Out of the Picture

Why a legendary calligrapher has been denied the Padma Shri for 16 years

Manzooruddin was commissioned by the Indian government to write sipasnamas, or words of praise, for various important personalities, including the last king of Iran, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. parth gupta for the caravan
01 January, 2017

On the morning of 31 August, I sat across Salahuddin, son of the famous calligrapher Manzooruddin, inside the large living room of his Matia Mahal home in old Delhi. As we talked about his father’s work, he fetched a khaki-coloured envelope full of documents from the adjacent room.

“I’ve kept a record of everything,” Salahuddin said, picking out a letter from the papers.

“In each and every field artists are encouraged but the calligraphic art has been neglected so far,” the letter reads. “Keeping in view his”—Manzooruddin’s—“outstanding services, it is requested that his name be recommended to Padma Shri committee for the consideration of Padma Shri award.” Other documents in the envelope included numerous news features on Manzooruddin’s achievements, recommendation letters from politicians of various parties, and scanned samples of his work.

For the last 16 years, Salahuddin has been submitting these documents at the office of Delhi’s lieutenant governor as part of an application for a Padma Shri award for his father. Every year, officials of the Padma Awards Committee visit Manzooruddin’s house, ask questions about his work and achievements, and leave. And every year, Salahuddin’s request for a Padma Shri for his father is rejected by the government.

Now 93 years old, and barely able to speak, Manzooruddin is considered a legend in the field of calligraphy. In a career span of 60 years, he has handwritten more than 200 books. He has been commissioned by the Indian government to write sipasnamas, or words of praise, for various important personalities, including the last king of Iran, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. He also claims to have designed the logo of the famous sherbat brand Rooh Afza. Citing his father’s unmatched achievements in the field, Salahuddin contends that the denial of the Padma Shri to Manzooruddin shows how calligraphy’s image has declined in Indian society. “It is not considered an art form anymore,” Salahuddin told me.

Calligraphy, in Arabic and Persian, came to India through Muslim rule. Since it was widely believed that Islam forbids drawing of human or animal figures, calligraphers were the only kinds of artists that received royal patronage, enjoying an elite status in society. “Khushnaviscalligraphers—“were among the ten elite sections of pre-colonial Delhi society,” SZH Jafri, a professor of medieval history at Delhi University, told me.

Even under British colonial rule, the calligraphers went on to receive patronage from the Muslim royalty. But after Independence, the decline of the Muslim elite class and the emergence of desktop printing dealt a heavy blow to the art form. Many calligraphers did not have enough work, and were forced out of their houses onto the streets. Urdu Bazaar Road, a famous thoroughfare in old Delhi, continues to be lined by calligraphers who can’t afford a roof over their heads, sitting with their quills, paper and an assortment of inks. Manzooruddin, who quickly made his name in the 1960s and 1970s, never found himself out of assignments, and continued to work from his house. But over the years, he saw a constant decline in the rates people were willing to pay for his calligraphy.

Manzooruddin specialised in kitabat, or book scribing, one of the two major genres in Arabic, Persian and Urdu calligraphy. The other genre is tughra—which uses letters to create visual figures (sometimes even the proscribed ones). “They would draw a cow using words from the chapter ‘The Cow of the Quran,’” the filmmaker and academician Sohail Hashmi told me. “So, it was both a cow and a holy verse, a grey space where it is both picture and word.”

However, Manzooruddin’s approach to calligraphy was a lot more orthodox. He did very few tughras, and even with kitabat, he followed a very conventional style. Salahuddin told me that his father sat in a particular posture, called nishist, wherein there are detailed specifications ranging from how to sit while writing to where one must place the inkpot. Salahuddin said people would wait for months to get their books written by his father, because it took that long to complete one book. “Now, with printing, it takes no time,” he said. “The technology has rendered us obsolete.”

Salahuddin, who is also a calligrapher, showed me one of the wedding cards of the former Pakistani prime minister Benazir Bhutto. “Someone asked me to make its replica for his child’s wedding. It took me five hours time to finish it. When I asked for Rs 500, he was so hesitant to pay,” he told me.

But even as calligraphy struggles to survive in places such as Urdu Bazaar, it is now emerging in a new form in swanky neighbourhoods of south Delhi. Where Salahuddin struggles to be paid Rs 500 for highly intricate work, the new-age calligraphers can charge anywhere in the vicinity of Rs 50,000 for a single assignment. Calligraphers such as Anis Siddiqui, Mehmood Ahmed Sheikh and Qamar Dagar have no problems making ends meet.

I met Dagar, who calls herself a pictorial calligrapher, at her Malviya Nagar residence in early September. Dagar told me that besides treating calligraphy as an art form, one must also learn to market oneself. Dagar, too, recently designed a wedding card, though she refused to tell me how much she charged for it.

I asked her what she did with the card. “The names of the wedding couple—Murtaza and Raheela—meant the traveller and the guide, I was told,” she said. “I created an artwork on the theme of travelling, using the names.”

In calligraphy workshops she conducts at the Urdu festival Jashn-e-Rekhta, Dagar instructs the participants to “see alphabets as abstract forms, and try to draw your own pictorial interpretation of them on paper.” She told me that she does not ask participants to follow any particular nishist. “There is no such rule for that in the workshop. You just need ink and paper.” Wasn’t this radically different from the style of calligraphers such as Manzooruddin, I asked her. “I am a student of Amir Abdullah Khan sahib”—a calligrapher famous for his tughras—she told me. “My work has evolved from his teaching, which followed very conventional rules.”

In August, the Hauz Khas venue Antisocial held an Arabic calligraphy workshop for professional web designers and font makers. Siddarth Kumar, the venue’s cultural manager, told me that the workshop was conducted by Abdul Rahman, a calligrapher from Urdu Bazaar, for 15 participants, each of whom paid Rs 1,200.

I contacted one of the participants, Simran Geetu, a visual artist and graphic designer. “Every font designer first designs the letters by hand on paper before moving to a computer,” she told me in a Facebook message. “It helps in getting the basic sense of letters.”

But interestingly, Indian calligraphers, working in Arabic, Urdu and Persian, have themselves struggled to create new fonts. Attaullah, a former instructor at the Urdu Calligraphy Training Centre in Urdu Academy, Delhi, told me, “Indians lag behind in creating new khats”—fonts. He also said that most of the fonts in Inpage, a popular word processor and page-layout software, are made by Pakistanis, adding that he hasn’t seen the evolution of a new khat from India in his lifetime. “This is because unlike India, the Pakistan government has backed institutions for calligraphy.”

At his home, Salahuddin accepted that his father did not create a new khat. “Even when I tried to writing differently, he would scold me.” According to Salahuddin, his father stressed the importance of achieving flawlessness in the present fonts. Dagar also admitted that “to master a khat is a rare feat,” and that “only a few can do it.”

Salahuddin took me to Manzooruddin’s room at the back, where he was lying on his bed. Keeping in mind his frail condition, I wanted to keep my audience short. Do you think you’ll ever get the Padma Shri? I asked him.

He answered in a low voice, pointing towards Salahuddin. “Waqt kharaab kar raha hai”—he is wasting his time.