History & Culture

Delhi’s community of Urdu and Arabic calligraphers is fighting to stay relevant and keep the art alive

Urdu calligraphy used to be the mainstay of the vernacular press until the digitisation of the print media in the 1990s. Photo: S.R. Raghunathan/THE HINDU  

Mohamed Ghalib is reading the Quran when we get through to him on the phone. This is the month of Ramzan, and it seems significant that the calligrapher is reading the Islamic holy book that was once transcribed by artists like him.

Today, 58-year-old Ghalib, is reportedly the last katib or calligrapher, working in Old Delhi’s Urdu Bazaar. Once the stars of the vernacular Urdu press, which relied on Katibs to transcribe material for newspapers and magazines, these calligraphers are among the last practitioners of an art that goes back to the golden era of Arabic writing, which underpins the Urdu script.

Arabic calligraphy (Khat) is held in high regard by Muslims because of its association with the Holy Quran. Most Katibs learn both Arabic and Urdu calligraphy as the scripts are similar, though the latter often deals with non-religious subjects.

Watch | The last of Delhi's calligraphy brigade

Ghalib trained in the art for four years at an Islamic seminary (madrasa) in Deoband, Uttar Pradesh, near his village of Saharanpur. However, the computerisation of print media in the 1980s and 1990s rendered many of these skilled craftsmen jobless. “There used to be 15-20 Katibs employed per shift in the Urdu press. Now, there are hardly five in the whole of Delhi,” says Ghalib.

An art with discipline

Urdu is a language with elements of Arabic, Persian and Turkic blended into the Khari Boli dialect of Delhi, and was promoted as a lingua franca by the Mughals among its soldiers (‘Urdu’ means camp or army in Turkish). With its adaptation of the Arabic script for writing, Urdu is noted for its highly poetic yet forceful style of expression.

“Calligraphy needs discipline from the artist,” says Ghalib, who writes while seated with folded legs on the floor. “You have to sit in a certain way, and hold your breath to keep your hand steady as the qalam (reed pens, the best of which once were imported from Iran by Indian stationers) moves over the paper. Naturally, it gets harder as you age. But I can remember the days when I’d be up all night, completing orders for magazine covers and wedding invitations,” he adds.

A geometric art
  • Despite the declining fortunes of today’s calligraphers, the Islamic art remains an integral part of south Asia’s artistic heritage. From the 16th century, it became a practice to assemble albums of Arabic calligraphy, and India is among the countries that have museums with sizeable collections of these rare documents.
  • “Calligraphy is a form of geometric art. There’s no end to geometry, because it depends totally on your imagination,” says Sanam Ali Khan, senior conservator at the Raza Library in the erstwhile princely state of Rampur in Uttar Pradesh.
  • With 5488 Arabic documents in its catalogue, the library has in its possession, rare specimens of calligraphy by masters from India and Iran such as Mir Ali, Muhammad Husain Kashmiri, Sultan Ali Mashhadi, Aaqa Abdul Raseed Delami, Dara Shikoh and Mir Imad al-Husaini. A seventh century AD Quran written on parchment in early Kufic script attributed to Hazrat Ali, the nephew and son-in-law of Prophet Muhammad, and the fourth Caliph of Islam, is among its prized exhibits.
  • Calligraphy (mostly of Quranic verses in Arabic) is still highly visible in India’s public spaces, especially in Mughal-era monuments, besides all contemporary Islamic places of worship. “Whether it is the Jama Masjid in Old Delhi or even a small mosque or tomb elsewhere, you will have calligraphy on it. I have been tweeting often about some historic examples,” says Delhi-based historian and writer Rana Safvi. “It was an art practiced by Mughal rulers. Bahadur Shah Zafar, for instance, was an ace calligrapher,” she says.
  • Among the most well-known examples is the Taj Mahal, the marble mausoleum in Agra built by Mughal emperor Shahjahan that is among the few places where the calligrapher’s signature may be found.
  • “The calligraphy in Taj Mahal was done by someone who was given the title Ustad Amanat Khan Shirazi by Shahjahan. Those who come to see the Taj Mahal, admire the building. But the value that Shahjahan put on Amanat Khan’s calligraphy was so high that he was the only one allowed to sign his work inside the main cenotaph chamber. That for me, speaks volumes about the artist’s skill,” says Rana.

Ameen-ur-Rehman, another veteran calligrapher, with over 40 years of experience, recalls the late 1970s and early 1980s, when writing assignments would flow into the scribes’ stalls at Urdu Bazaar from other parts of the city and from states.


“My lack of a formal degree has affected my job prospects now; but in those days, it was enough to have a passion for calligraphy. I was doing quite well in commercial design until the computers came,” he says.

Things have been a bit better for Anis Siddiqui, a qualified calligrapher with diplomas from Deoband, who won a National Award for his craft in 1984, and is a guest lecturer in leading Indian institutions such as Jamia Millia Islamia University and Ghalib Institute in Delhi.

