Media

Plural imprint: Chennai-based Urdu daily 'The Musalman' continues its strong show

Print edition : August 27, 2021

A katib (calligrapher) at work at ‘The Musalman’. A 2007 picture. The newspaper continues to rely on the talent of its experienced katibs against all odds. Photo: S.R. Raghunathan

Syed Azmathullah, the founder of the newspaper. Photo: By Special Arrangement

Syed Sultan Basha, Azmathullah’s son. ‘The Musalman’ has always tried to promote handwritten Urdu as it has its own beauty, he says.

The Musalman, a handwritten newspaper in Urdu published from Chennai since 1927, is driven by a secular ideology and a commitment to pluralism.

It is a calligrapher’s delight and a reader’s treasure. The Musalman, a four-page daily published from the vicinity of the iconic Wallajah Masjid in Chennai, is probably the only newspaper in the world to be handwritten by calligraphers.

At a time when katibs (calligraphers) struggle for survival and their skill is recounted only in anecdotes of pleasant nostalgia, The Musalman, against all odds, continues to rely on the talent of its experienced katibs. It has been so since 1927 when Mukhtar Ahmed Ansari, a leader of the Indian National Congress, inaugurated the first edition of the newspaper founded by Syed Azmathullah.

The paper’s inauguration by Ansari was more than a token ribbon-cutting by a celebrity. It stood for the paper’s secular ideology, commitment to pluralism and efforts to preserve India’s dying arts. Throughout its 90-odd years, the paper has been identified with its proximity to the Congress; in the pre-Independence days, to be associated with the Congress was a hallmark of nationalism as against being associated with the Muslim League or the Hindu Mahasabha. After 1947, The Musalman tried to maintain a neutral stance while never being too far removed from the Congress.

The written word

The emphasis of any newspaper is on speed and being first with the news; The Musalman, though, prefers to focus on the beauty of the written word. For each word, a wooden quill is dipped into siyahi (ink) and each letter written painstakingly. As the ink begins to dry, it is dipped again into the inkpot, and the cycle continues, from one sentence to another, one column to the next. This way, all four pages are handwritten, with only the space for advertisements remaining.

In the past, the newspaper used to be of eight pages, and on special occasions, 12 pages. All the pages were brought to life by three katibs, two women and a man, each of whom has served the organisation unfailingly for years.

The Musalman’s working style is distinct from that of other newspapers and magazines. While the editor oversees all its functions, reports from its correspondents in major cities and from stringers in many other places arrive by email; earlier they came by even fax and post. Interestingly, the reports are not always necessarily in Urdu, with many contributors sending copy in English which are then translated in the office. The katibs get to work after translation and editing.

The office opens early in the morning and all reports are in by around 10 a.m. The translations are done as and when the reports arrive. Around 11, the calligraphers begin their work.

Even minor changes after the katibs have written the report would require the redoing of a large section of the page. The katibs usually leave space for a picture or two on the page. Interestingly, the stories do not have bylines, harking back to an era when bylines were hard to come by in the media.

At last count, The Musalman had 22,000 subscribers. It is an incredible feat in a city with a limited number of Urdu readers.

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The Musalman is still published as a mainstream daily, quite different from the Al-Jamiat and Dawat (Urdu newspapers) which were published by Jamiat Ulema-e-Hind and Jamaat-e-Islami Hind, respectively. Its first page is dedicated to national and international news, while the back page, like most dailies, was once reserved for sports coverage but is now more of a miscellaneous page. The inside pages are reserved for local issues and State news. The editorial appears on page two, while messages from the Quran and Hadith, besides articles on communal harmony and even Urdu poetry and prose, appear on page three.

Making a statement

For many years its chief of bureau was a Hindu, and two of the katibs were female employees. By employing women and people of other religions, the newspaper quietly made a statement in favour of gender equality and secularism. For any person who associates Urdu with a particular community it might come as a shocker, but within the confines of the newspaper’s office it was irrelevant.

A number of employees from different religions and castes have worked here for decades despite the company’s inability to pay them fancy salaries. They have worked here for the love of Urdu and a deep appreciation for the skills of a katib.

Arifullah, the current editor, would not have it any other way. He said: “Urdu is both a limitation and a safeguard. It is a little bit difficult because Urdu in Chennai is not a common language.”

