When words become masterpieces

Urdu Calligraphy


Poetry in Motion: Are the days of the ‘katib’ numbered?

Of the few decorative genres of beautiful writing and bewitching designing, khattai (Urdu calligraphy) happens to be the one that has survived over the years with the vicissitudes of time and tide; however, today it’s in death throes with more than 30,000 Urdu calligraphers languishing for want of work. India happens to be a pivotal centre as far as calligraphy is concerned.

Today, qalam (a reed pen) no more seems to be mightier. The might of Urdu calligraphers is put to ultimate test not by the sword but by what the calligraphers at the offices of Urdu newspapers Rashtriya Sahara, Siyasat, Inquilab, Salar, Urdu Times, Qaumi Tanzeem, Sahafat, Akhbar-e-Mashriq, Azad Hind, Hamara Samaj, Hindustan Express, Nai Duniya and others call bijli ka qalam (electric pen, referring to the computerised type-setting).

The computer’s takeover of page-making in most Indian Urdu dailies and weeklies means that the fluid, stylish and pleasing alphabet has transformed into a matter of monotonous uniformity.

A computer might be a blessing for others but it has impoverished a whole range of beautiful designs — a whole artistic heritage. The onslaught of the Urdu fonts software has thrown these calligraphers out of gear putting their existence in jeopardy.
Anis Siddiqui, master calligrapher, teacher and president of Delhi Calligraphers’ Union, lamented that the condition of Indian calligraphers is very pathetic. One can see some Urdu calligraphers fiddling with the computers — a sight full of inescapable irony where the poor katib (calligrapher who writes Urdu books and newspaper columns) is seen toiling away at the very instrument of his destruction. Dr Hamidullah Bhatt, director of National Council for Promotion of Urdu (NCPUL), says that the poetry that was in calligraphy is missing. “The lively hand-written word is left a cold embittered, computerised totem,” he says.

Urdu software might be effective for a selected few but for those like Atiq Siddiqui of Wahdat-e-Nau, a Delhi weekly, who are dedicated to mastering the artistic written word, feel that the long youthful years of toil and training have given way to this hoary order of the day in the name of computerisation.

However, Hasan Shuja, editor Sahafat Urdu daily differs on this account. He feels that computers are better for they provide the facilities that calligraphers cannot. “If the other language newspapers are going the computer way, why not Urdu,” he says. Even Qais Rampuri, eminent calligrapher from Rashtriya Sahara Urdu daily, does not ascribe to believes that computerisation is bound to take over most aspects of our life and calligraphers must not be gingery about it.

Though Urdu newspapers have tried to use some of their calligraphers but most are left in the wilderness unless they have learnt how to compose using Urdu software. Delhi alone has more than 5000 Urdu calligraphers. Once Delhi’s widely circulated Qaumi Awaz had attracted some of the best talents, including famous calligrapher Jalaluddin Aslam. Ganga Prasad Vimal, a Hindi scholar, opines that the status and salaries of calligraphers must be elevated to the likes of those of commercial artists.

Not very long ago pages of newspapers and books were written in beautiful hand. Every time an artist put pen to paper, a letter was deftly carved and with each one having its own individual shape and curvatures, it seemed so alive!

The major styles of calligraphy are basically three — Arabic, Persian and Kufic. The designs though are numerous like Asloob, Tughra, Suls, Diwanee, Ghubar, Zulf-e-Urus, Gulzar, Taoos, Aseer, Riqa, Ghalib, Nsataliq, Naskh, Manshoor, Mohaqqiq and Larza among others.

In this art, better known as khattati, words written with qalam become masterpieces adorned by measured strokes with the help of dark viscous liquid known as siyahi. Since its advent, there has been no change in the technique of using the reed pen and the ink. In newspapers, khattati-styled words are immaculately designed mainly for headings and also for the material in blurbs.

In this graceful art of calligraphy, the rhythmic intervals afford rest to the eye as it runs over the text providing a subtle pause between the forward movements of the line.
There’s kinetic design emphasised by several elements; altercations of the characters’ vertical sections, juxtaposition of unequal spaces, groups of words in sequence or in insertion so as to create outside the bound of their assigned space, symmetry and rhythmic breaks in reading.

The calligraphers used to be accorded a very high status during the days of Mughal emperor Akbar. In Ain-e-Akbari, Akbar is quoted as declaring to his court calligraphers, “Go on doing with your pen what in other times was done with the sword!”

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