Abdul Ghaffar inspects the line of Urdu I have written and then bursts into laughter. “To me, people like you who know how to read and write Urdu in normal script are padhe hue (literate). Not padhe likhe (educated),” says the calligraphy teacher at Hyderabad’s Idaara-e-Adabiyaat-e-Urdu. “It would take about a year to teach you the Nastaliq script used in Urdu calligraphy. The first few months would be spent just correcting your hand movements and unappealing handwriting,” he says, continuing to guffaw.
Ghaffar is among Hyderabad’s few surviving calligraphers, trying his hardest to push back against the rapid digitisation of fonts and keep this ornate style of lettering alive. He has been teaching khatati, or Urdu calligraphy, at the institute since the mid-1990s, describing what he does as teaching both fan (art) and ilm (knowledge). Every year, he has 25 students—those interested must have basic knowledge of written and spoken Urdu; the minimum qualification is class IX.
One of his former students is Ghouse Pasha, who comes from a long line of railway employees settled in Secunderabad. Pasha, who completed the course over four years instead of the usual two since he was working alongside, demonstrates the very first thing Ghaffar taught him—how to make a precise nuqta, or dot. The dot should equal the length, width and height of the top half of the nib of the qalam, or reed pen. Art and geometry mingle beautifully as Ghouse draws three identical, vertically aligned dots.
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A beginner uses these as a reference to draw the letter alif correctly. Learning this specific alignment and length helps a novice grasp how long or wide the shape of each letter should be. This is called paimaaish, or measurement.
It’s the very first lesson, before one progresses to mastering the khat-e-naskh, the more ornate khat-e-nastaliq and the elaborate khat-e-sulus (a style of Islamic calligraphy that uses curved, oblique lines instead of angles in letters).
Need for state support
Pasha and his former classmate, Safoora Raheen, run classes in their homes, teaching these techniques to children (Pasha doesn’t teach more than six-seven children at a time, while Raheen takes groups of up to 25). Raheen says it is important to get children interested to keep the art alive. They also letter invitations and certificates for a fee.
For calligraphy to survive and thrive, however, state support is required, believes Ghaffar, who has been trying to follow up on a 1990 state (erstwhile Andhra Pradesh) government order mandating that every Urdu-medium school appoint two calligraphy ustads. The formation of the Telangana state in 2014 saw the inclusion of Urdu and calligraphy in school curricula but only those who teach the regular script—and not calligraphers—were appointed in schools, he says. If schools open their doors, adds Ghaffar, those learning this art will be able to better use their talent to teach others.
Despite the challenges, calligraphy survives in Hyderabad. City historian Sajjad Shahid says: “During the late 1800s and early 1900s, Urdu began losing its status as a government language up north. It gained prominence in Hyderabad as north Indian poets like Daagh Dehlvi and Ameer Minai came to the Deccan. Calligraphers were also a part of this flight of talent to the south.”
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Demand among families
A few years ago, Mohammed Amer moved from Saharanpur, Uttar Pradesh, to Hyderabad to learn calligraphy and teach—he is now teaching at two madrasas. He attributes his skill to the late Nayeem Saberi, a calligrapher in the Jamal Market of Old Hyderabad’s Chatta Bazar; he not only took lessons from him but also shadowed him at his shop. “It would not have been possible to learn this art in my home-town. People in Hyderabad still appreciate calligraphic text,” he says.
Most Muslim families in the city still distribute invitations for any function in both Urdu and English, even if they cannot read Urdu. “While the standards and patronage have declined from the pre-1948 days, mosques, graveyards and certain other establishments here still have signboards in both normal and calligraphic writing,” says Shahid. Even more heartening, it’s not just Muslim families that are showing an interest in calligraphy.
The invitation business
There’s a long way to go, however. Chatta Bazaar still has a long lane of shops creating and selling invitation cards. But after Urdu fonts were computerised and digital printing took over in the 1990s, its calligraphers, whose deft strokes could turn ordinary black ink into exquisite text, had to find other jobs. Today, just one resident calligrapher, 43-year-old Muqeemuddin, plies his trade here. He not only letters invitations but also posters, charity receipts and madrasa certificates.
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Sitting cross-legged on a bench at SR Cards in Chatta Bazaar, Muqeemuddin says he began learning calligraphy at the age of 15 from his paternal uncle. “I have taken on many apprentices but no one continued beyond a month,” he says, looking up from a certificate he is lettering. Most simply lack the patience and discipline required to perfect such penmanship, he rues.
“Urdu is being kept alive by newspapers and published literature but those are printed in the usual way,” he says. “It is calligraphy that keeps Urdu alive in its most traditional form, and the demand for invitations keeps khatati alive.”
Daneesh Majid is a Hyderabad-based writer on South Asian culture and security.