Why was Urdu chosen as the mode of expression? He said the decision was taken by his grandfather Syed Azmathullah, who felt that there was no voice of Muslims in south India.

A documentary about the newspaper was made a few years ago. It was among the entries in the Indian Panorama section of the International Film Festival of India. The jury, more accustomed to getting entries on various aspects of culture and environment, was pleasantly surprised to learn about a newspaper that is entirely handwritten in the digital age. The newspaper still relies on negatives held together with transparent tape and offset printing. The documentary and The Musalman left an indelible impression on the jury.

Interestingly, though The Musalman has its correspondents in many cities, including New Delhi where J.P. Bhatnagar has rendered notable service, its headquarters has always been in Chennai.

Exemplar of secularism

Syed Sultan Basha, a descendant of the family and who has covered many events for the newspaper, including a conference addressed by Ghulam Nabi Azad, Jammu and Kashmir Chief Minister, in 2007 when Syed Fazlullah was The Musalman’s editor, recalled an interesting episode in the history of the paper. He said: “Back in the early 1960s when Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru visited Madras, our reporter, Krishna Iyer, interviewed him. Nehru was pleased when he introduced himself as ‘I am Krishna from The Musalman’. Just then, a news photographer entered, introducing himself as ‘I am Mohammed Asad from The Hindu’. Nehru was speechless for a few seconds. It was India’s pluralism at its best. The same ideology has driven us. We cover all communities, all issues of national interest. We focus more on analytical and opinion pieces. We also have staffers from different communities.” Interestingly, a few years after Nehru’s visit, Indira Gandhi held up the incident as a model of India’s secularism.

The newspaper claims that no employee has ever quit the daily. They either retired or died but never left The Musalman for greener pastures. It was as much for the love of the institution as for the fact that it was the only handwritten Urdu paper around.

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Its founding fathers have always resisted the idea of switching to computers. Some outsiders even tried to reason with the editors about the economic viability and marketability of the paper which is still priced at 75 paise. Fazlullah and his successor Arifullah turned down such suggestions, confident that they were rendering yeoman service to the language and to the art of calligraphy.

Basha reminisced about the ups and downs in the paper’s nearly 100-year journey. “I am the fifth son of Azmathullah sahab, the paper’s founder,” he said. “He ran it until his death in 1963. Syed Fazlullah, who took over from him, managed it until his death in 2008. Then Arifullah took over as editor. He is my nephew. Our senior staffers were not able to come to office in May this year because of the pandemic. For a few days, we had to bring out the paper on computer. But this was only a temporary measure. We are switching back to calligraphy.”

He went on to add: “The first editor was Abul Jalal Nadwi. He moved to Pakistan in 1957. Then Nazeer Ahmed Shakir took over as editor. After him we had an editor who was associated with the Muslim League prior to Independence. His name was Mohammed Abdul Latif Farooqui. When he took over, he was a Congressman. Then came Mohammed Ali.”

With close links with the Congress, did not The Musalman face the ire of other political parties, particularly the Dravidian parties in Tamil Nadu?

“We had some trouble with the AIADMK [All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam]. They stopped all advertisements to The Musalman. But we have had no problem with DMK [Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam] governments. We are confident of a stable and honest relationship with the new dispensation too,” he said.

Incidentally, the paper is heavily dependent on advertisement support from the Directorate of Advertising and Visual Publicity (DAVP), more so at a time when the economy is in decline. Said Basha: “I cannot lie about it. It helps to get such advertisements, though that support has dwindled in recent years. As for the local support, unfortunately, our Urdu-speaking people are not very supportive. Forget giving advertising support, many do not even pay for their subscription on time.”

There is criticism that The Musalman continues to be published for the sake of nostalgia and that it has not made a notable mark in journalism. Some even believe that the family-owned enterprise is merely an indulgence.

To this Basha replied, “There is a simple answer to such criticism. If only pecuniary benefits had driven us, it would have made better sense to switch to computers, which involved much less labour, and was a more market-driven process. But The Musalman has always tried to promote handwritten Urdu as it has its own beauty. With computers we would have been just another one in the crowd. Today, we have our own space in the market.”

The business model of The Musalman may not be easy to replicate. But the newspaper has indeed carved out its own niche in the annals of Urdu journalism.

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