree in fine arts from the prestigious Maharaja Sayajirao University in Baroda. She also met a handsome Muslim architect named Alamdar Arastu, the oldest of twelve siblings. "I couldn't believe it when he asked me to marry him," she says.
He also asked her to change her religion. "That didn't bother me, because I believed that God was one. And his family was so very loving. They never forced religion on me." Arastu's mother gave her blessings, but her brothers were angered by her acceptance of Islam. With perceptions colored by a history of strife, the relations between Indian Hindus and Muslims are often tense. But in time, says Arastu, all came to love her husband and the families were reconciled.
Her husband's profession took the Arastus for several years to Kuwait and Iran. There, Arastu learned another dimension of Islam. "There was beautiful calligraphy everywhere," she says. "I learned Arabic to read the Qur'an and to study calligraphy." Working as a volunteer at local museums, she immersed herself in the classical calligraphy displayed. But it was the free-flowing lines of the calligraphy, rather than its words, that engaged her. She started studying not classical but freestyle calligraphy, using a paintbrush rather than the traditional bamboo pen. Through calligraphy, her own work became even freer and more fluid.
In 1987, Arastu immigrated to the United States with her husband and their two young children. (Now grown, her daughter has a Ph.D. in biochemistry from Stanford University and her son recently graduated from university with a degree in fine arts.) They settled in the Lehigh Valley, in eastern Pennsylvania, where her husband had found a position. Arastu, meanwhile, started looking for freelance work, to supplement the family income.
"I went around to local graphic shops and presses," she says. "Someone at a print shop asked me to design a thank-you card. That was successful, so I then did some Christmas cards. Then I realized there were lots of Christmas cards, but Islamic cards were rare. I thought, why not Islamic cards, so I decided I wanted to do something for my religion and my ethnic group."
She started designing "Eid Mubarak" cards. Eid is the day after Ramadan, the month of fasting observed by Muslims, and "Eid Mubarak," a traditional greeting, means "Blessed Festival!"
In 1991 Arastu founded Your True Greetings, now a thriving business that markets the Islamic greeting cards she designs. In her first year, she had four card designs and sold three thousand to four thousand cards; today she has almost eighty designs, sells about twenty-eight thousand cards per year, and grosses about fifty thousand U.S. dollars.
Working from home, Arastu still does all the work herself, from designing the cards and having them printed to marketing them, packing, and shipping them. She fills orders from as far away as Dubai and Japan. Most of the work is done in two or three months, right before and during Ramadan. She still uses Robwin Press in nearby Allentown, whose owners had encouraged her to start the business. Early on, says Arastu with a tinge of nostalgia, she used to barter paintings for printing.
Though some cards are taken from Arastu's paintings, most designs feature her flowing calligraphy. Many are simply the name of Allah written in different configurations. "Arabic calligraphy starts from the field of action (right) and lands in the field of the heart (left)," says Arastu, quoting a favorite expression. Though Islamic classical calligraphy is based on mathematical proportions, liberties are permitted.
"We can write the letters freestyle, in any way we want, collapsing them, drawing them out, making them spiky, and such," Arastu explains. "The same word can look very different. We can put the elements of the word in different order, too, such as up or down. Being allowed such freedom makes it even more enjoyable to do. Some pieces, of course, may take more time to decipher."
Sitting on the porch of her house in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, late one afternoon this May, Arastu showed me some of the many card designs she will be readying for market later this year. She is wearing a salwar kameez, a traditional suit of pants and a long tunic, and a long scarf called a dupatta over her shoulder. Her husband encouraged her as an artist to wear traditional Indian dress. In the United States, says Arastu, people accept me as an artist, accept me as I am, but she still prefers that people not look at her hand. The scarf makes a graceful foil.
From the start, Arastu felt at home in the United States. "I was full of energy and I was in a place where everything moves fast. I felt I fit right in and that this was the place for me to do things." In an artistic environment that provided lots of feedback, she was also pushed to examine what she was doing as an artist. In 1992 Arastu made a trip back to India and for the first time realized how much she loved the crowds of people, their voices, smells, textiles, and energy. That in turn recalled the crowds of her time spent in Kuwait and Iran. She started painting crowds.
"The flow of humanity really inspires me," says Arastu. "At first, it was the energy of nature, but I am now drawn to the amazing energy found in crowds of people." She settled on painting with acrylics, working on paper, board, and canvas. She breaks her work into four themes: the strength and energy of women in groups, the celebration of life, golden moments from the past, and events, such as the tragedy of 9/11. When painting crowds of people, she uses continuous lines in order to express the flow of humanity. She gives no features to people in her paintings, leaving them featureless to underscore the basic human sameness that all share.
"I believe that God is the same for everyone," says Arastu. "Through my art, I try to bring people together, to celebrate life. The Qur'an teaches compassion for all beings created by God--people, animals, flowers, everything. Islam is about how to live together, to help one another, and to respect one another, about how to live in this world and how to deal with people. It teaches manners and tolerance. God could have created everyone the same but did not so that we could learn to live in peace with one another."
As a Hindu in India, Arastu was well aware of how Islam could be viewed from outside. Helped by her husband's family, she came to understand that God is indeed love and that we must all live together without hatred and conflict. The Qur'an teaches that it is natural to love and to have faith in God and goodness, she says, but the lesson is often lost in the world.
"After 9/11, I felt I had to learn more about the positive aspects of Islam and relate them to people. The people responsible for 9/11 are not really Muslims. They are Muslims only by birth. Islam is beautiful, but there is a problem with Muslims. Islam has spread all over the world, and each culture in which it is found has influenced it. So it is Islam but not really, because it's been changed."
Arastu finds hope in the diversity among the Muslim community in the United States. "In India, it is only Indian Muslims, but here there are maybe fifty different Muslim cultures, from Indian to Chinese to African-American. I love that. They come together in mosques, pray together, work together, eat together, and this is good. They are trying a bit to forget their own cultures and merge into the melting pot. The basic teaching is to live together."
This June Arastu moved to Oakland, California, where her husband has a new job. The business stays back in Pennsylvania, where her son still lives. Arastu has hopes that in California she will be able to make the break into the mainstream market that has eluded her until now. Your True Greetings has succeeded in the niche market of Islamic cards, but Arastu hopes that someday soon non-Muslim Americans will also buy them. Two years ago she weighed selling the business to a large commercial card maker but told herself to have patience. For now, Your True Greetings gives her a unique platform for getting others to appreciate the beauty of her religion.
Though her paintings have a more universal impact, Arastu feels that everything she does is art. "When I make my graphic designs, I use the same energy as for my paintings. It's all about the line." She repeats an earlier sentiment. "I feel I have been guided by God. I have so much energy and it all gets to come out. I believe that God has plans for me."
Jacqueline Ruyak lived in Japan, including Kyoto, for many years. She now divides her time between Pennsylvania and Tono in northeastern Japan. Her essays on religion and Japanese arts, crafts, and social topics appear frequently in Japanese and American magazines.
This article was originally published in the October-December 2006 issue of Dharma World.
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