A Handwritten Daily Paper in India Faces the Digital Future

But when British colonizers swept across India importing printing presses and English, Urdu ceased to be the official court language. It was spoken primarily by the Muslim community, but katibs could still make a living because no Urdu typeface existed.

That changed in 1997 with the first widely circulated Urdu computer font. Nowadays, people learn to read and write Urdu mostly as a hobby.

"The real masters are all dead, or they are so old that they are blind and their hands won't work anymore," Fazlulla said.

But the Musalman has survived and operates much as it has since it was founded in 1927. The biggest change came in the 1950s when Fazlulla unloaded a massive offset printer from a cargo ship. He salvaged the machine from a defunct American newspaper, and the paper has used it ever since.

Each katib is responsible for one page. If someone is sick, the others pull double shifts -- there are no replacements anywhere in the city. When calligraphers make mistakes they rewrite everything from scratch. They earn 60 rupees (about $1.50) per page.

The final proofs are transferred onto a black and white negative, then pressed onto printing plates. The paper is sold for one cent on the streets of Chennai.

The paper's popularity may not be enough to save the handwritten calligraphy tradition when the last of the katibs retires. Fazlulla worries what the digital revolution might mean for the future of his paper and his brand of calligraphy.

"Urdu is sweeter when written by hand," he said.

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