July 6, 2007 -- The fax machine on 76-year-old Editor-in-Chief Syed Fazlulla's crowded desk is by far the most sophisticated technology in the room. It whizzes and burps forth a stream of scribbled notes from a correspondent in New Delhi.
Fazlulla, who is deep into creating the next issue of the handcrafted The Musalman daily newspaper, frowns as he deciphers the handwriting and searches for a cover story. After some consideration, he passes the page to his brother who translates it into Urdu. He in turn sends the text to the back room where writers take calligraphy quills in hand and begin.
Here in the shadow of the Wallajah Mosque, a team of six puts out this hand-penned paper. Four of them are katibs -- writers dedicated to the ancient art of Urdu calligraphy. It takes three hours using a pen, ink and ruler to transform a sheet of paper into news and art.
India's News Calligraphers Do It on Deadline
"I write because I love the language," says Rehaman Hussein, a mustached katib who has written the paper's front page for more than 20 years. "Urdu is a clean language. It is the language of our Koran."
But the Musalman's future is uncertain because the art of Urdu calligraphy is a fast-fading tradition. The newspaper has no clear successor who would produce it in its handwritten form when Fazlulla can no longer do the job. The issue is a source of tension between him and his son Syed Nasarulla, who runs a greeting-card business out of a loft directly above his father's office. He would only reluctantly take the paper's reins.
"I understand Urdu, but have no interest in calligraphy," Nasarulla said. "There is no practical reason we have not gone to computers. If my father asks me to take over I will take over, but there will be changes."
In the meantime, the office is a center for the South Indian Muslim community and hosts a stream of renowned poets, religious leaders and royalty who contribute to the pages, or just hang out, drink chai and recite their most recent works to the staff. The Musalman publishes Urdu poetry and messages on devotion to God and communal harmony daily.
The newspaper's content is not exactly hard-hitting. It covers the basics of local politics and the writers translate stories from English papers into Urdu. Still, the paper is widely read and appreciated by Muslims in Tripplicane and Chennai where the paper has a circulation of 20,000.
While the Musalman is a Muslim newspaper, it is a hub of South Asian liberalism, employing both women and non-Muslims. Half the katibs are women and the chief reporter is Hindu. Staff members say that Indira Gandhi, former prime minister of India, once called the business the epitome of what modern India should be.
Fazlulla believes the handwritten pages are crucial to the paper and to the tradition of handwritten Urdu.
For centuries, handwriting was the definitive mark of social status, education and liberal values in India. Calligraphers mastered the swooping Urdu script in ivory-tower institutions and penned copies of the Koran for wealthy patrons. The pinnacle of a katib's achievement meant a seat at court and a chance to earn the sultan's ear.
Similar to spoken Hindi, Urdu is a mixture of Arabic, Persian and local Indian languages. It originated in the army camps of Muslim rulers in Delhi and has been the language of poets and artists because its rich roots draw on so many traditions across various cultures.
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.