The Mughal era has often been cited as the golden age of calligraphy. Beautifully hand-crafted copies of the Quran would be created for wealthy patrons, even our old manuscripts were carefully penned in beautiful Urdu calligraphy. It’s all around us, in our most majestic monuments and heritage properties. The calligraphers earned loyal, powerful and rich patrons with an inky swoop of their hands, but over the years with rapid industrialisation and the innovation of the printing press, this masterful and intricate art form has faded away, although, there was one man who was determined to keep this tradition alive with what could now be the world’s only handwritten newspaper left, The Musalman.
Starting a daily newspaper in a dying language was a major risk for Syed Faizullah, in 1927, and at the time of its inception, there were only a handful of calligraphers, or khaatibs, who shared his passion. For 89 years, The Musalman has been published and read every day in Chennai, in the same format created by Faizullah. It is his family and a group of dedicated and hardworking writers who keep his beloved Urdu calligraphy daily running against all odds. The khaatibs spend long hours painstakingly writing articles across a diverse array of subjects—right from religious content like namaz, hadith and prayers, to sports, culture and political issues—everything is covered in this four-paged paper.
“The Musalman is all about the calligraphy, everyone is attracted to it because of the calligraphy. If I switch to computers, then what is the difference between me and other newspapers? There will be no difference. Calligraphy is like the hearth of the Musalman—if you remove the heart, there will be nothing left,” said Syed Arifullah, son of Syed Faizullah and current Editor of the Urdu daily. As beautiful as it is, Urdu is a dying language in India, and running a daily paper in a fading language, that too in a city such as Chennai where only a handful of people can read and speak Urdu, is not an easy task.
As a completely digital generation, every aspect of our lives has moved online, and for most of us the loss of such a newspaper will have no consequence. But for those such as the staff of The Musalman who have dedicated their lives to carry on this trade, it would not only be the loss of livelihood but a tremendous loss for the art world and Indian traditions as a whole. “The paper carried the name Musalman, and there has been no hindrance in continuing the name. I take pride in India’s secularism. It has adequate broadmindedness to be inclusive of all cultures, with their name, their appearance. This kind of inclusive pluralistic society, this may perhaps definitely make India a superpower,” said Usman Gani, Sub-editor of The Musalman. As he points out, The Musalman is not purely about, nor limited to Islam - there’s a larger picture here that may soon be lost to us in our race towards a digitalised future.