The dying art of Arabic calligraphy finds a new breath of life, thanks to the efforts of its custodians in the city
Photographer: Rana Chakraborty
The medium is the message
— Marshall McLuhan
So said the metaphysician of media as he wrote in his Gutenberg Galaxy how the spreading of the written word meant communication among humans, a race earlier used to oral communication. The written form, in turn, reduced or elevated the alphabet to an “abstract visual code”. The visual idiom of “word” has been utilized since long before McLuhan by statesmen, artists and scientists. None, however, exploit its hynotic power as calligraphers do. But the numbers of this ancient tribe dwindle by the day. Urdu and Arabic calligraphers in Mumbai, once a force of 250 a decade ago, now stand at merely eight in such times.
Mehmood Ahmed Shaikh and Iqtedar Husain, whose offices lie close to one another on Tandel Street Dongri, are two of these eight. They came into the profession in very different ways, and work differently today. Shaikh, was prompted to become a calligrapher because his father was one. He began with a course in Anjuman Islam College, to work for a host of Urdu newspapers, learn further from renowned Ustads, teach in Maharashtra College and work for ten years in Saudi Arabia. His feathers include three Quran Sharifs and an array of poetry. A knee problem has disabled him from transcribing on the floor in the traditional way, and after a year’s practice, he’s gotten used to a chair and table.
Husain sits on the floor. He claims, “It takes three years for a calligrapher to just learn ‘how to sit’.” The only family he had in the field was a distant cousin, who taught him after he expressed his interest. Then came a variety of Urdu newspapers and magazines, before branching out on his own.
The tools of these artists comprise calligraphic nibs or a piece of bamboo, both cut to shape. Inks range from Camel to water colour paint to the German Rotring. Arabic styles consist of Sulus, Naskh (further divided into the Indian, Egyptian and Arabic Naskh), Kufi, Riq’a and Diwani. Urdu is penned only in Nastaliq. In Arabic, while Naskh is the most popular and used for scribing religious texts, Sulus is every calligrapher’s favourite. “With Sulus, one has the liberty of giving ‘shape to the beauty’,” Shaikh says, displaying a leaf of his work. A religious phrase is written so it shapes into a religious structure. The beginning of the phrase is a minaret, the name of the prophet is emphasized in the dome, and the rest of the phrase forms its base. Even, for plain writing, Sulus allows the calligrapher far more scope for improvisation.
The future of this art is symbolized in an old lithographic machine lying junked in Husain’s room. When the Urdu papers did not possess computerized font, such machines were used daily to convert the calligrapher’s work into print. Today these surviving calligraphers continue to get work that cannot be done on the computer. But for such work only an experienced hand is required, and so while they manage, youngsters in the field, bereft of a livelihood once provided by the newspapers have shifted professions. Yet both calligraphers point out, that no breakthrough in any art can occur on the computer, which means that with their generation’s end Indian calligraphic innovation in Urdu and Arabic will stagnate. Besides, patronage akin to that provided by governments in the Middle East (or by Hindu and Jain foundations here for Sanskrit calligraphy) remains absent. Even the meagre Rs 5000 cash prizes once handed by the Urdu Academy have been revoked. Already, in the distinct style which marks Shaikh finishing another tower in Sulus, one sees another Babel, unfinished.
This article first appeared in Mumbai Mirror, Times Of India: http://alturl.com/s6ze