Calligraphy is, for Muslims, a visible expression of the highest art of all, the art of the spiritual world, since they believe that Quran was recited by Allah to Mohammed. The word Quran does mean “recitation”, literally. In Chennai, the fifth most populous town in India, a small team of katibs, dedicated to calligraphy, are attempting to “preserve a dream” in this “time of space and technology” as wonderfully described in a short film by Ishani K. Dutta. Every day, since 1927, without a single day missed, they are putting up The Musalman, four pages long, sold on streets for 75 p a copy, India’s oldest daily newspaper in Urdu and perhaps, the last handwritten newspapers in the world.
The Purpose of the Musalman is to be the Voice of the People
What katibs are making at The Musalman are not just simple brushstrokes but expressions of a bygone era. For ages, handwriting has been a mark of the social status in India and printing press was what ended the golden age of calligraphy. Now, that the web technology is marking the end of the printing press, how is it possible that a handwritten papers still survive? Is it the magic of the handwritten word?
“It takes three hours using a pen, ink and ruler to transform a sheet of paper into news and art,” the Times of India reports. “The editor’s room is from a bygone era. Papers stacked everywhere, a solitary fax machine in the corner, lots of files and ledgers, not a single computer or typewriter anywhere.”
The katibs, one man and two women, work almost three hours on each page, writing out by hand the headlines and news reports in Urdu, then sticking on the advertisements, sending the pages in for plating and then for printing. When one of them is ill, the others work overtime to bring out the paper. If there is a mistake, sometimes the entire page has to be rewritten.
“I write because I love the language,” says Rehaman Hussein for Wired, a katib who has written the paper’s front page for more than 20 years. “Urdu is a clean language. It is the language of our Koran.” The language of artist and poets, a language that constituted many languages, came to be known as Urdu, meaning ‘camp’, as it came to the existence through the army camps and was molded and mixed this way.
“For the 22,000 subscribers of the paper, The Musalman is the only newspaper as they cannot read any other language but Urdu”, says Aarif. “Urdu is sweeter when written by hand,” one of the past editors said.
A stream of renowned poets, religious leaders and royalty contribute to the pages, or, the Wired reports, “just hang out, drink chai and recite their most recent works to the staff. The Musalman publishes Urdu poetry and messages on devotion to God and communal harmony.”
The Digital Revolution
What might the digital revolution mean for The Musalman calligraphers? The calligraphy is at the very heart of their publishing tradition, it is their brand. “Our readers are very happy!”, the editor says, “if we used computers what would be the difference between The Musalman and other publishers?”
We pressed paper with hands, then we pressed cloth with ink. Now, we barely aim to touch the paper. If Allah came today, would Mohammed type his message on a laptop and still bring the same message from the spiritual world? Can we still achieve “the recitation”? Perhaps ours will not be written single-handedly but in collaboration.