In India, the art of calligraphy dates back to 2nd century B.C. when during 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.
Of the many styles, the Islamic design of calligraphy as a visual art was thriving source of living for many individuals till as recently as 1980s. People would flock to the calligraphers or the Khaatibs to get made hand written cards, certificates, titles, magazines, and aayats (verses) from the holy Quran. These Khaatibs were also employed for writing Urdu books. Such was the demand for calligraphers in those days, that in spite of painting for nearly ten hours a day, there was no shortage of work for these traditional artists. They however have had to face stiff competition from computer based Urdu text printing from 1990 onwards. Speeding up the process of printing, this technological advancement has led to the loss of job for thousands of calligraphers who used to work in Delhi.
Today, the total number of calligraphers working in the Urdu Bazaar of Old Delhi can actually be counted on the fingers of a single hand! Struggling to find work, the few Khaatibs of Delhi are trying to keep alive a tradition that one can see on the inscriptions made on so many different monuments of India like the Taj Mahal, Qutub Minar and the Jama Masjid. One such Khaatib, Mr. Abdur Rehman, works from a small office, next to a mosque complex, located in a winding lane on one end of the Urdu Bazaar. He travels everyday from Okhla to reach his office, where he sits for around eight hours from 1 pm in the afternoon till 9pm in the evening. Trained at the Ghalib Academy of Calligraphy in Nizamuddin in 1982, there was a time when he was overloaded with work. Famous for his beautiful writing skills, now, he spends most of his days waiting for work!
Mohammad Tehseen happens to be another rare Khaatib still working to keep this dying trade alive. He is the only calligrapher who also writes in the Devnagri script, besides writing Urdu texts. Working on bench, he sits in his makeshift office from 9am in the morning till around 5pm. Though he too spends a lot of time in the hope of finding work, he still remains hopeful about the trade and finds that whatever little work he still receives is sufficient for making ends meet. The third calligrapher, Mr. Mohammad Ghyas works from a shop that sells Urdu texts books. We were told that now, it is only these three individuals who are still working as calligraphers in Old Delhi.
It is now or never. We recommend watching these artists in action before their art becomes history.
Where: Urdu Bazaar, Old Delhi
Nearest Metro Station: Chawri Bazaar Station (Walk towards the road that leads to Jama Masjid, and turn right at the T-point at which you can see the masjid. It’ll take only ten minutes.)
Featured image by Outlook India