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Lettering beauty

Juanita Kakoty, June 15, 2014, DHNS: 20:59 IST
Calligraphy or the adornment of lettering reached its peak in India in the beginning of 20th century.  DH photo

There once lived a group of artistes called ‘katibs’ whose calligraphy was so fine that queues formed to have their writing on invitation cards and notes. They even wrote for newspapers and religious texts. Juanita Kakoty traces their interesting story.

As I glance at books that spell excellence in calligraphy, Khalid Alavi, a well-known name in Urdu literature, educates me about a long forgotten, highly skilled class of artistes: the katibs.

Flipping through a rare edition of Kulliyat-e-Iqbal in his possession, beautifully handwritten by Naeem Farooqui, Alavi Sahab tells me, “In Delhi, the calligraphers or katibs par excellence were found at all the printing presses and newspaper offices. They wrote books and newspapers, and their work was in great demand! All these calligraphers have now disappeared.”

Calligraphy or the adornment of lettering reached its peak in India in the beginning of 20th century.

“There was a point in time,” Alavi Sahab informs, “When calligraphy was the only way in which the Koran was written.”

Urdu calligraphy began in India in 1836, when Urdu became the national language, and the first newspaper in Urdu came out. Before this, calligraphy was in Persian.

Flourishing art

The craft flourished in the 60s and 70s with innovation in print technology doing justice to what was being drafted by the hand. Katibs, in fact, did good business till the 1980s, as major newspaper houses and printing presses continued to print text that was handwritten.

Not too way back, in the early 1900s, the bi-weekly newspaper Madina, published from Bijnor, used to go to distant countries like Saudi Arabia.

It was as well-known for its calligraphy as for the great personalities who wrote for it. The BBC used to give its reference.

Reminiscing about old times, Alavi Sahab says, “When I started out as a writer, I used to get the text handwritten by a katib and then send it for print. What worth it held! The katibs made each book unique, unlike books projecting almost the same kind of styles by computers today.

Two very well-known katibs of our times were Anis Siddiqui from Pakistan and Khalique Tonki from Tonk, in Rajasthan.

Khalique Tonki used to sit at the Ghalib Academy at Nizamuddin, in Delhi.”


He tells me that the big cultural centres for Urdu calligraphy were Lahore, Delhi, Lucknow and Hyderabad.

He also conveys that the Mughal emperors had a penchant for calligraphy. “The last popular calligrapher among the Mughals was Bahadur Shah Zafar. Aurangzeb was a renowned calligrapher too and so was Razia Sultan’s brother and Sultan of Delhi, Nasiruddin Mahmood.”

‘Katibs’ of Old Delhi

Urdu Bazaar in Old Delhi, bursting with people and activity, was once famous for its katibs who wrote wedding invitations and posters.

“There used to be a hundred katibs here once, but now there are only four or five,” says the aged Nizamuddin who owns a shop in the area. He shows me a stretch of shops starting right from the Taj Hotel in front of Jama Masjid to the mouth of the lane that brings one to Urdu Bazaar.

“This whole stretch used to be full of katibs who had clients at their doorsteps urging them to write a few things to be framed. During elections, they used to write the posters.” He tells me what I have heard before — “And they displayed a lot of nakhra because their work was so appreciated.”

The state of things is so dismal now that not only have the katibs disappeared, but also the shops once famous for calligraphy.

Nizamuddin points out Nazir Ahmed’s once-famous shop that now sells cassettes.

In that busy lane, during peak work hours, I could find just one katib. As I asked around, people in the shops directed me to Nizamuddin’s, where they said I could find one.

There, sitting in the corner was Ghalib, waiting for somebody to turn up for his first piece of work that day.

“Business is bad. I am doing this because it is the only thing I know to do,” he tells me. “My sons actually run the household. None of them is in the calligraphy business.”

Ghalib pays no rent to Nizamuddin for sitting in a corner of his shop. And the latter is only too eager to provide space to what he perceives as “the last of the katibs of Urdu Bazaar”.

Vanishing with time

Today, as interest in calligraphy has dwindled, so has its demand. And with computers doing what they did, the katibs have long perished.

The Urdu Department in Delhi University has a publication division and it had a katib, Jafar Zaidi, who was from Lucknow.

After his retirement, his place was taken by a gentleman who used to be a katib but now did his work on the computer.

The Urdu Academy in Delhi has a school that teaches calligraphy. There are a few students learning this dying art for the pure love of it.

Unfortunately, there are no more katibs at Ghalib Academy, which had once been the bastion of the great Khalique Tonki.

And in Urdu Bazaar, Ghalib, along with the rest of the dying tribe, have been reduced to a pitiable existence.

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