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Tracing the last calligraphers of Old Delhi

How old age and dwindling demand have taken a toll on the remaining practitioners of this royal art form

Mohammad Ghalib. Photo: Pradeep Gaur/Mint
Mohammad Ghalib. Photo: Pradeep Gaur/Mint

We didn’t get to meet him. We located the Bundu Paan Waali Gali and the food outlet next to it in a cramped lane in the Jama Masjid area—but its most special occupant was missing from what had been his working spot for decades.

The steel bench which Mohammed Tehsin, a Hindi and Urdu calligrapher in the Old Delhi area, would sit on had been taken over by a merchant selling carpets and small bottles used to store the holy zam-zam water. But right across sat another man, busy moving his kalam (pen) on paper with controlled precision.

“Jawaani ka kaam hai. Unki umar ho gayi thi. Wapas Muzaffarnagar chale gaye (it is work suited for the young. He had aged, and has gone back to his hometown, Muzaffarnagar)," says Mohammad Ghalib, who occupies a tiny spot in the same lane and does calligraphy in Urdu and Arabic. He is attending to a couple of rare customers who come looking for the last katibs (calligraphers) in the area but takes out time to speak to us. His work now usually involves writing wedding cards, designing bill receipts and mohars (rubber stamps).

It’s very easy to miss the lane, a few hundred metres away from the Jama Masjid Metro station exit that leads to the Urdu Bazaar road. In this holy month of Ramzan, the road leading to the mosque is laden with carts selling dates. The fragrance of biryani and the aroma of freshly made kebabs fill the air. Stalls offering the exquisite shahi tukda add to the gastronomic ambience.

What seems like an easy Thursday afternoon will soon look busier once the clock inches closer to 7pm, when everyone will sit down for iftar, the evening meal with which people end their daily fast. With Eid coming up on 15 June, the area has taken on a festive and vibrant look.

“There used to be a time when four-five katibs sat here. I remember there was a Mr Zulfiqar, a Yakub...they all used to practise calligraphy. He (Ghalib) is the only one remaining here now," says Nizamuddin, who owns the Kutub Khana Anjuman-e-Taraqqi-e-Urdu bookshop. “Katibs have been a part of our history for many years. They used to write and record the farmaan (orders) that were issued by the emperors," adds the 65-year-old, whose father, a calligrapher, started the shop in 1939.

‘Kalams’ made from bamboo. Photo: Hindustan Times

Ghalib has been working as a calligrapher for 35 years—this is his third working spot. He studied calligraphy at the Darul Uloom Deoband University in Saharanpur from 1979-83. “Our ustads used to make us practise one alphabet a thousand times. We used to keep practising till we could write that letter with our eyes closed," he recalls.

The 55-year-old now sits in one corner of Nizamuddin’s shop. His tall frame somehow takes up very little space. A signboard hangs behind him; an old pack of Camel poster colours, and a makeshift tin box, containing his kalam, pencils, a pair of scissors and an ink-stained ruler, lie beside him on a table. He is now the only occupant of this co-working space for practitioners of a royal art form.

His hands and shoulders ache. Sitting in the traditional working pose has become a challenge. Even though he is fasting, Ghalib—who travels from Okhla to Old Delhi daily—has been running in the scorching sun for work, from Nai Sarak to the shop and then the Kalan Mahal area. “People have lost patience with this work now. They want it to be done quickly, when this work requires craft and concentration. There used to be a time when we used to write and practise for ourselves. But down the years, my body has started giving up on me as well—I always need my glasses. Earlier, I could write in the night too, with candlelight, but now I can’t work in the dark," he adds.

He says he will continue calligraphy as long as his body allows him to. He is often approached by young enthusiasts keen to learn: the importance of a nukta (a diacritical mark which changes the pronunciation of a word), the importance of having a knife to sharpen the pencil, a cloth to clean the kalam, and why the right posture can make a big difference. “I am willing to teach anyone, but I don’t have a place. There’s no other form of employment for me now. I just want this royal art form to survive."

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