India’s Last Known Katib Perpetuates the Dying Art of Calligraphy

TEHRAN (IQNA) – Mohammad “Katib” Ghalib is Old Delhi’s last remaining calligrapher.

In a corner of a bookstore opposite the historic Jama Masjid in bustling Old Delhi, Ghalib is engrossed in his work, patiently moving his hollow wooden pen, drawing striking curves and strokes on posters and wedding cards .

A pile of wooden pens, bound with a rubber band, a set of ink – black, white and red – and a small box containing other tools sit next to him.

The bespectacled artist wields the pen masterfully, dipping his nib in ink to imprint names, couplets, Quranic verses and invitations in various styles.

He may only have a handful of missions, but the job can last for hours.

Ghalib, 60, is the last known “katib” or calligrapher in the Indian capital’s old quarter, which was once a center of the art form.

“I was born Mohammad Ghalib but ‘Katib’ was added to my name by people,” he says.

“It’s become my identity now because they say I’m the last calligrapher left here.”

The art of calligraphy, and in particular Islamic calligraphy, is said to have been introduced to the country in the 12th century under Muslim rule.

It was called “royal art” and was used to create documents, books, posters for festivals and wedding invitations in Arabic, Persian and Urdu – a language with Persian script.

The languages ​​were widely used in the capital even after Mughal rule ended in the 19th century.

Before the advent of computers, calligraphers like Ghalib were in great demand, writing daily newspapers for mass printing as well as magazines and books. Some jobs can take up to a year.

They were well paid for their work.

“It was the art of the royal family…it was highly respected because only people who could read and write could do it,” Ghalib says. “It was a job related to editors, educated people.”

But the occupation waned after the use of computer technology in printing became widespread in India about three decades ago.

India's Last Known Katib Perpetuates the Dying Art of Calligraphy

As Urdu typefaces were eventually introduced and the use of Arabic and Persian dwindled in India, work began to dry up for artists in the Urdu bazaar of Old Delhi, once a bustling center of katibs.

Over the years, the number of calligraphers has dwindled, with most passing away and the rest turning to more economically viable professions.

But Ghalib kept the dying art alive because of her love and passion for it.

“I’m continuing the craft because people still appreciate handwritten messages but have trouble finding a calligrapher,” he says.

“Most are dead. I feel responsible for keeping this tradition alive for as long as possible.”

Named after Mirza Ghalib, the famous 18th century Urdu poet, he was born in Saharanpur district, Uttar Pradesh, where he trained as a calligrapher at an Islamic seminary, also known as ‘khushkhati’.

After mastering the art of writing for three years, he moved to Delhi about four decades ago in search of work.

Ghalib’s writing style, passion and patience meant there was no shortage of work.

From writing the text for election and political posters for the government of former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi and banners for the Eid and Diwali holidays, to traditional wedding invitations and epitaphs, he has always had work.

There were also special assignments from book publishers.

“The money may not have been good, but there was so much work that we often split it among other artists,” says Ghalib.

“We worked day and night… I earned enough to raise my two children and run the kitchen.”

Although times have changed, his popularity has not.

As the last remaining katib, he is widely known in and around the city and people from distant states and even countries like Japan visit him with atypical requests, such as writing couplets for wall hangings and people’s names for gold pendants.

“Things have changed in the last 15 years…I don’t get offers to write books or journals,” says Ghalib.

“Only those who like calligraphy now come to ask me to write wedding invitations, couplets or their names.

“But they pay a lot of money because handwriting is always better than computer…it’s more designer and sophisticated, unlike the firm fonts of computer language.”

Another challenge to keeping the art alive is the unavailability of tools and pens, as the companies that made them have closed, says Ghalib.

“I use the pens with care but they have started to leak. I even use flutes as pens.

For many years, Delhi’s educational institutions and governments tried to save the art by offering special courses.

But Ghalib thinks the future is bleak due to a lack of economic incentives and the gradual decline of Urdu, the artists’ favorite language.

“We learned this art because it was a way to earn bread,” he says. “It gave us work, but why would young people learn it now?

“Even my children haven’t learned it. Art can thrive if only it provides job opportunities.

“The Urdu language is also dying because people don’t speak it anymore.

“Many young people come to me to learn [calligraphy] but how can we teach if they don’t know the language?