The poetry of Old Delhi

old delhi

What stories from around the world are we not hearing about on the TV or in the news? In this series, correspondents write about their experiences in the countries where they live. Here, Aletta André describes the chaos of Old Delhi, India.

Mohammad Ghalib is sitting in the shade of the Friday Mosque. He works in the corner of a shop specialized in Urdu, Shahjahanabad’s traditional language, sitting on the floor, putting decorative ink flourishes on paper with bamboo pens he cuts himself. He is one of the last remaining Katibs (calligraphers). “When I came here 35 years ago, there were dozens of bookstores, and at least three Katibs working in each one,” he tells me. “I wrote letters and contracts for customers, but also books and magazines. Until more and more publishers started using computers. But a computer can’t do what I can,” Ghalib says proudly.

He has elevated his profession to an art, and because he is practically the only surviving Katib, he can live well from it. He is asked to make posters and nameplates, for example. Tattoo artist Pranay Shah also likes to knock at Ghalib’s door. While he drinks a cup of sweet lemon tea, the Katib transcribes a number of words on paper for him. “One of my customers wants to have the name of his daughter, Zoya, tattooed in Urdu,” he says. “Ghalib writes it for me in various styles, so that I can copy the name.” After half an hour of work, Shah pays the equivalent of three euros.

Despite Ghalib’s pride in his profession, chances are that it will die out with him. His children are not interested, one of the few education programs in Urdu calligraphy has just ended, and there are fewer and fewer people still able to read and write Urdu. The handful of remaining stores is struggling and the number of primary schools that still teach in this language is negligible.
When spoken, Urdu is almost the same as Hindi, 
but has more words of Persian origin. In writing, it is completely different, however, and it looks more like Arabic. After the separation of India and Pakistan, and the migration of Muslims from what is now North India to the new neighbor state, Urdu became the national language of Pakistan—although it originated in the streets of Old Delhi.

  • Read the full story about Old Delhi in Issue 30.

Text Aletta André  Photography Aletta André, Ruhani Kaur

You can read the full story here