When the camera was invented, there was a lot of discussion about painting becoming a dying art form. Many even questioned whether to consider photography as “real” art or not. Both of them, in hindsight, were far too unambiguous.
I think the camera did push the art of painting in the other directions but the impulse to describe in visual language, especially when the hand and eye coordinate, is so powerfully integral to us people that the art had to survive.
Today, practically anything can be a dying art. And I am not even exaggerating this. Paintings, Posters, Film Cameras and Studio Photography, Shoe Repairing, Letter Writing, Puppetry, Organ Playing, Calligraphy, all of these are a few names in the death’s watch list. The days are not far when we will be sharing the sad tales about the dying art of calligraphy in India.
Indian Calligraphists over history have worked with a wide range of materials ranging from clay coins, stone, metal, cloth, leaves to paper. Exquisitely styled ink-pots are a special feature of Indian Calligraphy. India has a rich heritage of Calligraphy in the form of documents and monuments. In this art, words are transformed into masterpieces with the help of kalams or reed pens and siyahi or ink.
Coming across the last living generation of Calligraphers in Delhi, I came closer to this experience. Sitting in a narrow lane of Urdu Bazar in the walled premises of Old Delhi, these calligraphers, known as Katibs in the common tongue, are screaming inside for rescue. As I awkwardly approach three of the four Katibs, I stumble upon some fascinating stories.
The one who came close to talking to me wholeheartedly was Katib Mohammed Ghalib. He told me how he has been interviewed before and forgotten. Some generously offer them payment for the interview, and some, students like me, are not able to.
He learned this art of calligraphy when he was studying in madrasa. When I asked why calligraphy, he smiled and said he instantly fell in love with this art. There was no other reason. When he entered the field, the demand used to exceed the supply. Now the tables have turned. The only work he gets nowadays is of small scale election posters and Shaadi ke Paigham.
Though the condition of Indian calligraphers nowadays is not less than a beggar, I felt in him, a sense of pride when he was showing me his work, almost as if convincing me that what he is doing cannot be done with a computer. These works were once the charm of Urdu Dailies.
The handwork and labor he puts into his work is something different from those digital fonts. These calligraphers are not even making the reed pens to write anymore as I was looking through Katib Ghalib’s working tools I saw flutes being sharpened from the end to be used as pens. When I asked him, he laughed with embarrassment.
We are certainly living in a “throwaway” culture. We have been so immersed in the quantity that we neglect quality. And not only in terms of fine arts, but professions like plumbing or welding are taken by society for granted as people have aggrandized higher education and sports. We have become the modern-day mercenaries, scavenging whatever that is left of the dying art forms.
But it will be wrong to blame technology altogether. No doubt some art forms suffer as time and tastes change. But there is no reason to assume that the art of today will never be as good as what came before. Great artists like Beethoven had money problems and Mozart died broke.
So, as much as these arts seem golden past to us, they were not really valued when they were in their presence. The challenge for today’s craftsman and artist is to figure out how to adapt his or her skill to the modern-day needs of a highly digital society. Those who can’t do that, are left behind disabled.
Some Katibs, who had the strength to change their occupation when the demand fell down, survived. Others like these Katibs of Urdu Bazar are still struggling to survive. Technology has penetrated in their lives too. Clients come over, order the desired work, and then make copies of it through print machines.
Even a couple of Katibs explore the modern designs in smartphones or the clients give them the desired designs and fonts through these smartphones. These artists need to be respected and paid properly if cannot be provided with the old status of success and fame. And there are organizations like the National Council for Promotion of Urdu that should be doing this work, but their lack of empathy towards these artists are making them suffer.
When the modern realities of today get us down, we have a bad habit of mythologizing the past. We may be glorifying the past which wasn’t really glorifying and successful in its present. And as I interview the Katibs of the narrow lane of Urdu Bazar, I feel how cold we have become towards others.
Some interviewees and reporters never contacted these Katibs again as a courtesy. And how, I might be doing the same. Publications continue to eulogize these art forms because they give writers, photographers, journalists like us a chance to make sensational assertions about society.
And in today’s scenario, we keep thriving on the stories of success and failure of others like parasitic hosts. I hope the nibs of those wooden pens and the strokes of those tools and brushes never dry up for them, for us, and for India, not only because of cultural and traditional significance but also because they are a reminder of history.