A version of this article was published in Mint.
If there’s one thing that was common to all the rulers of the princely state of Hyderabad, it’s that they were all patrons of beauty in all forms—architecture, literature, furniture, jewellery, clothes. Glimpses of their legacy is seen in the shopping areas of Old City, which is full of bazaars dedicated to beautiful items — glistening bangles, radiant pearls, laced burqas, delicate perfumery and intricately carved brassware. So, of course, there’s a bazaar dedicated to beauty in script as well.
Chatta Bazaar is a street that, besides featuring numerous printing presses, is known for its Urdu and Arabic calligraphers. One popular theory about the origin of its name is that it’s a mutilation of chaptha – printing – bazaar. I find myself there on a weekday morning, when shops have just started to open. The street is narrow and lined with colourful, neatly organized shops, all of which have windows filled with decorative cards. I start enquiring about calligraphers in the shops, only to be told that the market has long been dominated by computerized fonts and modern printing techniques. I visit about fifteen shops until, finally, someone directs me to a board that says “Welcome Printers”. I cross the busy road to find a small, blue kiosk tucked away inside a kaman. An elderly man in a white kurta is settling down, having just opened the shop. I spot a set of calligraphy pens on his desk.
“So you’re here to take my interview?” he says, after I introduce myself. I nod. “What’s your name?” he asks, pulling out a long sheet of white paper. He draws light pencil lines on it using a ruler. Opening his little bottle of Camlin Waterproof black ink, he dips the nib of a pen and writes, with an unwavering hand, “Allah”. “Always write the name of God before starting to write,” he tells me. He goes on to write my name in Arabic and Urdu as I watch in fascination. “It takes ten years to perfect an art like this,” he says. I suddenly remember the calligraphy lessons I’d taken a few years ago, where I was asked to practise drawing one line about two hundred times.
Mohammed Abid Khaleel, who learnt the art of calligraphy from his father, has been a professional calligrapher for about forty years. He wrote for the Siasat, a Hyderabad-based Urdu daily, for over ten years, after which he set up his own calligraphy service.
Is he handing down the art to his kids too? I ask. He tells me that his five daughters are married and his two sons are engineers.
What about materials? Are they easily available? These pens are hardly available in the market anymore, he says. “I’ve been using the same pens for 30 years!”
Mr Khaleel gets about 2-4 orders a day. He makes wall posters, flyers, wedding cards and visiting cards. He painstakingly pens invitees’ names onto envelopes. For bulk printing, his writing is scanned and then printed. “I work about 12 hours a day,” he says. I ask him about the future of calligraphy: “It lies in the hands of the Government. The Government does little to promote or support this art.”
I stop next at the highly recommended Nayeem Commercial Artist and Qattath. I walk up an unrailed staircase to two large airy shops which belong to Mr Mohammed Nayeem Saberi. He welcomes me and asks his attendant to bring me the ‘photo book’. I open it, and to my surprise, find a photo of him with Ms Sheila Dixit. Mr Saberi has just returned after having participated in the Siasat Islamic Calligraphy and Art Exhibition in New Delhi.
I take a look around his shop, the walls of which are covered with ornate frames of colourful calligraphy. I wonder if everything is digitally treated, as the ink is in gradient shades rather than solid. I am just about to voice my question, when he suddenly announces “How do you like my hand-written multicolour calligraphy?” I stare at him in disbelief. He brings out a flat piece of wood and asks me to examine it. “Bamboo,” he says. Mr Saberi has developed a unique style of art in which he’s used the broad tips of wooden rulers as calligraphy nibs. Different colours are then added to the surface of the tip–one end is dipped in say, blue, the other end in red, and the in betweens are filled with dots of yellow and green. This chunk of wood is then held carefully over the surface, taking over the role of the ‘kalam’. As the tip moves over the paper, it leaves different shades of colour that blend into one another. Mr Saberi uses acrylic or oil paints and art paper.
“There’s no electricity here and it’s so hot. You’ve come from so far,” he says, unexpectedly picking up a large poster and beginning to fan me vigorously with it. “No no,” I protest, taken aback, “I’m alright. Here, let me fan you.”
“Guess my age!” Mr Saberi asks me, his eyes twinkling. “I’m 84! Such an old man. I’m 84 – par mera haath bilkul jawan hai!” (But my hands is still young!).
Mr Saberi was also invited to the Purani Haveli, the erstwhile residence of the Nizam, to take up custom calligraphy work, which was used as a base for embroidery designs. His work has been exhibited in various countries including Hyderabad, Bangalore, Delhi, Mecca, Jeddah and Kuwait.
Mr Saberi has been painting since he was ten years old. During his college days, he learnt Urdu, Arabic and English calligraphy under the guidance of three different teachers respectively. Mr Saberi is an architect who worked in the Public Works Department for 40 years. “My pension is inadequate, so this is a good, additional source of income.” Mr Saberi takes up custom work from all over the world, especially from people from the Gulf, to write the verses of the Quran in his unique style. He holds calligraphy workshops for both the young and old at the Siasat office, during their 40-day summer camp.
Are there more calligraphers tucked away in the busy bylanes of Chatta Bazaar? Quite possibly. From what I understand, they are few and scattered. I drop in at the Hyderabad Cards Centre, which stocks cards from Delhi, Bombay, Chennai and Ahmedabad. “All the cards are printed nowadays,” Mr Saifuddin, one of the store partners, tells me. “Calligraphy is an art that’s fading away. Though, even today, there are maybe more than a hundred people who can write in calligraphy, most of them practise it as a hobby. Since the artists are underpaid, especially with computers taking over the market, parents discourage their children from taking it up as a full-time profession. To master the art, one has to put in many years of practice. The art is also dependent on factors such as age, because one cannot write with a shaky hand. There are very few artists left today who can write with satisfactory ‘sharpness’ in writing.”
Though there are computer fonts taking over the Urdu/Arabic printing industry, they cannot match the beauty of hand-written work, where each artist possesses a characteristic style and adds a personal touch to it. I hope that these artists are provided with a platform which will help protect and promote their work. The word for calligraphy in Urdu is khushkhati, literally meaning “happy writing”. With its graceful curves and lettering dotted with diamonds, this art surely delivers visual pleasure. And something that brings happiness is usually something worth preserving.
Mr Khaleel’s shop
Mr Khaleel’s writing instruments
Digitally enhanced and printed copy
The unique calligraphy nibs of Mr Saberi
The multicoloured calligraphy of Mr Saberi
Mr Saberi at work