ETCHING THE LAST BREATHS Featured

Written by SHLOKA BADKAR
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He is the other Ghalib walking the narrow bylanes of Delhi’s old quarters. More than 150 years ago Ghalib the greatest poet of Urdu died in pain and penury just a stone’s throw from where sits today’s Ghalib bent over blank sheets, carving out the most intricate of letters with his gaggle of wooden pens, striving to keep a dying art form alive

The last calligraphist of Urdu Bazar in Old Delhi, Mohammad Ghalib sits in a small Urdu bookshop opposite Gate No. 1 of Jama Masjid. He has been a katib (calligraphist) for 35 years. Originally from a small village located seven to eight kilometers away from Shahjahanpur district, he learned calligraphy in Darul Uloom Deoband. “There was no plan as such to take this up as a profession. We had to study many subjects and this was one of them”, he says matter-offactly

“Back in my days, there was a huge demand for katibs. But as technology advanced, we stopped getting as much work as we used to. There are very few of us left in Old Delhi. There used to be two more calligraphists here, but they have become really old. I am the only one who sits in Urdu Bazaar now

“With age, it gets difficult to keep up with the art. I sit for hours together when I do calligraphy. It requires a lot of patience which I have developed over the years. I do yoga to keep my mind and body fit and I even walk as much as possible,” he says.

Talking about the history of Calligraphy as an art, he says,“Calligraphy originated thousands of years ago. It was written in various languages, Farsi, Hindi, Arabic, English... However, Urdu calligraphy originated only during Shah Jahan’s time. The Mughals wrote in Farsi before him. Calligraphy is an ancient art form which was popular among the rich. Even emperors learned this art, and Aurangzeb was one of them.”

Mohammad Ghalib’s workplace is surrounded by Urdu literature. He even recommends a few Urdu books to customers. “I am very fond of reading. When I am not doing my work, I pick up a book and start reading it. I like reading taarikhein kitaabein (history books). I also like to read poetry, especially Mirza Ghalib’s shayaris, I think they’re beautiful”, he says.

Ghalib says he does calligraphy for various platforms such as magazines, newspapers, wedding cards, posters, etc. “When people realise there are a few things that cannot be written on the computer, they come to me and ask me to write for them. Turns out the computer is not advanced enough to really play with fonts, font sizes and colours the way I can”, he smirks.

“In my youth, calligraphy was a well-known and respectable profession. Business was good back then. A lot of newspapers and magazines would come to us and ask us to write for them. But it reduced considerably after computers came on the market. I do get work, but it’s not as much as it used to be.

“Now speed is more important than the quality of work. Earlier elephants and horses were used to travel long distances, now we have trains and planes. There was a time when it would take months to get from one place to another, now it takes just a few hours. People are addicted to this fast lifestyle,” he says. “

“But I am thankful to Allah for still sending work for me, however big or small it may be. As long as I am in a position to bring food to the table for my family without taking financial support from anyone else, I am happy. Work is not much but Allah is making sure I do not just sit at home unemployed. And I am satisfied with the work I do because I really enjoy it”

On asking him about his one big regret he says, “I did want to learn how to use a computer. I had even bought one. But due to the lack of financial resources at that time, I could never learn it. I thought my children would learn it after me, but they weren’t interested. Eventually, I had to sell the computer because the doctor told me it would make my eyes weaker.”, he said.

In a time when calligraphy is dying, Mohammad Ghalib the only katib left in Urdu Bazaar is doing his bit to keep this art alive. His passion for calligraphy shows in his work, and it saddens him that this beautiful art will soon become history.

A COMMUNITY BOWLED OUT

Cricket has gone through a major transformation in India and in the process has lost out on it’s pathfinders. Solely dominated by the Parsis in the 1800s, the Indian cricket team now almost 200 years later, does not possess even a single Parsi player.

“Parsis were the pioneers of Indian cricket”, said Piloo Reporter, a former Indian international cricket umpire. “The first ever Indian team that visited England in 1886 consisted of Parsis. The first tour was unfortunate, but they were a little better during their second tour in 1888.” SH Harvar and JM Morenas were the only two players that toured during both the years.

“Parsis did not dominate Indian cricket, they started it. They were in the frontline,” reminds Nari Contractor, a former Indian test player. “Earlier the Parsi youth was only interested in cricket, it was difficult in selecting the team. But somehow the Parsi youth is not taking up the game anymore.”

Cricket was a popular sport among the marines, sailors and tradesmen of the East India Company. They played in Cambay (close to Bombay) and in Kutch. These were the areas that consisted of a major Parsi population in India. When the Parsis came here as refugees they settled down in these areas which is where the sport became popular among the community. “

“The Parsi cricketers had a lot of courage. They had a greater sense of entrepreneurship”, said Fredun De Vitre, a former Indian cricket commentator. “In olden times the cricketers had parallel professions such as doctors, photographers But now there is very little time for a cricketer to pursue another profession, which could probably be one of the reasons why there are not many Parsi cricketers these days

Cricket gained popularity in India after the Quandrangular and Pentangular tournaments which consisted of teams based on communities such as Parsis, Hindus, Muslims, Europeans and The Rest (which was added in the Pentagular tournament which consisted of other communities such as Jews, Buddhists, etc) “The Quadrangular and the Pentangular encouraged a lot of people to participate in the sport. However they tapered down after the emergence of other tournaments like Ranji Trophy that gained more popularity,” recalls Fredun De Vitre. After tournaments like Ranji Trophy and Duleep Trophy, teams began to be formed based on cities and states and not on communities, which considerably reduced the number of Parsis playing the sport. The competition became tougher as slowly the entire country was beginning to participate in the game

In spite of the tough competition the Indian team did manage to produce some brilliant test players such as Polly Umrigar, Nari Contractor, Farokh Engineer and Rusi Surti. Farokh Engineer was the last Parsi cricketer to play for the Indian team in 1975.

“There seems to be a dip in the level of enthusiasm in the sport among Parsi boys, which is contradictory as the sport is doing so well in the country and a lot of boys are actually making a living out of it”, Fredun De Vitre wonders.

“I was coaching at Parsi Gymkhana, but who do you go coach when nobody is there. On Bombay Gymkhana’s ground I had scored 400 runs in an inter-collegiate match, and that record is still standing. But there is nobody in college or in school playing the game. And the academies we start, nobody wants to come to them,” regrets Nari Contractor.

“Parsi boys don’t appear to be taking the game seriously,” says Piloo Reporter. “The Parsi gymkhana offers free coaching, even kits are given. So much effort is being made. But the youth these days is just involved in their phones and computer games and nobody is willing to take part in the sport anymore,” Nari points out adding that “very few Parsi boys are willing to make the effort like Sachin Tendulkar who began from scratch and went on to claim the top slot.

Cricket has changed in the last two centuries. The formats of the game have changed and so have the interests of the people who first played it in the country. We owe the Parsis the credit for introducing us to this sport, because if it wasn’t for them, maybe Indian cricket wouldn’t be where it is today.

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