Photos & Report by Ekta Malik

It could have been just any other dusty street in old Delhi, clogged with humanity. But it differs; it’s alive with literature and poetry still surviving in their original form. One can actually feel the words and couplets as you step in the Urdu bazaar of old Delhi. Its other claim to fame would be the Jama Masjid which looms majestically over this bustling locality.

Urdu bazaar situated opposite the Jama Masjid is one of the oldest places in Delhi where one can find all kinds of Urdu, Arabic and also Hindi books. This street is dotted with shops that specialise in Urdu, Arabic printing, and book binding. In this market one can still find lovers of the Urdu language, who come from everywhere to look for a book of their choice. The embossed books in gold and silver bound in cloth or some other variant draw people form far and wide. It is in this very market that those few places still exist, where Urdu and Arabic calligraphy is still practised.

The musty smell of yellowing paper. Some quills lie haphazardly on a table. An archaic inkpot placed next to them. Scraps of paper dot the floor. A fan creaks over head, as it circles reluctantly. An old photo copier remains unused in the corner gathering dust; it serves as a side table occasionally. Sitting outside this shop is “Qari sahib”, who has been practising calligraphy in the Urdu bazaar, for the past 40 years.

63 year old Qari Sahib, as he is universally addressed in the Urdu bazaar, came to Delhi from his hometown Muzaffarnagar in U.P. He is fluent in Arabic, Urdu and Persian, and Hindi. And also English he proudly proclaims. His white scraggily beard, his beady eyes reflect the wisdom of his 63 years of life. He recollects his days back in Muzaffarnagar where he learnt calligraphy from his father, who used to work in the local mosque. He came to Delhi in search of a better livelihood and hoping that his art would help him sustain. Initially he got freelance work to write in Urdu and Arabic, and then after three years this shop was set up in the Urdu bazaar.

He sadly remembers those days when he had bulk orders; people would get the entire holy Quran written in calligraphy, and then get it bound. Lots of the general populace used Urdu as their first language. They wrote poetry, couplets and ghazals, which obviously generated lot of work for Qari sahib and other such artistes. Lot of such poets and writers would get their work written beautifully in Urdu. “Those were the times when the Urdu zuban (language/tongue) lived, it was still alive among the natives of this place,” he reminisces.

Those were the heydays when the Urdu language had its presence in the literary world. But today the language is fast fading away from public memory, as has the art of calligraphy.

Now to help sustain himself, Qari sahib also makes rubber stamps and seals in Urdu and Arabic. Years ago he also got a photo copier machine to keep up with the times, but that too is redundant now, gathering dust. When asked he shows his old work, intricate writing, beautifully placed. Ornate.

Every evening he sits outside his shop, and writes verses and couplets. And in between he hums words from a ghazal, or he breaks into a song. His ink stained fingers tightly holding the quill; he dips it into the inkpot, and writes. His eyes screwed up in concentration. While he writes, he is oblivious to the world, the hustle and bustle of the street and market. This is where his soul is. The black and white.