Started in the year 1927 in Chennai, the newspaper is handwritten in Urdu by skilled calligraphers
In the age of instant messaging, news portals, digital printing and 24-hour news channels, news has never travelled faster. It has changed the very way of journalism globally. However, in a resilient and elegant corner of bustling Chennai in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu, the traditions of generations past are being kept alive by the 88-year-old Urdu language newspaper - the world’s last hand-written daily newspaper.
At 324, Triplicane High Road in Chennai, the staff of the Urdu language evening paper ‘The Musalman’ literally writes the headlines every day. This 4-page newspaper is published daily by a team of a meagre staff of three reporters, three calligraphers, and an editor. Three of them are katibs – writers dedicated to the ancient art of Urdu calligraphy.It’s adherence to tradition is viewed now as a matter of life and death for its editor Syed Arifullah, who took over control after the death of his father. ‘We have been maintaining the tradition for the last 88- years, and after my first three years in charge I decided to dedicate my life to Musalman,’ said Arifullah, who has done an MBA in marketing. The paper was founded in 1927 by Mr Arifullah’s grandfather, Syed Azmathullah, and he passed on the editorship to Mr Arifullah’s father, Syed Faizullah, who was editor until he died, aged 76, after a lung infection. From a family of three brothers and four sisters, Syed Arifullah took on the role of editor in 2008, after his father Syed Fazlullah passed away. While his siblings don’t work at the newspaper, Arifullah said “everybody is together” when it comes to the family business.
“The Muslaman is all about the calligraphy, everybody is attracted by the calligraphy, if you switch to a computer what is there different between us and other newspapers? Calligraphy is the heart of Musalman. If you take out the heart, there is nothing left,” Arifullah added.
Made up of four crafted pages, it caters to its audience through 21,000 copies daily. The paper, which is delivered to subscribers, is also available on newsstands for less than one rupee, 75 paise to be exact. The subscribers are located all across India, with copies being delivered to Delhi, Mumbai and even Kolkata. The editor says readers of The Musalman are not limited to Muslims; “Many Hindus also read the newspaper, because they know the Urdu language.” Most of its advertisements come from agencies and the government, although a few also come directly from private organisations. “They are enough to sustain the newspaper”, he says adding: “While some of the advertisements are sent digitally, others are hand-drawn whenever needed.” The newspaper is largely in black and white, but if an advertisement calls for a coloured copy, they comply.
“It is my love for Urdu which is keeping me attached to this paper”, says Mr Usman Gani, sub-editor. The paper covers news across a wide spectrum including politics, culture and sports. People chatting, horns blaring and a bustling city in the background accompanied our conversation with Syed Arifullah, the editor of India’s only hand-written newspaper, The Musalman. Nestled in the lively city of Chennai in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu, the 88-year-old Urdu language newspaper is made up of a meagre staff of three reporters, three calligraphers, and an editor.
The staff working at The Musalman has been around for 30-35 years. “We treat them like family. If someone makes a mistake everyone stands up to help. No one points a finger at anyone,” cheerfully cites Arifullah. There are three male reporters who cover all aspects of news - be it political, cultural and even sports. Of the three calligraphers, two are women.
It takes two hours for a calligrapher to complete one page written with a quill and ink. If anything goes wrong, most likely the page would have to be worked on all over again. The form then is turned into a negative, after which it goes to printing. But a confident Arifullah says: “My calligraphers are experienced. They have been doing this for the last 25 to 30 years. Nothing goes wrong.”A look at the printed sheets may seem like a simple job but it truly is laborious. Divided into four parts, the front page carries local and national news; page two makes space for international news and editorials. On the third page are quotes from the Holy Quran. The last page usually has everything else, including other local news and advertisements.
The main focus of the daily is to publish teachings from the Holy Quran and sayings of the Prophet, also called hadith. Arifullah receives many calls from readers who ask for hadiths to be published and he also receives letters of appreciation often for publishing them. He receives about 20 calls a day from readers, some with queries and others to offer gratitude. While email is where most of his readers contact him, he says he also gets a few letters in the post, once in a while.
“Over the years a lot (in the publishing industry) has changed,” says Arifullah, “but if The Musalman changes, I will not be unique anymore, I will lose respect and credibility.” Many have often asked the only Urdu language newspaper in Tamil Nadu to switch to computers, but “the readers are happy”, and that’s what matters.
He says that as soon as computers made way for Desktop Publishing many news houses advanced to it. “Urdu is a sweet language. Everybody understands it,” he says while explaining what a beautiful language it is and why it is best hand-written. On the social media spectrum, the newspaper does have a Facebook page but hasn’t been active since 2012. Like his father, Arifullah too says, “he will work at The Musalman to the very end.” He doesn’t know what the future holds or who will be next in line to take the family business forward. He has just settled down in life and looks forward to keeping his “grandfather’s dream alive”.
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