Old crafts disappearing

July 13, 2007 at 3:00 am 1 comment

Mother Shirley, Kim & LalidaI’m a bit saddened by this story from Wired. It’s the story of a handwritten daily newspaper, The Musalman, from Chennai, India and its 76-year old Editor in Chief, Syed Fazlulla. The Musalman is quite possibly the world’s only handwritten daily paper lovingly tended to by master calligraphers. The only piece of technology in the newsroom is a fax machine, which spits out scribbled notes from reporters.

Fazlulla decides what story should make the cover and then hands over to his brother who translates the story into Urdu. After translating, the story is turned over to six calligraphers ready and waiting with quills and ink. The team of calligraphers painstakingly spend three hours or more with their quills, ink and rulers to transform a sheet of paper into news and art.

Time consuming? Yes. Old-fashioned in a digital age? Yes. An art form? Most certainly. Four of the calligraphers are known as katibs – experts in the ancient art of Urdu calligraphy. The Urdu language is one of many languages facing possible extinction. It is a vibrant mix of Arabic, Persian and local Indian dialects and originated in the army camps of Muslim rulers in Delhi. It is the language of poets and artists. This is why The Musalman is truly a work of art – elegant, sweeping calligraphy in a language where all the old masters are mainly dead. Spoken Urdu has declined and those interested learn the language mainly as a hobby. To master Urdu once meant a seat at court, hopefully near the Sultan. Urdu was once the court language but British colonialism ushered in another time and another language.

Each calligrapher is responsible for one page of The Musalman, which has a circulation of 20,000. Should one of them be sick, the others have to cover for their colleague and if a mistake is made with quill and ink, the calligrapher has to start afresh. The final copy is placed onto a black and white negative, then pressed onto printing plates.

As often happens when “progress” occurs, Fazlulla’s son, Syed Nasarulla, has no interest in calligraphy and wants to embrace the digital age. His father disagrees saying Urdu is “sweeter when written by hand“.

Generational change will occur when Fazlulla dies and when arthritis, bad eye sight or retirement catch up with the expert calligraphers. A lovely part of this story is that from the time the paper was established in 1927, the only technological change occured in the 1950s when Fazlulla took possession of an offset printer that he salvaged from a defunct American newspaper. For the last 50 years, that printer has faithfully served Fazlulla and his calligraphers.

The Musalman office seems to be a hive of social activity and knowledge sharing – poets, religious leaders, royalty and members of the community hang out at the offices drinking cups of milky chai, telling their stories and contributing to the historical artefact that the paper has surely become.

The paper may not survive and with it will go a long tradition of oral stories, beautiful inked illustrations, the expertise of calligraphers and an artefact that was an attractor for a community with shared values and traditions. A great shame if you ask me.

This is an example of the stunning calligraphy. Photo credit: Wired. Go here to see the rest of the slide show: 22 images of expert calligraphers at work.


Entry filed under: Calligraphy, History, Knowledge Management.

How curious! 2,000 years of human culture

1 Comment Add your own

  • 1. kabir  |  November 22, 2007 at 1:20 pm

    This is there to stay.. hail the press..


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