Art of Calligraphy: Dying inks & broken nibs

By Aliza Noor

DELHI 1 February 2018: These blotches on the paper, the drying ink, the steadiness and firmness of these wrinkled and worn out hands, pouring out their drenched inks and souls to take the shape of the letters their hands so fondly remember, each stroke molded to suit the whims of the people, to create some art, to become that art, to live that art which is slowly dying every day a little at a time.

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Here, in Delhi, I had the wonderful opportunity to see something for myself which I had read a few times about on social media. Their work is far too beautiful to explain in words, yet not enough to bring a lot of money to them.

In India, the art of calligraphy dates back to 2nd century BC when Emperor Asoka’s rock edicts were carved out to spread the teachings of Buddha. With such a huge number of languages, the country has been a witness to many different forms of calligraphic texts ranging from Devnagri to Islamic styles.

It was the 3rd and the 4th Century when the Arabic script started taking a definite shape. Arabic, Urdu and Persian languages all developed through various scripts and styles, being interconnected and coming from more or less the same family. These became the choice of calligraphers, ever since writings in this form began. A work of art seen in every nook and corner back then, is prevalent today probably in only some nooks and corners of Delhi.

Khaatibs of Delhi

The Islamic design of calligraphy as a visual art was the thriving source of living for many individuals till as recently as the 1980s. People would flock to calligraphers or the ‘Khaatibs’ or ‘kaatibs’ (as they’re more popularly known as in the old Delhi streets) to get made hand-written cards, wedding invitations, certificates, titles, magazines, and aayats (verses) from the holy Quran.

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These Khaatibs were also employed for writing Urdu books. Such was the demand for calligraphers in those days that in spite of working for nearly ten hours a day, there was no shortage of jobs for these traditional artists.

Computer Age

However, they have had to face stiff competition from computer-based Urdu text printing from 1990 onward. PC-based calligraphy has its pros and cons – although, it sped up the process of printing, and provided an unconventional, easier and cheaper outlet, this technological advancement has led to the loss of job for thousands of calligraphers who used to work in Delhi and has greatly affected their livelihood. (Well, everything comes at a price, doesn’t it?).

Today, the total number of calligraphers working in the Urdu Bazaar of Old Delhi can actually be counted on your fingertips (literally), struggling to find work, the few Khaatibs of Delhi are trying to keep alive a tradition that one can see on the inscriptions on so many different monuments of India like the Taj Mahal, Qutub Minar and the Jama Masjid, to name a few.

Abdur Rehman
Abdur Rehman

One such khaatib is Abdur Rehman, who sits in a small office, next to a mosque, at the end of a winding lane of Urdu bazaar. The office is small, but his works and stories are most certainly not. He has made himself this small space where he writes in Urdu, Arabic as well as Persian.

Blinding Brilliance

Reluctant and hesitant at first, a few moments later, he laid across his work one by one, blinding us with his brilliance. Every stroke and letter done with absolute symmetry and perfection.

Abdur Rehman commutes every day from Okhla to his office and sits for around eight hours from afternoon till evening. He has been writing in ‘Rotring’ ink ever since he took to this beautiful art of calligraphy of which he got a training from the Ghalib Academy of writing in Nizamuddin in 1982. Sadly, nobody teaches calligraphy anymore. Some 34 years of calligraphy, yet he hasn’t let it or himself be worn out.

He proudly showed us his wonderful set of tools consisting of the old Qalams or pens, the ‘Grandmother’ of the fountain pens we use today. He makes posters, has written titles for books, and designed invitation cards. Over-loaded with such works once, now he waits for days to get some work for the same. There was a subtle eeriness, sadness on his face, conveying tragedy that they’re facing, and dying art he doesn’t wish to witness.

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Another very revered khaatib is Muhammad Tahseen, 73. He has been a calligrapher since the age of 25. He is the only calligrapher who not only writes in Devnagri script, but also Urdu texts. From morning till evening around 5, he sits on his rusty withered bench, as old as he is in all probability, to him like an old companion.

He is hopeful of the work he finds or is looking for, saying that somehow it’s always enough to make ends meet but obviously, being from this old family tree of calligraphers he hopes this art doesn’t bite the dust one day. He showed me all his old and recent works that he could gather at the moment; sketches of cinema actresses and others, customised calligraphic work for weddings, books, etc. all but with bright and nostalgic eyes, like reminiscing about something he can hold so concrete at the moment yet be surpassed by.

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He promised me he’d write my name, my parents’, and a shayari as I thought I ought to ask him for, and even though I paid him then, in my head, it still wasn’t enough, after all, how could this beautiful art be anything but priceless?

You sit there scrolling through Facebook and Instagram marvelling at videos of artists fancying calligraphy with their various nibs and inks, and here are some people trying to preserve the same in its purest form, a stroke at a time.