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art of calligraphy

License to quill

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Nayeem Sabri suffers from many age-related ailments: failing eyesight, frail physique and increasing deafness. But give him his ammunition (a quill made from bamboo) and some colours, and Sabri's trembling fingers move ever so steadily over paper.

Dipping the pointed nib in colour, he etches out verses from the Quran: words which, if recited with perfect pronunciation and emotion, can sound hauntingly beautiful to the faithful. But even if one is not a believer, just the beauty of Sabri's calligraphy can enthrall.

The sad part of the story is that the art practised by the Hyderabad-based octogenarian is a dying one. Ever since a ligature of Urdu computer fonts was first created in Pakistan in the 1980s and adopted by Indian Urdu newspapers and publications in the 1990s, the fast-dwindling tribe of Indian Islamic calligraphers has been left in the wilderness. Gone are the days when they would toil for hours, writing out an entire newspaper - with the advent of the Urdu computer font, there are few takers for their work.

Sabri is fortunate to have found a patron in Zaheeruddin Ali Khan, managing editor of Siasat, Hyderabad's leading Urdu daily. Before Khan turned a part of his office into a studio for Sabri a couple of years ago, the senior artist would sit at a small kiosk in the old city. "When I first saw Sabri saab's works, I couldn't believe my eyes. He would make wedding invitation cards to survive but his works had a unique appeal, " recalls Khan. "I offered Sabri saab my office space so that he could work comfortably at an age when most retire. I am amazed at his passion for calligraphy, " adds Khan, who has created a gallery of Islamic calligraphy and plans to hold exhibitions across the country and abroad.

Sabri, who once met MF Husain at the latter's Hyderabad gallery in the 1980s, doesn't regret his own relative anonymity and impoverishment, but is saddened by the bleak future of his art. "Nobody wants to learn calligraphy, " he rues. "Everyone wants quick money while here you have to slog for endless hours. My own children are not enthused about calligraphy. I don't know if it will survive. "

Calligraphy is a difficult art that is best learnt in childhood. Under the guidance of an ustad, the shagird (disciple) practises the magical strokes tirelessly to achieve perfection. Few in Mumbai know this better than 61-year-old Aslam Kiratpuri. A student of famous calligrapher Faiz Mujadid Lahori, who moved to Mumbai in the 1930s from Lahore and never returned, Kiratpuri is the founder president of the Urdu Calligraphers' Association founded in 1982.

Having worked with several Urdu newspapers, initially as a calligrapher and then as a reporter, Kiratpuri knows how the Urdu Inpage and computers sounded the death knell for calligraphers. "Look at the handwritten posters of old films like Mughal-e-Azam, Andaz and Awara, " he says. "They were all created by calligraphers. Now they are dumped in private collectors' archives or museums. I wanted to do something about it before they put me in a museum too, " he laughs, seated at his small, cluttered office in Nagpada, Central Mumbai.

Acutely aware of the lack of jobs in the field of calligraphy, Kiratpuri began work on Urdu fonts. Aware of the limitations of the Urdu ligature and fonts created by Pakistan's Mirza Ahmed Jameel Noori, Kiratpuri, with the help of his student Rehan Ansari and software engineer Syed Manzar, created 40, 000 Urdu fonts and saved them in a software called faiz nastaleeq (style) as a tribute to his ustad, Faiz Lahori. Recently, he has taken to creating toghras (Quranic verses in painting style). At a recent exhibition of his toghras in the city, many connoisseurs showed interest. "One businessman placed an order for 25 toghras, " says Kiratpuri, who adds that a toghra fetches him Rs 5, 000-6, 000. Scriptwriter Javed Siddiqui, who had hired Kirtapuri as a calligrapher in the 1970s for a newspaper which he then owned, says the toghras signify a rich tradition of Islamic calligraphy from Turkey.

Kiratpuri has put a price to his works, but there are many who don't want to sell their creations, at least for now. Take the Mumbai-based Mohammed Jamshed. A Bachelor in Fine Arts from Lucknow University, the Jaunpur-born Jamshed came to Mumbai in 1974. He joined the now-defunct Blitz, which was published in Urdu, Hindi and English, and worked for the Hindi edition as lead headline writer till the paper folded up in the 1990s. Jamshed too creates Quranic verses in calligraphy, but his style is a little different. Inspired by the divine words, he sketches mountains, trees, bees, ships and boats which, though they may look like the entities mentioned, are actually Quranic verses. He says he has decided not to sell them yet. "I am waiting for an opportunity to first exhibit my works, only then will I put them up for sale, " he resolves. Unlike Kiratpuri, he has not found a philanthropist to sponsor his exhibition but he doesn't mind waiting.

Time may be on the side of Jamshed, who has enough money from prudent investments to afford the wait. But the beautiful art of calligraphy has certainly fallen on bad times.

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