“Katib” Ghalib has been practising his art in the lanes of Urdu Bazaar in Old Delhi for the last 35 years. Mir Ali Tabrizi, an Iranian calligrapher from the 14th century developed this particular style of calligraphy, known as the Nas-Taliq. In the subcontinent, Lahore, Delhi, Lucknow and Hyderabad became thriving centres of the art because of royal patronage. Nawabs and kings would employ these skilled professionals in their court and their support helped the art to flourish. There was pride in being a katib, he says, as it was a skill that very few perfected owing to the years of practice involved. It also meant interaction with a lot of learned people, which added value to it. After studying the art for three years, Ghalib came to Delhi, where he began to practise it as a profession.
While speaking to me, Ghalib uses expressions of Urdu that elicit a time gone by. Till a certain job is written in a one’s fate, he tells me, one must fulfill that duty. God has decreed work for every person, so that the world can function in a certain way. When there is a divine order to leave my work, I will leave it, he says. Till then he fights on, even though others have given up the profession. Many tell me to learn to work on computers, he says, but they don't understand why I do what I do. The onslaught of machines may have reduced the demand for his work, but he feels a certain sense of duty to preserve the art form. He muses that at least because of him, people may know that such a profession exists.
Sometimes people come from far away to have things written by him, and then he feels, that despite all odds, the work has its own place. Once someone came from Chandigarh and they couldn't find a katib on a Sunday. He still feels terrible about that day. If they had just called him once, he says, he would have come from his home to Urdu Bazaar, as he hates to disappoint. A man from Pune had once come to get some poetry written, but had to leave after being unable to find a single katib at Urdu Bazaar. He finally returned after four months for the same work.
Eventually a man's body starts to give up, he says, and he can maximum work till the age of 60 years, as calligraphy requires sitting for long periods and working with one’s fingers. A person also needs to have very good eyesight for this work, which deteriorates with age. It is a lonely profession, as a katib must work alone, without any help. Till God gives me courage, I will continue this work, he says, but what after I and the few remaining katibs are gone? Today I am writing, but in another couple of years my body will give up and I will have to stop doing my work. Bigger things have come to an end, he remarks after a pause.
It is the month of Ramzan. After spending the whole day with him, it is time for Iftar (breaking the fast), which we do together. He says, “saath mein khane se pyaar badhta hai” (eating together fosters love). He doesn’t let his fatigue come in the way of doing his job, even as he fasts during the hot month of June. He invites me to his home in Okhla, where we go after he is done for the day. He says it was fate that brought us together and after I thank him for the wonderful meal, he says, “main kaun hoon khilanewala” (who am I to have fed you), it was God’s wish that has fed you, not me.