With calligraphic writing now computerised, the katibs of Old Delhi’s Urdu Bazaar, once a vibrant community, have shrunk to a mere three
More he waits for work, more he fears it shall stop coming to him. Altogether.
When 62-year-old Mohammad Yakub, a katib or traditional calligrapher in Old Delhi’s Urdu Bazaar, breaks into a near monologue on a hot May day after some prodding, the fear of losing a job that he knows best — that too at an age when he “just can’t think of doing anything else” — is pretty blatant. “I have been without work for the last two days. Who knows, you might bring me good luck,” he says with a half-smile. Two teacups with the hot brew arrive from a nearby teashop, indication enough that he is in a mood to talk now.
Yakub’s story turns out to be one of standing against the tide and not calling it quits. Not yet. Every day, at 9 in the morning, he steps out of his house in Okhla to board Bus No. 403 to bring him to Jama Masjid. A short walk from near the Mughal era masjid to Urdu Bazaar brings him to his designated seat in a shop that sells Urdu books. A shop he has been employed with for the last 28 years, a shop with blue paint peeling off at places, its lone copying machine standing at a cobwebbed corner, unused, discoloured with age. The books kept in glass showcases make you wonder which of them is older, their yellowing pages or the showcases with stains on the glasses.
“The last time I sold a book here was a month ago,” he plaits it in to the conversation to help you understand that his state of near joblessness is linked to a drastic drop in the sale of books published in Urdu these days, which in turn, is increasingly leading shopkeepers at the Bazaar to replace their bookshops with those of readymade garments and eateries.
It is also linked to where the art of calligraphy is heading. With the arrival of technology, calligraphic fonts are on computer keyboards now, pushing more and more the likes of Yakub to scurry harder for work. No wonder then, besides Yakub, Urdu Bazaar — once a vibrant hub of katibs — is now left with just three of this ilk.
Yakub can do calligraphy in Urdu, Arabic and Persian. “But what I usually end up doing now is to write in Urdu the names of various offices and departments required to make stamps since Urdu is also an official language of the Delhi Government,” states Yakub. Out of the Rs.100 that he gets per stamp, Rs. 40 goes to the shop owner. “Most times, it doesn’t pay for my day’s trip from home and back,” he points out before startling you by suddenly breaking into a Mughal-e-Azam song. Even as you recover from the shock, he asks you, “Do you think I can end up as a singer at this age?” In his ensuing laughter, the fear of the foreseeable doesn’t quite get lost. No wonder his daughter, a trained calligrapher, is joining as a teacher in a school
Taking leave of Yakub, you walk along the Bazaar. A few shops away from him sits Mohammad Ghalib, one of the last of the brigade. In his early 50s, Ghalib seems the only one among the three to be getting regular work. “I can’t say that what I am earning is sufficient but I have been able to run my kitchen with it so far. I think it is God’s grace,” he says raising his head from writing a graduation ceremony poster in Urdu for a madrasa in the Okhla area. The colourful poster will thereafter go for printing a dozen copies of it. “Look at these fonts, the unevenness of them, the colour play I do here. No computer can do this because everything in it is of certain size and shape. You can’t play with those fonts, like you can do with a handwritten calligraphic work,” he stops his work to explain the finer point to you.
Like Yakub, Ghalib too picked his skills from Darul Uloom in Deoband years ago. “They still teach it but I ask, what for? Things can change only when the Government does something concrete to keep going the skill of people like us,” he minces no words here.
You enquire about the third katib of Urdu Bazar. Ghalib says he sits just opposite the road. “He has not been coming to work for some days now. He is unwell. Also, there is a wedding in the family,” he says. What Ghalib doesn’t say is said by a bookseller who gives the katib space to operate from, “He doesn’t get much work anyway.”
Riding on a rickshaw to the Chawri Bazasr Metro Station to return home, you only hope that you have turned lucky for Yakub. Because he just can’t sing!