You open the door and find the newspaper lying at your doorstep beside your milk. You make yourself a hot cup of tea/coffee and then sit down to read your newspaper before heading out for work. How many times do you actually think about the amount of work that goes into printing a newspaper? And if we told you that there is a paper that is entirely handwritten, would you believe us? Read on to learn more about a small group of people are doing this.
The fax machine on 76-year-old Editor-in-Chief Syed Fazlulla’s crowded desk is by far the most sophisticated technology in the room. It whizzes and burps forth a stream of scribbled notes from a correspondent in New Delhi.
Fazlulla, who is deep into creating the next issue of the handcrafted The Musalman daily newspaper, frowns as he deciphers the handwriting and searches for a cover story. After some consideration, he passes the page to his brother who translates it into Urdu. He in turn sends the text to the back room where writers take calligraphy quills in hand and begin.
Here in the shadow of the Wallajah Mosque, a team of six puts out this hand-penned paper. Four of them are katibs — writers dedicated to the ancient art of Urdu calligraphy. It takes three hours using a pen, ink and ruler to transform a sheet of paper into news and art.
Fazlulla believes the handwritten pages are crucial to the paper and to the tradition of handwritten Urdu.
But when British colonizers swept across India importing printing presses and English, Urdu ceased to be the official court language. It was spoken primarily by the Muslim community, but katibs could still make a living because no Urdu typeface existed.
That changed in 1997 with the first widely circulated Urdu computer font.
But the Musalman has survived and operates much as it has since it was founded in 1927. The biggest change came in the 1950s when Fazlulla unloaded a massive offset printer from a cargo ship. He salvaged the machine from a defunct American newspaper, and the paper has used it ever since.
Each katib is responsible for one page. If someone is sick, the others pull double shifts — there are no replacements anywhere in the city. When calligraphers make mistakes they rewrite everything from scratch. They earn 60 rupees (about $1.50) per page.
The final proofs are transferred onto a black and white negative, then pressed onto printing plates. The paper is sold for one cent on the streets of Chennai.
The paper’s popularity may not be enough to save the handwritten calligraphy tradition when the last of the katibs retires. Fazlulla worries what the digital revolution might mean for the future of his paper and his brand of calligraphy.