Ode to the lost art of news calligraphy

Updated 29 Jul 2019


CALLIGRAPHER Ghulam Mohiuddin working in his studio.
CALLIGRAPHER Ghulam Mohiuddin working in his studio.

KARACHI: Once upon a time, there were no computers in the newsrooms; there were calligraphers.

In an interview with Dawn, 67-year-old Ghulam Mohiuddin shared that he started his career as a katib at Hurriyat. He was just 15 at the time.

“By the time I was 17 or 18, the senior calligraphers in the newsroom were upset with me because I would write the headline for the lede stories. They thought I was too young to be given such an important job,” he said. But, he added, the night shift in the newsroom ran on a very tight deadline. “It was about who could write the headline the fastest and make it look beautiful. My first headline was about a pipe bursting in the city,” he added.

Mr Mohiuddin — who has worked for Mashriq, Jang, Dunya and Akhbar-i-Jahan — said that when he started his career, his father made him promise that he would learn another skill or go into subediting and reporting.

“One day we were at work, I think it was the mid-80s or so and we saw a computer being used to take out the pages. My father turned to me and said, you better have a backup plan,” he explained.

Emperor Shah Jahan is said to have got some of the best calligraphers

Looking back at his time in the newsroom, Mr Mohiuddin said: “News­papers were the place to be at that time. Newspapers like Hurriyat and Anjam had around 50 katibs each. I think it was five calligraphers per page or maybe more depending on the size.”

Some of the giants in the field, according to Mr Mohiuddin, were Jang’s Chacha Fazal and Sultan sahab, Hurriyat’s Aziz Ahmed, and Anjum’s Baray and Chhotay Imtiaz.

Unfortunately, he regretted, calligraphy — particularly in the print industry — has died. “The problem is that though there are a lot of schools and softwares you can learn it from, no one teaches the real thought and history behind it. Ummat used to use the Lahori script while Jang’s Chacha Fazal used the Lucknowi script which was a mix of the Dehlvi and Persian script,” he said.

There was a time, he said, when you could find calligraphers around Radio Pakistan and Bahadur Shah Zafar Bazaar. But, not anymore.

The shift to digital

According to Mohammad Irshad of Mashriq, calligraphy is a lost art.

Sharing a brief history of the newspaper, he said Mashriq was published from Lahore in the 60s and was part of the National Press Trust.

“We used to print in six cities and each city had its own calligraphers. I believe in those days our editorial staff was quite small in comparison with our calligraphers,” he said.

“Headlines on the front page were done by one team of calligraphers while the headlines for inside pages or shorter stories and magazines were done by another. Once the headlines were done, then we would develop a film which would then go for designing and graphics. Now we use InPage and Coral Draw for everything,” he said.

It was the mid to late 90s, when the newspaper shifted to digitalisation, he claims.

At Ummat, the title of last katib lies with Abdul Rashid Shahid. While he doesn’t write headlines for the paper anymore owing to his poor health, he still overlooks the process from a distance.

Mr Shahid, who learnt the art from his grandfather, started his career at the young age of 12. “Till a few years ago, I used to write headlines for Ummat by hand but now everything has gone digital,” he said.

The history

Rauf Parekh, a linguist and lexicographer, told Dawn that calligraphy was all about the aesthetic.

“When they started printing in Urdu, everything was done by hand. Back in the time of the Mughals — I think it was Emperor Shah Jahan — when the Portuguese brought in a rudimentary printing press as they wanted to set up a printing press. Shah Jahan then got some of his best calligraphers,” he said.

It was interesting to note, he said, that Naskh is an Arabic script which is used to print Sindhi but it was not beautiful to look at.

“People have difficulty in reading it […] look at the magazine Sir Syed took out, or Allama Iqbal’s writings … people liked the content, but not the print type. It took over a century to resolve,” he explained.

“Nastaliq on the other hand, is the Iranian script we use for Urdu. It is what Jang uses. People such as Mutloobul Hassan Sayed and Jamil Ahmed Mirza brought a revolution in the Urdu language when they computerised Nastaliq,” said Mr Parekh.

According to Mahmood Sham — who was associated with Jang for years — it has now become obsolete.

“At the beginning of my career, we used a yellow paper […] you only had one shot to get it right then we moved to letho, butterpaper and black pelican ink in the ’60s and ’70s. These were the days we used to do cutting and pasting. Then came colour printing in the ’90s and introduced films,” he said.

Published in Dawn, July 29th, 2019