Besides having a long stint in the Urdu press, he has also been a patron of the art, and founded a calligraphy institute in Kota, Rajasthan in 2006. “Calligraphy is a kind of reminder of the divine in our lives,” he says. “When you keep writing verses out from religious scriptures, you are remembering your creator. It can also be adapted to other languages and purposes.”

With an unlikely start as a textile embroiderer, Siddiqui eventually found his forte in calligraphy in Urdu, Hindi, Hebrew, Tibetan, Persian, Pashto, English and different Indian languages from 1984, after training under Indian expert Khaleeque Tonki and Syrian master calligrapher Mohamed al-Qazi, among others. He has travelled widely with his art … and even narrates an interesting episode of teaching Keralite students to come up with calligraphic fonts in Malayalam. “While we may get youth interested in calligraphy, we must remember that their language skills should be equally good. Calligraphers must have a strong grasp of grammar in order to be successful,” he says.

The recent documentary Tears of Dancing Letters shows him explaining calligraphy in great detail.

A helping hand

Eager to revive the fading art, in 2018, students of the Netaji Subhash University of Technology (NSUT) in Delhi launched ‘Project Kitabat’ in collaboration with the US-based non-profit organisation Enactus. “We contacted the five calligraphers who are still practicing their art in Delhi, and facilitated live demonstration workshops at corporate venues; we also have channelised their talent into creating products like key-chains, tee-shirts and accessories for a new customer base,” says project head Kunal Bhardwaj, a second-year Electronics and Communication Engineering student at NSUT, who like his team, got interested in reprising the art that once used to have many practitioners in Delhi alone.

“We were shocked by how quickly calligraphy had vanished due to the digitisation of the presses. Not many people wanted to take it up professionally since it wasn’t a useful job skill like before. Computers produced the same work as human scribes at half the price, so the calligraphers were at a disadvantage commercially. We wanted to bring back the pride that Katibs took in their work through our project,” he says.

Held in high esteem
  • Originally revealed in Arabic to Prophet Muhammad during the month of Ramzan in 610, the Quran was preserved by early adherents to Islam, through memorisation or written descriptions of the visions. Before the Quran was commonly available in written form, speaking it from memory prevailed as the mode of teaching it to others.
  • Approximately 20 years after the Prophet’s death, and with the passing away of many huffaz (people who had memorised the Quran), the third Caliph, Uthman bin Affan standardised the written text into one specific Arabic dialect. The Uthmanic text comprises all 114 surahs or verses in the order known today.
  • Calligraphers entered the picture once the dissemination of this version of the Quran started. With Islam forbidding the representation of human figures, Muslim dynasties have used calligraphy as an exalted form of artistic expression, with stylised scripts from the 7th century onwards. Starting with the austere Kufic style, calligraphy developed down the ages into more cursive and pictorial variants like Thuluth, Naskh, Nastaliq, Maghribi, Rayhani and so on.
  • Much of the credit for developing a more readable calligraphic font in Arabic goes to Iraqi artist and statesman Ibn Muqlah (886-940), of the Abbasid Age (750–1258). He is considered to be the inventor of the first cursive style of Arabic lettering, the naskh script, which replaced the angular Kufic as the standard of Islamic calligraphy. He also developed the thuluth and tawqi.
  • Arabic calligraphy has been used not just on paper, but also to embellish wood, stone structures, ceramics and textiles. Handwritten copies of the Quran were highly prized, with calligraphy artists richly rewarded for their work in gold coins.

Project Kitabat has merged other similar forms like Mandala art, Tughra calligraphy (monograms) and acrylic painting to make the handicrafts appealing across communities.

Besides enabling the artists to start selling their products online through platforms like Etsy, ArtPal and Skobe, Project Kitabat recently hosted a well-received stall at the ‘Hunar Haat’ (an empowerment programme under the aegis of the Ministry of Minority Affairs) in February in collaboration with Afreen Khan, a young artist who does calligraphy on feathers.

The student group is working closely with National Council for Promotion of Urdu Language (NCPUL) and looking to expand the calligraphy project to cities like Hyderabad, which also has a rich legacy in the art. “We also want new people to learn and appreciate this art form,” says Kunal.

For calligraphers like Ghalib, such initiatives are a way to earn some self-respect back. “I often get queries for teaching assignments, but nothing is possible until the lockdown is lifted. Earlier, our hands used to be full with transcription orders for Urdu books, and Arabic verses from the Quran for nameplates and ornaments. Even a gravestone requires a calligrapher’s services,” he says.

Sometimes he remembers the hours he spent composing cover pages of magazines, and working by candlelight to complete orders at home. He has avoided using anything other than reed pens that he has personally selected and sharpened with his knife.

“We are still sought out by lawyers to help them decipher the Urdu script of old legal documents. Calligraphy is a skill that sustains many other skills,” he says.


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Printable version | Sep 17, 2021 10:02:42 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/society/history-and-culture/calligraphers-try-to-rewrite-the-story-of-their-own-survival/article31623800.ece

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