Through the Lens: Life and Politics in Asia | Society | South Asia

Old Delhi’s Last Calligrapher

Mohammad Ghalib is one of the last remaining traditional calligraphic artists in Old Delhi.

A small handwritten nameplate hangs between two shops with giant flex boards screaming for visitors’ attention in Old Delhi’s Urdu Bazaar area. “Katib Mohammad Ghalib,” reads the nameplate in Hindi and Urdu, though hardly noticeable. Occasionally, a few men, holding files, hurry past it, and ask shopkeepers for the katib, which in Urdu means a calligrapher. All in the market know Ghalib, the only katib, who sits in a makeshift workspace, with his jute bags full of papers and a small metal box containing calligraphy tools, just below the half-concealed nameplate.

Wearing his half-rimmed spectacles, the 55-year-old man with a half-grey beard is immersed in his work, commissioned by a madrassa (Islamic seminary). His thin wooden calligraphic pen obeys his commands. It’s a low-volume assignment, but artsy. With precision and concentration, he paints, word by word, a manuscript on a small bit of paper. His imagination empowered with two acrylic bottles, one black and the other white, Ghalib remains hunched over the small piece of parchment until he finds it up to the mark.

Ghalib, who has practiced the craft for about 35 years, is now one of the last remaining traditional calligraphic artists in Old Delhi. Others have vanished from the streets there, not finding it economically viable anymore. Even Ghalib now wonders if the art of calligraphy could die soon. But he hopes it won’t. “It’s still alive because we had learnt it in the past,” he says in this video shot as part of a four-day journalism training workshop organized by National Geographic and the Out of Eden Walk in Delhi in May.

Nantha Kishore is a journalist with StoriesAsia.